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Burson-Marsteller

Bill to force transparency on voter ID outreach filed

I approve.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A state lawmaker wants to shine a light on how Texas spends millions of taxpayer dollars to educate the public about its controversial voter ID law.

Democratic Rep. Justin Rodriguez is proposing legislation that for the first time in Texas calls for transparency of spending for voter education campaigns by requiring the Texas Secretary of State’s office to produce data showing results after each general election.

The state’s chief elections office has contracted with public relations giant Burson-Marsteller to produce voter ID publicity efforts, but has refused to disclose where it placed television and radio spots as part of a $2.5 million campaign, nor reveal the names of roughly 1,800 community groups that partnered with the state for the 2016 elections.

Rodriguez, a Democrat from San Antonio and member of the House budget writing committee, says Texas officials shouldn’t be allowed to hide information about an important public education campaign_especially given widespread confusion over changes to the Texas law leading up to November’s election.

“These are public dollars,” said Rodriguez, who is planning to file his bill Wednesday. “I hate that this has kind of become an adversarial deal with the secretary of state’s office, but we want to make sure that money is being spent correctly.”

A spokesman for Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, appointed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, did not return a request for comment but the office has previously said the materials were not released because of an ongoing voter ID lawsuit.

That’s not exactly true. I quote from David Saleh Rauf’s November 4, 2016 story in the Houston Chronicle:

Texas’ main argument to withhold the information boils down to this: Burson-Marsteller drew up the plans and provided them to the state under contract as “proprietary” information.

A federal judge in August sealed records related to ad buy markets and community groups targeted to receive “digital tool kits” with updated voter ID information. The secretary of state’s office has since used the court seal as one of its reasons to deny media inquiries for the information.

Along with documents related to the current outreach program, the secretary of state’s office has refused to disclose information related to ad buys and market placement for a voter education campaign in 2014, the first statewide election cycle in which the voter ID law was used. The agency also will not release the name of a state lawmaker it wrote a letter addressing details of the 2014 education effort.

As I’ve said before, I think the “proprietary information” argument is a load of hooey. Rep. Rodriguez’s bill is HB3285. I don’t expect it to pass, but it was absolutely correct to file it.

We may never know how the state did its court-ordered voter ID outreach

We sure don’t know how the money was spent on it.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

On a television ad airing ahead of Election Day, Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos declares: “It’s voting season in Texas.”

The 30-second spot tailored by international public relations giant Burson-Marsteller is supposed to serve as a quick explainer to educate Texans on new voter ID requirements ordered by a federal court.

Yet, Cascos and state officials say they cannot reveal where the secretary of state’s office is spending taxpayer money to broadcast those ads and the names of an estimated 1,800 community groups partnering with Texas to circulate voter ID information at the local level.

Texas is using the lion’s share of a $2.5 million voter education effort on paid media and outreach to community organizations, but has refused over the course of months to provide details of how and where it’s spending public money for the public education campaign.

[…]

Texas’ main argument to withhold the information boils down to this: Burson-Marsteller drew up the plans and provided them to the state under contract as “proprietary” information.

A federal judge in August sealed records related to ad buy markets and community groups targeted to receive “digital tool kits” with updated voter ID information. The secretary of state’s office has since used the court seal as one of its reasons to deny media inquiries for the information.

Along with documents related to the current outreach program, the secretary of state’s office has refused to disclose information related to ad buys and market placement for a voter education campaign in 2014, the first statewide election cycle in which the voter ID law was used. The agency also will not release the name of a state lawmaker it wrote a letter addressing details of the 2014 education effort.

See here for some background. I’m sorry, but public money being spent by a public agency is something the public should know about. If Burston-Marstellar couldn’t handle the job without fear of having its “proprietary” secrets revealed, then we should have hired a different firm. I don’t even see the argument for secrecy here. And then there’s this:

According to a court document, Texas planned to send “digital tool kits” to 1,800 community groups with updated voter ID information as part of a strategy that “capitalizes on the connections community groups and organizations have to share information.”

