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November 5th, 2018:

The trend in mail ballots

Wanted to take a closer look at the not-in-person aspect of early voting:


Year   Mailed  Returned  Return%    Dem %
=========================================
2008   76,187    68,612   90.06%   36.60%
2010   69,991    55,560   79.38%   30.82%
2012   92,290    76,085   82.44%   41.79%
2014   89,073    71,994   80.83%   48.94%
2016  123,999   101,594   81.93%   51.56%
2018  119,742    89,098*  74.41%*

“Mailed” is the number of mail ballots sent out, “Returned” is the number that were returned. This number is higher for the previous years than what I’ve been reporting in the daily EV posts because these numbers represent the final total, not what had arrived by the day in question. (The asterisk besides the 2018 numbers is to indicate that these are still in progress, and thus not directly comparable.) Remember, mail ballots that arrive between Friday and Tuesday also count. Going by past history, we can probably expect the total number of mail ballots to increase by three to five thousand, so the final percentage of ballots returned this year will be in the vicinity of 78%.

“Dem%” is a representative figure to illustrate how many mail voters were Democrats. For 2008 and 2012, that was the Presidential voters. For 2016, I went down to one of the Court of Criminal Appeals races, so as not to have this distorted by the crossover vote in the Presidential race that year. For 2010 and 2014, I used the Lt. Governor race. The HCDP began a program to get eligible Democratic voters to request and return mail ballots, and you can see the result as the Dem share of that vote increased. Sure, some of that was merely people shifting behavior, but some of it was new or less-likely voters participating. My expectation is that Dems will generally win the mail ballots this year. I don’t have any larger point to make, I just wanted to take a look at this for myself and see what there was.

Texas and Tarrant

The Trib looks at Beto O’Rourke’s campaign focus on Tarrant County.

Fort Worth and its outlying ranches and suburbs are mostly a backwater in Texas politics. Gerrymandered to the hilt, the national parties have mostly ignored this county.

But since Trump’s election, things have changed here thanks to organic Democratic activism and O’Rourke’s high-risk bet to stake his entire statewide strategy on flipping this county to his party.

“Tarrant County is where the energy is, where the excitement is, where they’re blowing the early voting totals from the last midterm out of the water,” he said on Friday, while campaigning on the southeast side of town. “It’s why we are so encouraged.”

But Julie McCarty, the president of the Northeast Tarrant County Tea Party, is not buying any of it.

“I have no worries about Tarrant County,” she emailed to the Tribune. “We are solidly red this go-round, though there are pockets that may be pink. Of course any area that threatens to change is always a concern so we will watch the results carefully and plan accordingly.”

O’Rourke’s strategic gamble would have sounded nuts only four years ago. One by one over the years, other Texas urban counties fell to the Democrats, but Tarrant County remained the largest Republican county in the state and a pivotal part of GOP domination of the rest of the state.

Between 2000 and 2014, each Republican presidential, U.S. senate and gubernatorial nominee carried the county by an average of 19 points. As recently as 2014, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn won Tarrant County by 24 points.

Then came Donald Trump.

With him at the top of the ticket, the GOP’s 2016 margin in Tarrant shrank to nine points — the same spread with which Trump carried the entire state.

And if O’Rourke is successful at turning Tarrant County blue next month, he will push Texas deeper into a political territory where cities are pitted against suburban and rural areas.

As the story notes and as I have observed before, the Presidential results in Tarrant County have been a pretty close match to the statewide results. You could therefore make the reductionist argument that if you can win Tarrant, you can win the state. It’s probably more accurate to say that as a county that is in parts urban, suburban, exurban, and rural, Tarrant is a decent microcosm of the state and thus a reasonable proxy for it. The Star-Tribune follows this line of thinking.

Polls show Cruz is well positioned to win his re-election bid in this reliably red state. But the money pouring into O’Rourke’s campaign, as well as the mass of yard signs declaring “Beto” planted in yards across the state, give some pause.

