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Harris County

What to do with the county courthouse?

Seems like a problem.

More than 15 months after flooding from Hurricane Harvey shuttered Houston’s 20-story criminal courthouse, county leaders say they will begin in January on the first phase of a multi-part $86 million restoration project, which won’t be finished until 2020.

But there is no timetable for the most ambitious part of the project — not scheduled to begin until June 2019 – that would greatly expand the chronically-crowded lobby areas, add more elevators and move critical building machinery out of the basement.

The extensive flood damage to the downtown skyscraper at 1201 Franklin has forced the relocation of hundreds of attorneys and staffers from the courthouse offices of the district attorney, public defenders office and other county departments to far-flung buildings across the city. The closure also forced dozens of courts to locate in other county courthouses, generally doubling up with courts that weren’t damaged, which has disrupted trials and clogged dockets.

The damage has also reignited the debate over the wisdom of making repairs to the critical court complex on the banks of a flood-prone Buffalo Bayou.

“We can’t possibly ask tax payers to foot the bill for redesigning the Criminal Justice Center without knowing the exact cause of the repeated flooding, and what is being done to stop it from happening yet again,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said Friday. “We have to object.”

[…]

“Things are progressing far slower than they should and the direction the county is going is just patchwork, not a long-term solution,” said Chris Tritico, a prominent attorney who has proposed converting the courthouse into an office tower. “We need a long-term solution that will keep us from having to do this again in a few years.”

Tritico’s proposal would be to build a new criminal courthouse across the street where the outdated family law courthouse now stands. That courthouse, which has been deemed a fire hazard because it lacks a sprinkler system, was scheduled for demolition. After the storm, it was pressed into service and now hosts docket calls and jury trials because the main courthouse remains largely unusable.

Tritico said repeated catastrophic flooding, along with long-standing design problems including a small lobby and limited elevator capacity, makes the building unworkable for the hundreds of residents coming who use it every day. The courthouse, which opened in 2000, was closed for a year of repairs after it was damaged by floods during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

“The problem with the Harris County Criminal Courthouse, besides the flooding, is that it’s just not functional,” said the attorney, who is part of the county committee to study the courthouse repairs. “The population of Harris County is increasing, not decreasing, so the number of people coming in that building every morning is going to increase. Until somebody takes a look at that problem, it will always be a problem.”

The fact that no one can say why the building flooded during Harvey is a problem, since if you don’t know the cause you can’t say with any certainty that it won’t happen again. The building has to be downtown near the jails, so relocation options are limited. In the meantime, court is being held all over the place. Good luck getting your arms around this one, Lina Hidalgo.

Harris County certifies the 2018 vote

We have a winner:

We have another winner:

View this post on Instagram

The votes have been certified. We won by 113. Thank you to everyone that canvassed, phone banked, texted, hosted an event, invited me to meet your friends in your homes, shared my social media, registered voters, invested in the campaign, and voted! We did it! We flipped a seat that hasn’t been held by a democrat in decades. A seat that no woman has ever held. I look forward to representing the people of TXHD132 and focusing on making positive changes for all Texans. Thank you for your support. #txlege #txed #texas #katytx #cypresstx #floodcontrol #humantrafficking #enditmovement❌ #community #momlife #writersofinstagram #riseup #politics #house #congress #represent #instamoment #instalife #cantstopwontstop #letsdothis

A post shared by Gina Calanni (@gina_calanni) on

And we have a near miss:

Adam Milasincic

If the count is accurate, we fell short by 47 out of 48,417 votes. In the two decades since Harris County adopted computerized voting, “recounting” per se has never moved more than two or three votes. The pathway to challenge whether certain ballots were improperly rejected—and thus materially affected the outcome—would involve an election contest in the Texas House. Over the next weeks, we will complete due diligence to determine if such a contest makes sense.

Regardless, at least 49.93% of voters endorsed bold change in House District 138 this year. In 2016, no Democrat even ran for this seat. I extend heartfelt thanks to the voters and to our volunteer army who made such progress possible.

In whatever capacity, I will continue working for marginalized communities in Northwest Houston—especially immigrant families and those abused by the criminal justice system or made into scapegoats by Trump and the back-benchers who copy his playbook.

In coming months, we will have an announcement about 2020. As Ted Kennedy said, “for all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

There was a story in the print edition of the Chron about Commissioners Court certifying the vote on Friday, but I can’t find it online. These were the three closest races of interest, so there you have it. No idea at this time if Mike Schofield will pursue a recount.

And now for some statewide whining about straight ticket voting

I have four things to say about this.

Straight-ticket voting will end before the 2020 elections, bringing Texas into line with the vast majority of states. But the change didn’t come early enough to save Emmett — or a host of other down-ballot Republican candidates like judges, who are disproportionately affected by the practice by virtue of their low profiles and low ballot placement.

Republicans — who lost numerous down-ballot officials, a dozen state House members and scores of judges, particularly in big cities — in some ways brought those losses upon themselves: The law that ended straight-ticket voting was written and approved by GOP lawmakers. It was originally set to go into effect before this year’s elections, but was at the last minute delayed until 2020.

If the top culprit for down-ballot Republican losses last week is a certain El Paso Democrat credited with drawing flocks of new voters to the polls, the second spot might go to straight-ticket voting. Yes, the argument goes, a lot of new Democrats came to the polls to cast their ballots for U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke in his campaign for U.S. Senate. In the process, many voted for other Democrats down the ballot who they knew little or nothing about. But without the one-punch option, GOP operatives argue, many of those voters would have walked out before dooming Republicans at the bottom of the ballot.

Straight-party voting “is the story” of this year’s election, said Dallas County GOP Chair Missy Shorey, whose county saw a rout of local Republicans.

Among the casualties: 12 members of the Texas House, many of them in the Dallas area; two state senators representing North Texas districts; down-ballot county officials in a host of purpling regions; and nearly two dozen Republican judges on state appeals courts.

