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December 4th, 2012:

Straight ticket voting and judicial races elsewhere

You may be wondering, after reading my post about straight ticket voting and judicial races if the same thing is true in counties other than Harris. I got to wondering that myself, so I checked out the results from a dozen other counties for 2012.

County ST Advantage Contested Races Closest Win # Affected ================================================================== Dallas Dem 92,456 3 93,810 0 Tarrant GOP 66,682 0 N/A 0 Bexar Dem 24,711 12 11,209 2 Travis Dem 53,480 0 N/A 0 Collin GOP 72,239 0 N/A 0 Denton GOP 59,348 0 N/A 0 El Paso Dem 47,483 1 48,038 0 Fort Bend GOP 11,754 2 19,530 0 Galveston GOP 17,799 0 N/A 0 Hidalgo Dem 51,644 0 N/A 0 Williamson GOP 17,939 0 N/A 0 Jefferson Dem 11,646 1 17,546 0

I only looked at District and County Court races for this study. “ST Advantage” is the difference between the straight-ticket vote of the dominant party, which I’ve listed to its left, and the other party. For example, there were 92,456 more straight-ticket Democratic votes cast in Dallas County than there were straight-ticket Republican votes. “Contested races” is the number of judicial races in which there was a Democrat and a Republican. “Closest win” is the smallest margin of victory for the party with the straight-ticket advantage. Note that in Bexar County there was one victorious Republican judicial candidate. “# Affected” is the number of contested races in which the margin of the closest win is less than the straight-ticket advantage. In other words, that’s the number of races for which the straight-ticket margin was decisive. I didn’t count that one Bexar County race because that particular Republican was able to overcome the straight-ticket advantage, and thus wasn’t affected by it.

So, what we learn from broadening our search is that there’s a total of three races in which straight-ticket voting arguably affected the outcome of a judicial election. I say “arguably” because in order to believe this, you have to believe that sufficiently more of the winning party straight-ticket voters would have failed to vote in these races than the losing party’s straight-ticket voters, which is at best a questionable and unprovable proposition. But if you believe it, then in thirteen of the biggest counties in Texas, there are three fewer Republican judges than there would have been if Dan Patrick had his way. I should note that Paul Sadler carried El Paso and Hidlago by less than the straight-ticket margin, so there could at least theoretically have been some other examples if there had been contested races. This is not the same as thinking such races might have been competitive – these are deep blue counties, as Democratic as Collin is Republican, and as likely to elect a Republican as Collin is a Dem. The one true recruitment failure was in Jefferson County, where despite the straight-ticket advantage President Obama barely won a plurality, but one Democratic judge there drew no opponent.

Maybe you think this is a big deal, worthy of a high-profile bill and much fawning media coverage. I think it’s much ado about nothing, and would do nothing to improve the process of how we make judges. The thing that really stood out to me as I looked through this data is just how few contested judicial races there were. Outside of Bexar and Harris – not coincidentally, two of the more evenly-matched counties in the state – hardly any November judicial action. I didn’t check to see how many judicial races were settled in the primaries – sorry, I’m not that obsessed with this topic – but I do agree that primary party politics are not conducive to good judge-selection. Does that mean making judicial elections non-partisan is a good idea? Personally, I don’t think so. Houston city elections are officially non-partisan, but everyone knows who the Rs and the Ds are, and I daresay that’s how it would be in “non-partisan” judicial races. Besides, look at it this way: If I’m a District Court judge in, say, Collin or Travis County, and I have a November opponent, I don’t have to emphasize my partisan credentials. The “R” or “D” next to my name on the ballot will do that for me, and I’m free to talk about my experience and qualifications or whatever else I want to put on my mailers. But in a non-partisan race, my party affiliation is exactly what I need to emphasize, since my surest path to a win is to ensure that my fellow partisans know who’s who on the ballot. I’d expect that to happen even in balanced counties, because your team are your most reliable voters, and indifference to downballot races is at least as big a concern as the other guy’s team is. I don’t see a way around it.

Well, we could do away with judicial elections and go to an all-appointment system. This is first of all a philosophical question: Either you believe that judges should be elected by The People, or you believe they should be selected by a person or a committee. If you prefer the latter, then it’s primarily a matter of logistics. As I noted before, there are nearly 2000 non-municipal judges statewide, so just coming up with a system that can handle that big a workload is a big deal. I trust we can all agree that letting Rick Perry appoint judges, or even letting him appoint the appointers, is a bad idea. I’m sure there are workable ways of doing this, but I’ll leave the details to someone who buys into the idea. If you want to have a system of appointments with retention elections, I’ll just note again that all of the usual suspects that play in judicial races would still be free, and likely, to play in these elections as well. What, if anything, is the plan to deal with that?

Which brings me back to the point that I’ve been trying to make since the subject of partisan judicial races first came up in 2008 after Democrats first demonstrated the ability to win them in Harris County: The biggest problem as I see it is the influence of money on judicial races. That’s why I get so frustrated by phony solutions like Sen. Patrick’s and the accolades he gets for it from people who need to think it through more completely. I’ve seen this bill described as a “good first step”, but I have to ask, a step towards what? What’s the second step, and what’s the ultimate goal? In the meantime, what are we going to do to limit the influence of bad actors like Texans for Lawsuit Reform, strip clubs, and George Fleming and their money on the judicial selection process? I’m certainly willing to accept that our process of partisan judicial elections is deeply flawed, but if your solution doesn’t address the points I’ve raised I’m just not going to take it seriously.