“Republicans want to defend (Tarrant County) as much as Democrats want to flip it,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “The Cruz campaign is hungry to get the base out in the state’s largest urban Republican county and the O’Rourke campaign is fighting for swing voters and to activate Democrats who only vote in midterms.

“Tarrant County can flip if and only if Republican turnout is lackluster and Democratic turnout is blockbuster,” he said. “The elements are in place for this to happen in a surprisingly competitive midterm election, but Tarrant flipping blue is more likely in a presidential election year.”

Is it? Here’s the same comparison for the last three non-Presidential years, substituting in the Lt. Governor results for the Presidential results, so as to avoid the weirdness of 2006:


Year  Candidate   Tarrant   Texas
=================================
2006   Dewhurst    58.77%  58.19%
2006   Alvarado    37.06%  37.35%

2010   Dewhurst    61.67%  61.78%
2010   ChavThom    34.97%  34.83%

2014    Patrick    57.07%  58.14%
2014 V de Putte    39.53%  38.71%

Seems like the same formula is true in the off years as well, with a slight tick in favor of a more Democratic Tarrant County in 2014. None of this is predictive of anything, but I can understand the reason for the focus. I’m sure I’ll check back after the election to see if this pattern holds.

Another reminder that the judicial elections are important

From the Trib:

Across the country, many public defender’s offices are overwhelmed with cases. But the public defenders in Harris County’s juvenile division are in an unusual situation: They say that they aren’t getting assigned enough cases. And advocates say cronyism between private attorneys and powerful judges is to blame.

An analysis of state and county data by The Texas Tribune shows that the county’s three juvenile district courts — led by Republican Judges Glenn Devlin, John Phillips, and Michael Schneider — have been assigning an extraordinary number of cases to a handful of private lawyers.

Meanwhile, the public defender’s office — which handles everything from probation violations to serious felonies and has strict caseload limits — has been receiving fewer assignments from those same courts.

A state-funded study found that a lawyer could reasonably handle at most 230 juvenile cases in a given year — and that’s only for minor cases, like misdemeanors or probation violations. Lawyers who also handle serious felonies could effectively manage a much smaller caseload, the study said.

But several private lawyers are taking on far more than that in Harris County, thanks mostly to appointments from the juvenile courts, according to data from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission. Those courts are also appointing the same lawyers to dozens of family court cases, where the same judges preside over child custody disputes, protective orders and decisions for kids in foster care.

The Tribune found that:

  • Houston attorney Oliver Sprott took on 377 juvenile cases in the previous fiscal year, along with 126 family court cases and some probate cases. That work brought his total haul in taxpayer money for the year to about $520,000, data from the county auditor’s office shows.
  • Harris County paid attorney Bonnie Fitch about $350,000 last year for her work on 300 court-appointed juvenile cases, 71 family court cases and some probate work. Fitch is also a municipal court judge in the small city of Arcola, about 25 miles south of Houston.
  • Attorney Gary Polland earned about $515,000 for his court-appointed work in 227 juvenile cases, three juvenile appellate cases, more than 100 family court cases, and probate court cases. He also does civil and commercial litigation, according to his web site.

Norman Lefstein, a professor at Indiana University’s McKinney School of Law, called such caseloads “ridiculous.” He added: “It’s a joke. It’s just a joke … It tells me immediately that you’re not really investigating the cases, and you’re not doing what you need to do … and young clients especially, they just don’t know any better.” Lefstein is considered a nationwide expert on acceptable caseloads.

That’s the same Gary Polland who’s been very busy soaking up appointment fees from the Family Courts as well. Great work if you can get it. And one thing Gary Polland works very hard at is getting those appointments:

Jay Jenkins, a lawyer with the reform-minded advocacy group the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said Harris County judges and lawyers have long been part of a “pay-to-play system” in which lawyers contribute to judge’s campaigns in exchange for appointments, or they help judges politically in other ways.