After the 2020 elections, when straight-ticket voting ends, candidates will still appear beside their party affiliations, but most strategists expect fewer voters will make it all the way down to the local races. It’s hard to say what the statewide impact of that will be — many Republicans straight-ticket vote, too, and voters can still choose to select all the candidates in their chosen party manually — but in the wake of a tough election for down-ballot Republicans, especially on the fringes of the state’s biggest cities, some are wishing the option had ended in 2018.

At first, that was the plan. Republican state Rep. Ron Simmons’ House Bill 25, which ended straight-ticket voting, was originally set to go into effect before the 2018 midterms; it passed the House with that language, and made it all the way to the Senate floor. Just before the bill passed in the upper chamber, Republican state Sen. Kelly Hancock, of North Richland Hills, tacked on an amendment delaying the effective date to 2020.

The delay, some local GOP officials said, particularly doomed down-ballot Republicans in or near urban areas like Houston, Dallas and Austin.

“I’ve been warning about it for years,” said Harris County GOP Chairman Paul Simpson. “At the last minute, they put it back in for 2018, and I told some legislators then, ‘2018 will not be the same as 2014.’”

[…]

No one predicted the consequences better than the lieutenant governor, who warned of such an outcome during campaign season.

“Their plan was to give all the money, on the Democratic side, to Beto the Irishman O’Rourke,” Patrick warned at a New Braunfels campaign event in October. “Understand their strategy. If they can get to 4 or 5 [percent margin], if they can get a 75 or 80 percent straight-ticket vote on their side, guess what? Beto loses. But then they pick up judges down ballot. They pick up House members down ballot. They pick up state senators down ballot. They pick up local races down ballot.”

Emmett faulted the upper chamber, which Patrick leads, for failing to prevent that possibility.

“When the state Senate decided to keep straight-ticket voting for one more year, a lot of us thought that was a really dumb decision,” Emmett told a Houston TV station shortly after his loss last week. “It turned out to be even dumber than any of us could’ve predicted.”

1. Once again, I am old enough to remember the 2010 election, and how Republicans who voted straight ticket helped to sweep out a dozen or so Democratic State House members who had represented mostly rural areas, where the locals generally voted Republican but had continued to support Democrats in downballot races. I know that was, like, a hundred years ago, and I acknowledge that the Trib story acknowledged that Republicans have also been known to cast straight party votes, but seriously, enough with the whining.

2. To some extent, I feel like these stories are as much about Republicans trying, and failing, to come to grips with what happened. They’re not used to losing races like these, they’re certainly not used to losing races in counties like Denton and Williamson and Fort Bend, and they’re not used to sweating it out at the statewide level. It can’t be because of anything they did, and it can’t be because of Dear Leader Trump, so obviously it must be due to something they couldn’t control and wasn’t fair. Darn that Beto O’Rourke and his widespread appeal to voters across the spectrum! How dare he do this to us?

3. If you must take this complaint seriously, the logic behind it is that more Democrats would not have voted in these downballot races than Republicans if straight ticket voting were not an option. I have no idea where this notion comes from, other than an obvious disdain for people who vote Democratic from Republican officeholders, but I doubt there’s any actual political science behind it. (At least, I haven’t seen any actual political scientists claim that there is merit to the idea that Republicans will benefit from the elimination of straight ticket voting.) Well, there is the fact that a long ballot means that it will take longer for each person to vote if they can’t be one-and-done, and so maybe the lines at voting locations in Democratic (read: minority) neighborhoods will be even longer, thus discouraging more people from bothering. If we’re going to entertain this otherwise unsupported, and only implicitly stated, assumption, we should at least try to pin down what underpins it. Be that as it may, in the five statewide judicial races with both a D and an R, there were about 663K Democratic votes cast in Harris County and about 521K Republican votes. With there being 410K straight ticket Republican votes and 515K Democratic straight ticket votes, that means about 78% of each party’s voters picked the straight ticket option. Each party will have some work to do to get their people to understand the new world in 2020.

4. Going farther down the ballot, in the appeals court races the undervote rate ranged from about 31K to 33K, and in the district court races it ranged from 33K to 36K. About 292K voters overall in Harris County did not vote a straight ticket, so the actual undervote rate was in the 11-12% range. My guess is that in two years’ time, with education from the parties and with the recognition that some straight ticket voters all along would have clicked all the buttons if they needed to, the undervote rate will be less than ten percent, maybe more like eight percent. I’m just guessing, and I certainly could be wrong. We’ll know much more in another decade or so, after we’ve had a few of these under our belts. What I do know is that if Republicans think that the single greatest adversary they faced in 2018 was the straight ticket option, I believe they will be surprised and disappointed again in 2020.

Will we build the right Ike Dike?

Not everyone thinks the best design was chosen.

Jim Blackburn, a Rice professor and co-director of [Rice] university’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education & Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center, says the Corps’ initial Ike Dike study was incomplete because it did not account for the more powerful storms that have swept through the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean in recent years. The Corps’ coastal plan, called the Ike Dike, is named for the 2008 hurricane that caused more than $30 billion in damages to the Houston-Galveston region.

Hurricanes more powerful than Ike, including Harvey, Irma and Maria all in 2017, had unique characteristics rarely seen in major storms, Blackburn said.

“The storms that are being analyzed by the Corps are, in my opinion, too small,” Blackburn said. “They’re just not making landfall at the worst locations, with the type of wind fields and characteristics we’re seeing. I can’t remember if it was (Hurricanes) Irma or Maria, it was an Ike-like storm with Category 5 winds. That’s not supposed to happen.”

Larry Dunbar, a project manager at the SSPEED Center, added that the modeling system the Corps used to predict the effects of storms on its proposed barrier was outdated and that the study did not account for the worst possible storm tracts that could hit the Houston area.

“We said we’re using the updated information because that’s what we do, and (the Army Corps of Engineers) said, ‘That’s fine, we’re gonna use the old model because that’s what the flood insurance study work was based on and we want to be consistent with that,’” Dunbar said. “I can’t argue with that, but we at least now know what’s the difference between the two models, what effect it has, its effect on larger storms, you know it, I know it.”

Blackburn also believes the Corps’ proposed barrier leave parts of Harris County — most notably the Port of Houston and the sprawling industrial and petrochemical facilities along Galveston Bay — vulnerable.