HouZE

This is very cool.

Independence Heights earned a place in history as Texas’ first African-American city, settled in 1908 and sovereign until it was swallowed by the city of Houston 21 years later.

But tomorrow’s residents may be pioneers of another sort, as Mayor Annise Parker and a developer announced plans for as many as 80 energy-efficient homes powered entirely by natural gas and able to sell excess electricity to the grid, with the promise that home­owners won’t pay utility bills for at least a decade.

“We are the oil and gas capital of the world,” Parker said. “We intend to be the energy capital. But part of being the energy capital is understanding how not to use energy unnecessarily.”

The project, demonstrated in two model homes by Houze Advanced Building Science, offers what developer David Goswick describes as an entirely new style of energy-efficient house.

Built with metal framing and insulated panels, the houses have a Home Energy Rating System of 44, compared with a rating of 85 for Energy Star homes and a rating of 100 for the typical new home. (Lower is better.)

Once the technology is in place, the houses should achieve a rating of 0, Goswick said.

The models range from 1,600 to 1,650 square feet and will cost $200,000 to $225,000, and Goswick said homeowners will qualify for steep discounts on property insurance and other savings.

I received some materials for the press conference on this, which you can see here. There’s more information on HouZE here and on their Facebook page, which has a bunch of photos on it. I like this for two reasons. One of course is the energy efficiency of it, as that’s often an overlooked aspect of greenness, for lack of a better term, as well as being a boon for the homeowners. Two, I love that it’s being done in a historic, near-downtown neighborhood that has a lot of empty space in it and that needs the revitalization. There are concerns, as there always are, about pricing out existing residents, but as you can see from the story neighborhood leaders are involved in the project, which should hopefully help mitigate those aspects. Growth is better than decline or stasis, after all. I hope this succeeds and expands to other neighborhoods like the Independence Heights.

I’m glad someone is optimistic about the possibility of Medicaid expansion in Texas

Because I sure can’t say that I’m optimistic about it happening.

It's constitutional - deal with it

State Senator Rodney Ellis, Democrat of Houston, said fiscal conservatives have an incentive to reach an agreement “because the alternative is going to cost us much more economically and dig a much deeper hole in our budget.” Some Democratic lawmakers have already proposed legislation that would help them circumvent Mr. Perry or else produce a bipartisan compromise that might gain the Obama administration’s support.

Under the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s health care overhaul, the federal government would cover 100 percent of the costs of expanding state Medicaid programs for three years, a share that would taper to 90 percent in later years. The Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan research group, estimated the expansion would cost Texas $5.7 billion from 2013 to 2022, which the organization called a modest price compared with the $65.6 billion that would be covered by the federal government.

[…]

Mr. Ellis has filed a bill to put the option of Medicaid expansion on a statewide ballot as a provisional amendment to the Texas Constitution. Giving the deciding power to voters would relieve political pressure on Republican legislators and alleviate fear of a veto, he said.

Representative Garnet F. Coleman, Democrat of Houston, is also trying to provide a path toward Medicaid expansion. He plans to file an omnibus Medicaid bill that could be altered during the legislative session to incorporate Republicans’ conditions for Medicaid expansion. One idea is co-insurance, Mr. Coleman said, which some Republicans have endorsed to get new Medicaid enrollees to pay a portion of their monthly health care premium.

I have a lot of respect for Sen. Ellis and Rep. Coleman and I wish them the best of luck in pursuing these bills. I just wish I could share their optimism, but I feel quite certain that nothing will change as long as Rick Perry is Governor. The conditions under which I can see Perry et al going for this are either more flexibility on determining eligibility for Medicaid – that is, the ability to greatly restrict who qualifies for it – or making it a block grant, which provides a cost ceiling and again gives the state pretty much free rein to decide how to spend the money. Neither of these are particularly likely, for good reason, though the game of chicken that’s going on nationwide between states like Texas and the feds continues. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to a resolution on this.

Support Senate Concurrent Resolution 2

Until something is done at the federal level about the awful Citizens United ruling, there’s not much states can do about it. One thing they can do is tell the feds that they want them to take action against this ill-considered expansion of corporate power. State Sen. Rodney Ellis has filed Senate Concurrent Resolution 2 to do just that. Here’s the key bit:

RESOLVED, That the 83rd Legislature of the State of Texas hereby respectfully urge the Congress of the United States to propose and submit to the states for ratification an amendment to the United States Constitution that overturns Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, clearly establishing that the spending of money to influence elections shall not be construed as speech under the First Amendment and may be regulated by federal, state, or local government, and clarifying that only natural persons are protected by constitutional rights and that corporations, limited liability companies, and other artificial entities derive their rights through the legislative deliberations of Congress and the states and remain subject to regulation by the people through federal, state, or local law.

Like Rep. Brandon Creighton’s idiotic secession resolution from 2009, this carries no force of law – it’s basically a legislative petition, saying this is what we believe. Unlike Rep. Creighton’s resolution, this one is worth getting behind. You can do that by signing this petition, and of course by calling your Senator and Representative to tell him or her that you support this and would like them to do the same. It sure would be nice for Texas to send a useful and constructive message to Washington, wouldn’t it?