Elaine Wiant, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, said her organization was never contacted by the secretary of state’s office or Burson-Marsteller, despite being one of the largest active groups doing voter outreach.

“We’ve had many communications with the secretary of state’s office on this,” she said, “and it is a bit surprising they’re engaging with community organizations and not including us.”

On Friday, the secretary of state’s office said it had sent out more than 1,800 digital tool kits to date and that the agency has been in regular contact with the League of Women Voters of Texas, including sharing information about its education efforts and having Cascos speak at events with local chapters.

In the absence of a detailed accounting of how the money was spent, we are forced to take the SOS’s word for it that they have done what they were supposed to do. I see no reason why we should do that.

How is the state going to do its voter ID education outreach?

You don’t need to know.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas will spend $2.5 million to spread the word about changes to the state’s voter ID law before the November election, but will not release details of how that money will be spent.

More than half of that taxpayer money will be spent on advertising, but officials will not say which markets they intend to target with television and radio spots.

As part of that outreach effort, the state will send “digital toolkits” to an estimated 1,800 organizations across Texas to engage local communities on voter education. The state will not identify those organizations or communities.

The outreach effort was mandated by a judge in Corpus Christi earlier this month after Texas’ voter ID law was found by a federal appeals court to discriminate against minorities. The court ordered the state to water down the law by expanding the types of identification voters can present at polls to cast ballots in time for the November election. The state also agreed to spend $2.5 million to educate voters and election officials across Texas about the changes.

The state hired public relations giant Burson-Marsteller to design its outreach effort, but asked the court to keep details of its plan under seal, preventing public scrutiny of such things as which regions to target with ads and which groups should receive education materials.

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, which asked the court to keep the information under seal, has said in court filings that those documents include “proprietary” or “confidential” information produced by Burson-Marsteller. Paxton’s legal team cited a 1978 case involving for President Richard Nixon, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that media outlets could not have access to tapes from a Watergate obstruction trial.

Among the documents sealed at the attorney general’s request are a chart listing local markets and dates Burson-Marsteller has recommended for purchasing advertisements to educate the public about the changes to the voter photo ID requirements. Another document names the 1,800 groups recommended to help spread the state’s voter messaging at the local level, a list compiled by the public relations firm.

The state has provided, in a court filing, a broad outline of how it plans to spend the $2.5 million, but so far has refused to release any details.

[…]

Texas’ open records law long has allowed the state to shield details about dealings with corporations on the basis that trade secrets or confidential corporate information could be disclosed.

In this case, Bill Cobb, an Austin lawyer who handles open records issues for corporations, said it is possible that some of Burson-Marsteller’s “secret sauce” could be at risk of being exposed if other PR firms competing for a state contract on voter education could benefit.

“Everyone agrees that open government is a good thing,” Cobb said. “but everyone agrees if Coke has to give its recipe to the government that its competitors aren’t allowed to get it.”

Cobb noted that a recent ruling from the Texas Supreme Court in a case involving Boeing has made it easier for the state and corporations to keep information secret.

“Companies have to make a business decision – could this information harm my future business prospects” said Cobb, a former deputy attorney general under Greg Abbott. “But now corporations don’t have to prove it’s a trade secret, just that a competitor could gain an advantage from acquiring the information.”

See here and here for some background. I’m sorry, but the stated rationale for keeping this all under wraps is a huge pile of baloney. How exactly are “a chart listing local markets and dates … for purchasing advertisements” or a list of “groups recommended to help spread the state’s voter messaging at the local level” proprietary information that could give an advantage to Burson-Marstellar’s competitors if they became known? This isn’t a product rollout for a new consumer toy or business innovation. It’s a public service project. It’s also a political campaign, and it should be held to the same standards of disclosure that any other campaign would be held to for things like advertising expenditures. Otherwise, we’re just taking Ken Paxton’s word for it that he and his office are doing everything they are supposed to be doing to comply with this ruling that by the way they still intend to appeal because they know they’re the ones in the right. What could possibly go wrong with that? Judge Ramos needs to amend her order to require some spilling of the beans.