“We think that there is too much remaining surge exposure, and it’s a valid concern, both with regard to the ship channel, to the Bayport Industrial Complex and with regard to the Clear Lake area,” Blackburn said.

The Corps’ alternative proposal includes a navigation gate placed along the Houston Ship Channel and smaller gates built near Clear Creek and Dickinson Bayou, but does not go as far as the SSPEED Center’s proposal for a mid-bay gate to protect Galveston Bay.

The Galveston Bay Park plan, first proposed by the SSPEED Center in 2015, includes similar protection features as the Corps proposal for protecting Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston, but adds a vital component: a 25-foot, mid-bay barrier system that would protect the industrial complexes and densely populated areas in the west and northwest sections of Galveston Bay.

Blackburn views the mid-bay gate as part of a bifurcated system — an internal barrier and a coastal barrier — that would not preclude the Ike Dike concept favored by the Corps and political leadership on the local, state and federal levels. He called the gate a “highly complementary” feature to the extensive barrier the Corps put forth, but one that could be built in half the time at a fraction of the cost — estimated from $3 billion to $5 billion.

“We think this alternative needs to be permitted,” Blackburn said. “We’re going to be urging Harris County to investigate filing a permit application. We are going to argue that to any governmental entity that is interested. I think we need options. If all of our eggs are in a $30 billion federal appropriation, that just sounds too risky to me.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the documents that are up for public review. There are a series of public meetings scheduled for this, and you can offer your own feedback at one of them, via email to CoastalTexas@usace.army.mil, or via good old fashioned snail mail to:

USACE, Galveston District, Attn: Ms. Jennifer Morgan, Environmental Compliance Branch, Regional Planning and Environmental Center, P.O. Box 1229, Galveston, TX 77553-1229

Deadline for snail mail is January 9. Whatever the best solution is, I hope everyone who wants to have a say does so, and that the Army Corps listens to Professors Blackburn and Dunbar.

An update on the close races

Good news from Harris County.

Gina Calanni

Fresh tallies of absentee and provisional ballots narrowed state Rep. Dwayne Bohac’s margin over Democrat Adam Milasincic to 47 votes, while incumbent Republican Mike Schofield of Katy trailed Democratic challenger Gina Calanni by 113 votes.

Harris County Commissioners Court will make the results official Friday, according to the county clerk’s office. Candidates may request a recount if they trail by less than 10 percent of the total number of votes received by the leading candidate, meaning both races are well within the requisite margin.

As it stood Thursday, Bohac’s lead amounted to less than one tenth of a percent, out of 48,417 votes. Calanni led by a more comfortable .17 percent, among 66,675 votes. Election night returns had showed Bohac leading by 72 votes and Calanni up by 97 votes.

Either way, the results mark a dramatic shift from 2014, when Schofield and Bohac, R-Houston, last faced Democratic foes. That year, the two Republicans won by more than 30 percentage points, each roughly doubling their opponents’ vote totals.

[…]

In the 108th House District, Democrat Joanna Cattanach requested a recount Wednesday, the Dallas Morning News reported. She trailed incumbent state Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, by 221 votes, according to Dallas County elections results updated Wednesday.

In Collin County, state Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, led Democrat Sharon Hirsch by 391 votes in the 66th House District, according to the county’s elections site. Hirsch had not conceded as of Thursday morning.

Cattanach is the first candidate to request a recount, but she won’t be the last. Expect her to have some company after the results around the state are certified Tuesday.

Meanwhile, in CD23:

The political roller coaster in Congressional District 23 continued Thursday when Gina Ortiz Jones’ campaign turned its attention to election officials in Medina County.

Commissioners in Medina declined to certify the county’s results, temporarily raising the possibility of a recount in the Republican stronghold. The commissioners were given two different figures for the number of absentee voters — 1,034 and 1,010.

Jones trails incumbent Republican Will Hurd by around 1,000 votes in the race, which remains too close to call.

There’s no other choice but for this department to have a recount,” Republican Commissioner Tim Neuman said after finding the variation.

But a couple hours later, Medina Elections Administrator Lupe Torres said they were able to identify the discrepancy and would reschedule the canvassing for Monday, a plan Neuman said he agreed with.

[…]

On Thursday, the [Jones] campaign accused Medina County of breaching protocol after counting 981 mail ballots on election night. Early voting ballot boards are the small, bipartisan groups charged with reviewing and qualifying those ballots, along with provisional votes.

At the end of the night, the ballot board usually turns off the machine it used to count the ballots, as is protocol, according to affidavits from the two Democratic-appointed board members, which the campaign provided.

Instead, Torres told them to leave the machine running. Torres told them he needed to run 29 “limited” ballots through the machine, bringing the number to 1,010.

Limited ballots are cast by people who have recently moved from another county but have not switched their registration.

Torres initially denied those claims, but he later said he would “correct himself” and admitted it happened. When asked why about the denials, he said: “That’s what I thought had happened.

I don’t even know what to make of that. Just add it to the weirdness pile for this election. We’ll know more soon.

Emmett’s farewell

I wish him the best with whatever comes next.

Judge Ed Emmett

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday did not rule out returning to public service after he gives up the gavel in January, but made clear he first would return to the private sector following last week’s re-election loss.

Democrat Lina Hidalgo defeated Emmett, a Republican who has helmed Harris County government since 2007. She will assume office Jan. 1. Meanwhile, Emmett said he planned to work with Hidalgo to ensure she transitions smoothly into the role.

With two Commissioners Court meetings left in his term, Emmett likely will decide on his next move in early December and told reporters he faces “numerous options.”

“You know, I had a life before I became county judge,” Emmett, 69, said after his first post-election court meeting. “As I’ve told many people, you know, I didn’t die.”

[…]

Emmett said he would remain interested in how the revamped court handles Harris County’s growing unincorporated population, and remained willing to offer “anything I can do to help that.” However, Emmett also indicated he would not hover over Hidalgo’s shoulder upon leaving office.

“I don’t intend to be one of those people that every day says something about what’s going on in the county,” he said. “I’m going to move on with my life and she’s going to move on with the county.”