Sprott has donated $6,250 to Schneider’s re-election efforts since 2014, campaign finance records show, and Fitch gave him $3,500. Sprott has given Devlin $7,500 in the same time frame.

Attorney Mark Castillo has given Schneider and Devlin a combined $7,250 since 2014. He earned nearly $300,000 for his work in 360 juvenile cases in their courts last year, and some additional family court cases. He declined to comment for this story.

Polland has given Schneider and Devlin $1,000 each since 2014. He also edits an influential local political newsletter called the Texas Conservative Review, which recently endorsed Devlin, Schneider and Phillips for re-election.

Polland has also donated $2,500 to a new local political action committee called Citizens for a Quality Judiciary that has mailed out flyers encouraging voters to support local Republican incumbent judges: “It is too risky to hand over our courthouse to unqualified Democratic judicial candidates,” the flyer says. The PAC has also received donations from many other local lawyers who receive a large number of court appointments.

“What we ultimately got was a juvenile system where the lawyers get rich … and everybody wins but the kids,” Jenkins said.

There’s a simple fix for this. Vote those judges out, and the pipeline to these opportunists dries up. If you didn’t vote early, don’t miss out on Tuesday.

Two stories about grassroots GOTV efforts

Both from the Observer. First, Inside Beto’s Plan to Turn Out Black Voters in Houston:

With two days till early voting, Cameron Mayfield, a Beto O’Rourke field organizer, gets busy setting up a makeshift campaign office in a corner of a combination KFC/Taco Bell in Kashmere Gardens, a predominantly black neighborhood in northeast Houston. Mayfield lugs in a laptop and phone charger. Precinct maps and campaign literature are piled haphazardly on the table.

While other parts of the city are flush with Beto volunteers, the KFC/Taco Bell franchise owner was the only one in this neighborhood to offer up space to the campaign. The men’s bathroom is currently out of order, employees take orders from behind bulletproof glass and, of course, there’s no WiFi.

Kashmere Gardens is one of the poorest parts of the city — median household income hovers around $26,000 — and it was among the areas hardest hit by Harvey. Forty percent of neighborhood residents affected by the storm are still living in homes that need repair. It also has a large concentration of people who’ve been incarcerated, many of whom are unclear about their voting eligibility. Many are unaware that their voting rights are restored once they get off probation or parole.

Kyle Maronie, who grew up in Settegast, a neighborhood a few miles to the northeast, shows up for the noon shift — he’s the main volunteer Mayfield depends on. It’s not easy work. People are often hesitant to answer the door and don’t want to talk.

But Maronie brings enthusiasm to the job. “Block walking is the best way to not only understand the needs of the community, but also to get a visual understanding of situations people live in,” he told me. “They’ve been left out of the conversation for so long.”

If O’Rourke is to become the first Texas Democrat to win a statewide race in a quarter-century, one of the hundreds of things he needs to do is inspire huge levels of turnout from black voters. Anglos may be flooding into Beto campaign rallies by the thousands, and the party’s future may hinge on its ability to turn out Latino voters, but the backbone of the Texas Democratic Party base is black — and it has been for a long time.

At a block-walk event on Houston’s South Side earlier that day, Damien Jones, Beto’s political director for the Houston area, laid out the stakes. “Two years ago,” Jones pronounced in his red Chucks and a black-and-white “BETO” trucker hat, “many of us had many regrets about what happened — that we didn’t do enough. This is the time to leave it all on the field. We can’t have any regrets this time.”

[…]

Polls have consistently shown O’Rourke with overwhelming levels of support from African-American voters in Texas. The energy has activists cautiously optimistic about the chances for a big bump in turnout. Terrence Shanks, a Democratic activist in Senate District 13, which represents many of Houston’s black neighborhoods, predicts that turnout in Harris County will come close to presidential levels. “My spidey sense says that while turnout won’t be as high as 2008, it will be comparable,” Shanks said.