Voter ID changes approved

We’re all set.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas’ voter ID law, cast as the strictest in the nation, will be substantially watered down during November’s election after a federal judge Wednesday approved a deal that allows those lacking required identification to cast a ballot by signing an affidavit.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos agreed to terms worked out between Texas and several minority groups, which requires the state to spend $2.5 million on a voter education campaign. Ramos also ordered that Texas allow the groups suing have input on the state’s outreach efforts.

[…]

Under the approved deal, acceptable identifications were expanded to include voter registration cards, birth certificates, utility bills, paycheck stubs and government documents with the voter’s name and address.

Along with one of the alternate IDs, voters will also have to sign an affidavit and check a box saying why they were unable to obtain one of the identifications required under the law. The deal also provides safeguards to prevent poll workers and election officials from questioning Texans lacking identification at the ballot box.

Democrats said the Republican-controlled Legislature could have provided protections for voters lacking necessary identification to still be allowed to cast ballots but opted instead to pass a bill that has been mired in litigation for years.

“This fix will provide welcome relief to the 600,000 Texas voters who have been disenfranchised by the state’s discriminatory voter ID law,” state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat and the chairman of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, which is a plaintiff in the case, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we need not have waited three years or spent millions of taxpayer dollars to get to this point.”

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for the full statement from MALC. The item about the plaintiffs having a say on how the outreach efforts go is a win as well, since they were skeptical about it to begin with.

Lawyers for Texas have disclosed that Burson-Marsteller, a public relations giant and global strategic communications firm with an Austin office, is under contract with the state to develop voter outreach efforts for the current year.

That includes a roughly $2.5 million plan Texas agreed to put in place after a federal appeals court last month found its voter ID measure discriminates against minorities.

Burson-Marsteller is no stranger to helping Texas with voter education plans, contracting with the state as far back as 2006. But Texas’ outreach efforts focused on the controversial photo ID law have been cast as lackluster by minority groups and federal courts, including a plan designed for the 2014 elections by Burson-Marsteller in which the state spent $2 million on an education campaign.

In a court filing last week, Texas said Burson-Marsteller and a subcontractor, Austin-based TKO Advertising, have already consulted with the state to design a “multi-faceted strategy to reach and educate voters” about changes to the voter ID law for the upcoming election. Texas says that plan is ready to be executed.

However, lawyers suing the state said they remain concerned about Texas’ willingness to reach out to voters and to train poll workers — and Burson-Marsteller’s involvement doesn’t help that perception.

“It gives us less confidence,” said Jose Garza, a lawyer for the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, which is a plaintiff in the case. “The state’s historical track record is not a very good one on this issue.”

As that second story notes, the oversight item was one on which the two sides did not agree. It’s not hard to understand why the plaintiffs had their doubts, given the association with previous “outreach” efforts. I’m hopeful this will ensure things go as smoothly as can be expected.

That said, this still isn’t over.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a staunch supporter of the voter ID law, signaled that he won’t give up the case any time soon. The legal battle over what is said to be the nation’s strictest voter ID law has already cost state taxpayers more than $3.5 million.

“This case is not over,” Paxton’s spokesman, Marc Rylander, said in a statement. “Given the time constraints of the November elections and the direction of the Fifth Circuit, today’s order by the district court is an interim remedy that preserves the crucial aspects of the Voter ID law for this November election, while we continue evaluating all options moving forward, including an appeal of the Fifth Circuit’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Seems highly unlikely to me that there are five votes on SCOTUS to overturn the Fifth Circuit decision, but as we know it’s not the winning or losing that motivates Paxton, it’s the rallying of the troops. A glorious defeat works just fine for his purposes. The Lege will take another crack at this next year, though it remains to be seen what that might amount to. I feel pretty confident saying what we have now is what we’ll have in November. Beyond that, we’ll see. The Texas Civil Rights Project has more.