Emmett, a moderate Republican, has been at odds with his party’s more conservative wing, and on Tuesday offered some criticism for those at the top of the ticket, without naming names. During the campaign, he told the Houston Chronicle editorial board that he planned to vote for Mike Collier, the Democratic challenger to Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Every statewide Republican official lost Harris County, including Patrick, who faced a 14-point deficit here. Democrat Beto O’Rourke also trounced Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, at the top of the local ballot. Republicans nonetheless won their statewide elections.

“I think that people at the top of the ticket need to start looking at what they’re saying to the voters, ’cause the voters aren’t buying it,” Emmett said. “And I think voters want to pay attention to competence, and people that will address the needs of their daily lives, and get away from all this other stuff.”

I’m sure we’ve not heard the last of Ed Emmett. I expect he’ll take some time off – he’s certainly earned it – and probably down the line he’ll wind up in some other form of public service, on a commission or board or what have you. He’ll be welcome in whatever capacity he chooses. As for his fellow Republicans, I’m sure they won’t pay heed to what he’s saying. Some lessons need to be learned the hard way, and the ones in Texas who most need that have unfortunately not yet had that experience. Be that as it may, I thank Ed Emmett for his service, and wish him and his family all the best.

There better be a bail lawsuit settlement

I mean, duh.

The Democratic sweep of Harris County leadership posts in the midterm election could prompt a settlement in the protracted legal dispute over how judges handle bail for poor people arrested for petty offenses, according to statements made in federal court Tuesday.

The shift in attitudes became evident during an early morning hearing in Houston before Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, who has presided over the civil rights action since 2016 and ruled in 2017 that the county’s bail practices discriminated against poor people. Lawyers for both sides acknowledged the proverbial elephant in the room: that all 14 county judges who oppose the bail lawsuit are Republicans who will be replaced in the new year by Democrats who have pushed for deeper bail reform.

Rosenthal congratulated the attorneys’ willingness to “accommodate any changes that have recently occurred in a reasonable way” and set a hearing for Feb. 1 where the lawyers may begin discussing plans for a possible settlement that would avert a costly trial.

[…]

Standing with [plaintiffs’ attorney Neal] Manne and others in the courthouse hallway after the hearing was Franklin Bynum, a 36-year-old Democratic Socialist in the mold of Bernie Sanders, who was elected last week to the misdemeanor bench for County Criminal Court No. 8. Bynum said he’d read documents and sat through hearings in the historic bail case from the beginning.

“It was this lawsuit that originally inspired me to run for judge,” Bynum said.

He said he and his fellow Democratic candidates all promised residents on the campaign trail they intended to settle the bail lawsuit quickly.

“Certainly, we’re going to behave differently than the current judges did, like being obstinate …and defending the indefensible,” he said.

In April 2017, Rosenthal ruled that the county’s bail policy violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution. She wrote that misdemeanor judges’ bail determinations amounted to wealth-based detention for poor defendants who could otherwise qualify for pretrial release, whereas similar defendants with money could resume their lives at home on bond.

The topic of a settlement surfaced again an hour later at the start of the first Commissioners Court meeting following the election.

A lawyer for County Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, the only Democrat on the misdemeanor bench and the only judge to retain his seat in last week’s election, implored county leaders to “stop the hemorrhaging of money” and end their appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Basically, at this point there’s no one in power that wants to see this continue. County Judge-elect Hidalgo, County Commissioner-elect Garcia, and all of the incoming misdemeanor court judges ran on ending the lawsuit and implementing bail reform. We just need to do it, and we have every right to expect results after the new officials and judges are sworn in.

More on the Woodfill raid

Yeah.

Former Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill is being investigated on theft and money laundering allegations, accused of misappropriating funds of at least two of his law firm’s clients, according to an affidavit by the Harris County District Attorney’s office.

Authorities on Monday seized 127 boxes of files, six computers and disk drives from the Houston high-rise office of the Woodfill Law Firm at Three Riverway, according to the returned search warrant filed in Harris County district court on Tuesday.

In his affidavit for the search warrant, which also targeted computer logins, passwords, memory devices, and telephones owned by Woodfill or the law firm, fraud examiner Bryan Vaclavik indicated authorities were seeking evidence used to commit felony offenses of misapplication of fiduciary property, theft and money laundering.

No charges have been filed against anyone in connection with the ongoing investigation. The Harris County District Attorney’s office declined comment on the investigation.

Investigators seized financial records, legal files, documents and correspondence on Monday related to two divorce cases handled by the firm, the search warrant documents show.

The ongoing investigation has nothing to do with Woodfill’s party activities, his attorney Jimmy Ardoin told the Houston Chronicle Tuesday.

Woodfill was chairman of the county Republican Party for 12 years, before losing the post in 2014.

Ardoin said his client had no advance notice of the search and had no details about the allegations beyond the content of the search warrant.

Ardoin said he had been in contact with the district attorney’s office about its review of finances in a divorce case for three to four months and was dismayed that Woodfill was not allowed to provide information voluntarily.

“We believe there’s an accusation of misappropriation of client funds,” Ardoin said. “We have yet to get confirmation of what it is.”

See here for the background. I’m going to try to not get ahead of the facts, and to wait patiently for things to happen in this case – remember, as the story says, no charges have been filed as yet against anyone. But as I think about who Jared Woodfill is, boy will it be tough to do that.

Police raid Jared Woodfill’s office

Oh, my.

Authorities on Monday raided the law office of former Harris County Republican Party chairman Jared Woodfill.

Investigators with the Harris County District Attorney’s office wheeled carts of documents from Woodfill’s office at 3 Riverway at least an hour after they arrived.

[…]

Woodfill is the subject of two separate formal complaints — one to the State Bar of Texas and the other to the Houston Police Department. In both complaints, Woodfill is accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from clients’ trust accounts.

In the criminal complaint, filed in March 2017, Richard Rodriguez accused Woodfill’s firm of stealing more than $300,000 from a divorce trust account. Rodriguez said Monday he believed the search was related to his complaint.

Oh, my, my.

Documents show Woodfill was reprimanded by the state bar two months ago for failure to take reasonable action in another divorce case.