That story was published on the 29th, and as we know by now Shanks’ Spidey-sense was pretty accurate, perhaps even a bit understated.

Story two, The Suburban Resistance Built a Grassroots Powerhouse — and it Could Decide the Most Competitive Race in Texas:

Almost two years ago, Rebecca Weisz Shukla didn’t want to get out of bed on November 7. Or November 8. On the 9th, she made a trip to Costco and couldn’t help but wonder whether each person she encountered had voted for Donald Trump. “I shouldn’t have been surprised [that Trump won], but I was,” Shukla said. She was depressed, she was angry and she didn’t know what to do.

Shukla, a 50-year-old mother of two college-aged kids who lives in the affluent enclave of West University Place, is emblematic of the Trump backlash, which has been animated in part by a suburban swell of newly activated, (mostly) white, (mostly) well-off women. A few months after the election, she heard about Swing Left, one of many progressive groups that formed in the wake of Trump’s election. Swing Left was laser-focused on mobilizing volunteers to win the bounty of GOP-controlled congressional districts that voted for Clinton.

Little did she know, Shukla lived in the heart of a district that saw one of the most dramatic swings toward Clinton in the entire country. In 2012, Mitt Romney won the 7th Congressional District, in suburban west Houston by more than 20 percent. But in 2016, Clinton narrowly won the district.

Now, the race between incumbent Republican John Culberson and Democrat Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a Houston corporate lawyer, has become one of the closest and most expensive House battles in the country.

Fletcher’s campaign has hewed closely to the traditional DCCC model: spend a ton of money on TV and mailers and run to the middle with an emphasis on flipping highly educated, moderate Republican and independent voters who live in the wealthier, high-turnout pockets of the district.

But glossy mailers and slick TV spots do not a blue wave make. If Fletcher is able to oust a nearly 20-year incumbent in a district that’s been Republican since George H.W. Bush held it in the 1960s, it will be in large part due to the work of volunteers behind Swing TX-7 Left. The group is fueled by tireless leaders like Shukla, Jane Lesnick, a 44-year-old full-time parent of two young kids, and Jay Taylor, a retired attorney who said he has found far more fulfillment through his new foray into political organizing than he ever did during his career in debt collection.

With little experience, these activists have built from scratch a grassroots powerhouse in a place that has never really had that before. Over the past 18 months, they’ve recruited dozens of volunteers, helped register thousands of voters, organized local precincts and hit tens of thousands of doors. In short order, they’ve made themselves the Democratic backbone of the district.

[…]

These days, it’s hard to find a flat surface in Shukla’s home that isn’t littered with lawn signs, fliers and mailers. It’s a makeshift volunteer headquarters. When I visit her home during the first week of early voting, a Swing Left organizer has taken over her living room table and is cold calling a list of potential volunteers.

The Swing TX-7 Left Facebook group has more than 700 members and has become a central tool for organizing block walks and talking strategy. Shukla now has more than 500 Facebook friends and has become a well-known and respected figure in the Harris County activism scene.

Swing Left’s embed into the Fletcher campaign is running more smoothly now. But that doesn’t mean they’ve sacrificed the soul of their original endeavor. She’s spent much of this week canvassing apartment complexes and is helping organize a massive block walk in a heavily Latino precinct with tons of apartments in Sharpstown this weekend.

Trump’s election has forever changed Shukla — and countless women like her. “No matter what happens, I want to be able to say I did what I could,” Shukla explained. “That mission is accomplished.”

And what if Fletcher doesn’t swing the 7th to the left? “I don’t know,” she said, pausing. “It depends on how they lose. … If it’s not close now, then it’s not happening here. Not anytime soon.”

If you’re even Democratic-adjacent in Harris County, you’ve probably seen a metric crap-ton of Swing Left activity on Facebook. There’s a long bit in this story about registering and turning out apartment dwellers, which should make Greg Wythe’s heart a little lighter. Read ’em both before you head out to the polls tomorrow or hit the phones today.