The state bar, which oversees lawyers, ordered him to take classes in billing, trust accounts or law practice management.

All of that on top of two other civil cases in which opponents recently demanded Woodfill pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid fees.

It’s too early to say what all this is about. We don’t even know for certain that Woodfill himself is the subject of any investigation. But, um, none of this looks great.

Hidalgo gets started

If you weren’t paying attention to County Judge-elect Lina Hidalgo before, you are now.

Lina Hidalgo

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, the lone Democrat currently on the court, said Hidalgo is a quick study who will settle into the role quickly.

“She’s smart and was very bold to make the decision to run, and to make a commitment to public service,” Ellis said.

Hidalgo said her immediate focus is recruiting a top-flight staff and pledged to announce a transition plan in coming weeks. Depending on how many Emmett holdovers Hidalgo retains, she could have as many as 30 positions to fill.

[Robert] Eckels, who served as county judge from 1995 to 2007, urged Hidalgo to focus on building relationships with the four county commissioners. Unlike the mayor of Houston, who has significantly more power — and far more leverage over — city council, the county judge can accomplish little without the support of commissioners.

“The county judge position is by nature a weak position,” Eckels said. “One vote is one vote. Three votes can change the world.”

Eckels said the mild-mannered Emmett was successful because he was able to manage the sometimes outsized personalities of commissioners.

Hidalgo said she would welcome Emmett’s advice during the transition. She said a top priority is to make county government more transparent, and suggested holding regular town halls. She also is eager to settle the federal lawsuit brought by poor criminal defendants brought two years ago, in which they argue Harris County’s cash bail system is unconstitutional.

She emphasized the importance of flood control, and said she has yet to determine whether to make changes to the projects list for the $2.5 billion flood protection bond voters approved in August.

[…]

With the election of Adrian Garcia in the Precinct 2 commissioner’s race, Democrats will have a 3-2 majority on Commissioners Court, starting in January.

The Republican commissioners, Steve Radack and Jack Cagle, said they looked forward to working with Hidalgo. Radack, who has served under three county executives since he first was elected in 1988, said he expects court members to continue to work well together with Democrats in charge.

Cagle said he would not be bothered if Hidalgo used her new pulpit to speak out on statewide and national issues like immigration and criminal justice, so long as the county continues to serve its largely nonpartisan functions, like maintaining infrastructure and providing health services.

“When you fix a pothole, there’s no R or D that goes on it,” Cagle said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday morning he was surprised Hidalgo won. He praised Emmett, with whom he worked closely during storm events including Hurricane Harvey and the Tax Day Flood, as a treasured partner.

“The reality is that for all of us, we’re not indispensable,” Turner said. “I can be here, tomorrow I can be someplace else and the city will go forward, the city will go on.”

Indeed. The power on Commissioners Court lies mostly with the Commissioners themselves – they have the bigger budgets, after all. The Court has always operated in a collegial environment and with consensus among the commissioners. We’ll see how that changes now that Dems have the majority. For now, the priority for Hidalgo is going to be getting to know her future colleagues and everyone else who will need to get to know her.

Trautman talks new voting machines

As is usually the case, finding the funding will be the key.

Diane Trautman

The newly elected Harris County clerk plans to phase out the county’s eSlate voting machines, which have occasionally caused problems for voters.

Diane Trautman, who beat the incumbent in the countywide sweep of Democrats, also wants to improve the county’s elections technology so voters can cast ballots in any precinct on Election Day. Currently, residents are allowed to vote at any polling place during early voting, but must use a designated location on Election Day.

“We must replace the current electronic machines with an electronic machine that produces a verifiable paper trail,” Trautman said. “The problem, of course, is the funding.”

[…]

Stanart said he also had planned to phase out the eSlate voting machines if re-elected.

On average, the devices are eight years old. Most were purchased after a 2010 fire destroyed the warehouse where Harris County stored its voting machines.

Stanart’s spokesman, Hector de Leon, said the clerk’s office estimates that replacing the county’s 8,189 eSlate machines would cost about $75 million. Trautman said she would explore whether the state or federal government could cover part of the cost.

[…]

Meanwhile, Commissioners Court would need to approve the purchase of new machines, and members are supportive of the idea. Incoming Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said improving the voting experience for residents must be a priority.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle urged Trautman to prepare a detailed proposal for replacing the eSlate machines and present it to the court. He said new machines must be a technological upgrade and have a long-term life span.

“Let’s not throw out good machines just to get fancy new ones,” Cagle said. “What we buy next, let’s make sure it lasts a while, as well.”

I’m glad to hear that there is support for moving forward on this. We should write up our standards, talk to Travis County about their systems, revisit that cost estimate, and begin meeting with legislators and members of Congress to see what funding they may be able to provide. It also looks like we can begin work on moving towards a vote center system for Election Day, which ought to help alleviate some of the problems we have seen when precinct voting locations have had technical problems. I can’t wait to see how this goes.

Their whining is like music to my ears

From the inbox, possibly the most unintentionally hilarious press release I’ve ever had the privilege to receive, from the Harris County Republican Party:

“I am mad. Mad at the avoidable losses wreaked across Texas by the Beto Wave of straight-ticket votes. That straight-ticket wave turned Fort Bend County Democrat, defeated Republicans on appellate courts across Texas, elected Democrats across the state to Congress and the Legislature, and swept every countywide vote in Harris County. Despite the largest and most ambitious campaign the Harris County Republican Party has ever run, we fell woefully short.

“Sadly, this straight-ticket Beto Wave was once avoidable. Texas is one of only eight states that still have straight-ticket voting. In 2017, other grassroots conservatives and I championed legislation to end straight ticket voting in Texas once and for all. But, to the detriment of Republicans across Texas, straight-ticket voting was left in place for one last election–in 2018. This year, faced with the longest ballot in the country, 75% of the 1.2 million Harris County voters (presidential-year-level turnout) punched the straight-ticket option: 500K Democrat vs. 400K Republican, giving Democrats a 100,000-vote margin, with Beto O’Rourke winning Harris County by 200,000 votes.

“The result was a down-ballot sweep that would not have happened without straight-ticket voting.

“There was no substantive Democrat countywide candidate, yet they all won. Consider: did all of those 500,000 straight-ticket Democrat voters turn out planning to oust County Judge Ed Emmett? Did the straight-ticket Democrat voters who gave Commissioner Jack Cagle’s opponent 46% of the vote know they were voting for a Communist? The questions answer themselves.”

May I suggest, before we go any further, that you now click this link? I’ll wait.

Yeah. That’s from their Facebook page, and it was on the the Harris County GOP website as of Friday. Here’s a screenshot I took at the time:

So, yeah. You know, I’m old enough to remember the year 2010, when two thirds of all voters cast a straight-ticket ballot, giving the Republicans a 50,000-vote advantage before anything else was counted. Funny how that only became a problem to fear when there started to be more Democrats in the county.

Also, too:

In the run-up to Election Day, an influential Tea Party group seemed skeptical that a blue wave would wash over the state.

But after the votes were tallied Tuesday, the NE Tarrant Tea Party found that some of its favored candidates had nearly been swept away.

“Slaughtered … slaughtered … lost … lost … barely held on, but at least they won,” the group’s president, Julie McCarty, wrote to supporters Wednesday, ticking down a list of races. “We are rapidly becoming outnumbered. I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but I don’t like the pattern.”

Though the GOP maintained its dominance of the Legislature and control of every statewide office, it was by almost all counts a tough night for her wing of the party. With the Democrats’ star senatorial candidate, Beto O’Rourke, at the top of the ticket, challengers running to the left of far-right — and often well-financed — candidates made nail-biters of races that had once been safe Republican wins.

[…]

Political analysts say the results spell trouble for the no-holds-barred conservatism that has animated Republican primaries, especially with the success of Democratic challengers who this year campaigned on bread-and-butter issues like education and health care.

“The margins for the more combative and conservative Republicans were much smaller than that of the more pragmatic and more consensus-based Republicans,” said Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor. “That says something to Republicans that is: When you have a candidate that doesn’t alienate people, your cushion is much larger.”

McCarty, the NE Tarrant Tea Party president, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Michael Quinn Sullivan, head of the deep-pocketed and hard-right Empower Texans group.

But in an email newsletter Wednesday, Sullivan said it “was a rough night for Texas Republicans.”

“Elections come and go; some candidates lose and some candidates win. Sometimes those losses and wins have nothing to do with the candidates themselves,” the newsletter said. “Legislatively, though, not much changes. The GOP holds commanding leads in Texas’ House and Senate.”

The lower chamber’s most conservative faction, the Freedom Caucus, may in fact gain membership next session, with the entrée of several new ideologically aligned candidates.

McCarty, in an email to supporters, attributed the election outcome to an influx of Democrats and “white guilt” invading the suburbs.

“It’s not that we didn’t work hard. It’s not that folks didn’t vote. Dems are moving in from out of state, lured in by short-sighted politicians. Dems are moving in across the border. Dems run our schools and universities and churn out more Dems,” she wrote.

Clearly, we need to build a wall around the entire state. Maybe we can make California pay for it. As for the thesis that the wingnuts will perform some strategic moderation, let’s just say that the evidence for that is thin so far.

I mean, look, we may well lose some amount of the ground we gained this year in the 2020 election. Lord knows, I was feeling pretty damn giddy around this time in 2008 as well, and we know what happened next. But damn, I’m gonna enjoy this for now. Campos has more.

Initial reactions: Harris County

Let’s start with the obvious.

Judge Ed Emmett

Harris County Democrats rode a surge in voter turnout to a decisive victory on Tuesday, unseating several countywide Republican officials, including longtime County Judge Ed Emmett, and sweeping all 59 judicial races.

Emmett, who courted Democratic ticket-splitters and leaned on his reputation as a steady hand during hurricanes, conceded at 11 p.m. to 27-year-old challenger Lina Hidalgo, who was running in her first race for public office.

After defeating the Republican sheriff and district attorney two years ago, Harris County Democrats now will control all of the countywide elected posts. In addition, former sheriff Adrian Garcia defeated incumbent Republican Jack Morman in the Precinct 2 commissioner’s race, giving Democrats control of Commissioners Court.

[…]

University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus attributed the Democrats’ success to changing demographics in the largest Texas county and a superb get-out-the-vote effort by Democratic groups.

“Democrats have harnessed the blue wave, at least locally,” Rottinghaus said. “Harris County is going to be trending more purple, which is going to spell difficulty for Republicans in countywide races in the future.”

The upset fulfilled the nightmare scenario Republicans feared: Democratic straight-ticket voters who have a positive opinion of Emmett failed to venture far enough down the ballot to vote for him, handing the win to Hidalgo.

Hidalgo will be the first Latina county judge, and youngest since a 23-year-old Roy Hofheinz was elected in 1936. She has lived in Harris County sporadically as an adult and has never attended a meeting of Commissioners Court.

Hidalgo was an energetic campaigner who implored voters not to settle for the status quo. She criticized Emmett for failing to push harder for flood protection measures in the decade before Hurricane Harvey, when parts of the county were flooded by several storms. Emmett had campaigned on his record, contrasting his 11 years as the county’s chief executive with Hidalgo’s lack of formal work experience.

At Emmett’s watch party at the Hotel ZaZa, his supporters stared in disbelief at monitors displaying the results. Emmett spoke briefly and compared this election to the 1974 midterms following the Watergate scandal, when a wave of incumbents were defeated.

“If this happens the way it appears, I won’t take it personally,” Emmett said. “It is a bitter pill to swallow, but Harris County will move on. I will be fine.”

Supporter Xavier Stokes chalked up the county judge race result to straight-ticket voting, rather than a referendum on Emmett himself.

“He’s done such a good job, and yet here we are,” Stokes said. “It just shows you how this type of voting distorts the outcome.”

I’m not surprised to see straight ticket voting get the blame here. Lisa Falkenberg and Judge Emmett himself are both pushing that narrative, though to Falkenberg’s credit she also recognized that some awful Republicans in Harris County had been the beneficiary of straight ticket voting in the past. Judge Emmett is a good person and he has been a very competent County Judge, but his problem wasn’t so much the straight ticket option as it was that so many more Democrats than Republicans voted. Beto O’Rourke carried Harris County by almost 200,000 votes. All of the statewides except Lupe Valdez (+66K), Joi Chevalier (+97K), and Roman McAllen (+100K) carried Harris by more than the Democratic margin in straight ticket votes. Emmett pitched his campaign at Democrats because he had no choice. He knew he was swimming in very deep waters. To assume that the straight ticket voters cost him the election is to assume that without that option, the Democratic straight ticket voters would have significantly either undervoted in the County Judge race or gone on to vote for Emmett as the (likely) only Republican they chose – which, remember, they still could have done anyway – and also that a significant number of Republican straight ticket voters would have remembered to vote all the way down the ballot as well. Maybe straight ticket voters cost Emmett this race and maybe they didn’t, but when you start out with a deficit that large you need everything to go right to have a chance at overcoming it. Not enough went right for Ed Emmett.

Two other points to note here. One is that I don’t remember anywhere near this level of mourning when straight ticket Republicans in 2010 ousted then-State Rep. Ellen Cohen and then-County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, the latter in favor of a little-known young first time candidate. Two, it was within the power of the formerly-Republican-dominated Commissioners Court to take measures to mitigate against the seemingly pernicious effects of straight ticket voting. They could have engaged in efforts to better educate everyone in Harris County about how its voting machines worked instead of leaving that mostly to the political parties. They could have invested in newer voting machines that provided voters with more information about their range of options in the booth. They did not do these things. Which, to be fair, may not have made any difference in the era of Donald Trump and a rising demographic tide that is increasingly hostile to Republicans. It’s just that when men of great power and influence claim to have been undermined by forces entirely beyond their control, I tend to be a bit skeptical.

Anyway. I understand the concerns that some people have about Lina Hidalgo. I think she’ll be fine, I think she’ll figure it out, and I think Harris County will be fine. I also think that the professional news-gathering organizations could send a reporter or two to Dallas and ask about their experience after the 2006 election when an even lesser-known and much less qualified Democrat ousted the respected longtime Republican County Judge in that year’s blue wave. That fellow – Jim Foster was his name – had a turbulent tenure and was ousted in the 2010 Democratic primary by current County Judge Clay Jenkins. I’m sure we could all benefit from a review of that bit of history.

Beyond that, the main immediate effect of the Hidalgo and Garcia wins will be (I hope) the swift conclusion of the ongoing bail practices litigation. With the defeat of all the Republican misdemeanor court judges, there’s no one outside of Steve Radack and Jack Cagle left in county government who supports continuing this thing, and they’re now outvoted. Longer term, the next round of redistricting for Commissioners Court should be more considerate of the Latino voters in the county, as Campos notes. I also have high hopes for some sweeping improvements to voting access and technology now that we have finally #FiredStanStanart. Long story short, a review and update of early voting hours and locations, an investment in new and better voting machines, and official support of online voter registration are all things I look forward to.

One more point of interest, in the race for HCDE Trustee Position 4, Precinct 3. Democrat Andrea Duhon nearly won this one, finishing with 49.58% of the vote. Precinct 3 is where County Commissioner Steve Radack hangs his hat, and it was basically 50-50 in 2018. Radack is up for election in 2020. Someone with the right blend of ambition and fundraising ability needs to be thinking about that starting now.

Omnibus election report

It’s after midnight, I’ve mostly posted stuff on my long-dormant Twitter account (@kuff), and I will have many, many thoughts in the coming days. For now, a brief recap.

– As you know, neither Beto nor any other Dem won statewide, thus continuing the shutout that began in 1996. However, as of this writing and 6,998 of 7,939 precincts counted, O’Rourke had 3,824,780 votes, good for 47.86% of the total. In 2016, Hillary Clinton collected 3,877,868 votes. It seems very likely that by the time all is said and done, Beto O’Rourke will be the biggest vote-getter in history for a Texas Democrat. He will have built on Hillary Clinton’s total from 2016. That’s pretty goddamn amazing, and if you’re not truly impressed by it you’re not seeing the whole picture. We’re in a different state now.

– Beto may not have won, but boy howdy did he have coattails. Colin Allred won in CD32, and Lizzie Fletcher won in CD07. Will Hurd is hanging on to a shrinking lead in CD23, up by less than 1,200 votes with about 14% of the precincts yet to report. He was leading by 6,000 votes in early voting, and it may still be possible for Gina Ortiz Jones to catch him. Todd Litton (45.30% in CD02), Lorie Burch (44.21% in CD03), Jana Lynne Sanchez (45.25% in CD06), Mike Siegel (46.71% in CD10), Joseph Kopser (47.26% in CD21), Sri Kulkarni (46.38% in CD22), Jan McDowell (46.91% in CD24), Julie Oliver (44.43% in CD25), and MJ Hegar (47.54% in CD31) all came within ten points.

– Those coattails extended further down the ballot. Dems picked up two State Senate seats, as Beverly Powell defeated Konni Burton in SD10 (Wendy Davis’ old seat) and Nathan Johnson trounced Don Huffines in SD16. Rita Lucido was at 46.69% in SD17, but she wasn’t the next-closest competitor – Mark Phariss came within three points of defeating Angela Paxton in SD08, a race that wasn’t really on the radar. Oh, and in an even less-visible race Gwenn Burud scored 45.45% in SD09, while Meg Walsh got to 41.60% against Sen. Charles Schwertner in SD05 (he was just over 55% in that race). We could make things very, very interesting in 2022.

– And down in the State House, Dems have picked up 11 seats:

HD45, Erin Zwiener
HD47, Vikki Goodwin
HD52, James Talarico
HD65, Michelle Beckley
HD102, Ana-Marie Ramos
HD105, Terry Meza
HD113, Rhetta Bowers
HD114, John Turner
HD115, Julie Johnson
HD135, Jon Rosenthal
HD136, John Bucy

Note that of those seven wins, a total of four came from Denton, Hays, and Williamson Counties. The Dems have officially gained a foothold in the suburbs. They also lost some heartbreakingly close races in the House – I’ll save that for tomorrow – and now hold 12 of 14 seats in Dallas County after starting the decade with only six seats. This is the risk of doing too precise a gerrymander – the Republicans there had no room for error in a strong Democratic year.

– Here in Harris County, it was another sweep, as Dems won all the judicial races and in the end all the countywide races. Ed Emmett lost by a point after leading most of the evening, while the other Republicans lost by wide margins. Also late in the evening, Adrian Garcia squeaked ahead of Commissioner Jack Morman in Precinct 2, leading by a 112,356 to 111,226 score. Seems fitting that Morman would lose a close race in a wave year, as that was how he won in the first place. That means Dems now have a 3-2 majority on Commissioners Court. Did I say we now live in a different state? We now live in a very different county.

– With 999 of 1,013 precincts in, Harris County turnout was 1,194,379, with about 346K votes happening on Election Day. That puts turnout above what we had in 2008 (in terms of total votes, not percentage of registered voters) but a hair behind 2012. It also means that about 71% of the vote was cast early, a bit less than in 2016.

– Oh, and the Dems swept Fort Bend, too, winning District Attorney, County Judge, District Clerk, all contests judicial races, and County Commissioner in Precinct 4. Maybe someone can explain to me now why they didn’t run candidates for County Clerk and County Treasurer, but whatever.

– Possibly the biggest bloodbath of the night was in the Courts of Appeals, where the Dems won every single contested race in the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 13th, and 14th Courts. I count 16 incumbent Republican judges losing, with several more open Republican-held seats flipping. That is utterly amazing, and will have an impact far greater than we can imagine right now.

– Last but not least, both Houston propositions passed. Expect there to be a lawsuit over Prop B.

Lawsuit filed over late start times at several precincts

This crap should not happen.

After several polling locations in Harris County failed to open on time this morning, the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Texas Organizing Project are suing the county in hopes of extending Election Day voting hours until 8 p.m. at nine polling locations.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday afternoon, the two groups alleged that the county was violating the Texas Election Code because polling locations that opened after 7 a.m. would not remain open to voters for 12 hours on Election Day as required by state law.

Polling locations across the state’s biggest county “not only failed to open at 7 a.m., but remained closed until well after 7 a.m.,” the plaintiffs wrote. Voting was further delayed at some polling locations because of equipment issues, including sign-in and voting machines that weren’t working.

The two groups put forth affidavits from several Harris County voters who faced delays Tuesday morning and, in some cases, were kept from casting ballots before needing to head to work.

[…]

When they started letting voters in to vote, the sign-in machines were not working. She watched poll workers troubleshoot the machines until leaving at 7:45 a.m.

“Harris County has been a major flashpoint, if you will,” Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, said earlier in the day.

At least 18 polling locations in Harris County either did not open on time or were only partially open on time, with some locations at first operating with one or two machines when they were supposed to have eight or even 16, Stevens said.

Those sorts of issues are “typical of start-up issues on Election Day,” said Hector de Leon, director of communications and voter outreach for the Harris County Clerk’s Office. He said the county has technicians stationed across the county so they can get to voting locations within 10 minutes of a technical distress call and get machines up and running.

“There’s nothing atypical about this morning,” de Leon said. “It’s just the nature of Election Day morning.”

I’ve no doubt that a big, sprawling county like ours with hundreds of voting locations is going to present logistical problems, but maybe be a bit less blase about it? At the very least, this suggests the county didn’t have much of a contingency plan in place, nor does it suggest that the county sees it as a problem that some people may have had to leave and go to work without having voted, and may or may not have the chance to try again later in the day. I don’t know as I post this what will happen, but surely keeping the polls open till 8 at the affected locations is a reasonable thing to do. That and electing a County Clerk who will plan for this kind of thing before it happens.

UPDATE: The League of Women Voters Houston posts that the nine locations shown in the linked photo will be open till 8.

Today is election day

It’s what we’ve been waiting for, for what seems like forever. From the inbox:

Tuesday, November 6, 2018 is Election Day. Voting locations will be open from 7 am to 7 pm. Voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com, the County Clerk’s election page, for more information.

“There are four important steps voters should take before heading to the polls,” advised Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, the chief election officer of the County. “Go to HarrisVotes.com and look yourself up, study your personal ballot, see where your poll is located, and make sure you have one of the seven acceptable forms of Photo ID.”

At www.HarrisVotes.com, voters can find the answers to their voting questions. The website now provides voters an interactive Google map with directions to their Election Day polling location from the “Find Your Poll and Ballot” page.

“Please study your personal ballot,” urged Stanart. Voters may bring their marked up ballot into the voting booth to expedite the voting process and are strongly encouraged to review their selections before pressing the “cast ballot” button. Be sure you see the waving American Flag before exiting your voting booth. “If you have a question while voting, notify the election official in charge at the poll.”

There is still time to vote.” concluded Harris County Clerk Stanart. “Remember, on Election Day, a voter must vote at the polling location where their precinct is assigned to vote.”

The Election Day polling locations, a list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at the poll and information about “curbside voting” can be found at www.HarrisVotes.com. For more information, voters may also call the Harris County Clerk’s election information line at 713.755.6965.

Check the elections page for your own county if you’re not in Harris and you need to know where to go. Remember that if you’re in line by 7PM, you still get to vote. I will be at KTRK doing my thing and probably appearing on camera for thirty seconds at some random time. As for what happens today, well, your guess is as valid as anyone else’s. I’ll leave you with two thoughts. First, from Derek Ryan:


In case you’re wondering, turnout in 2008 was 8,077,795, in 2012 was 7,993,851, and in 2016 was 8,969,226. So, you know.

And also, because I didn’t see this in time to post it earlier:

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask the city council next week to approve a $1.3 million contract with a law firm to represent the city in anticipation of possible litigation over Proposition B, a measure that would grant firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority.

The contract with Norton Rose Fulbright — which could be approved the day after Tuesday’s general election — would set aside $250,000 for the firm to handle litigation over real estate purchases in connection with infrastructure projects; the rest would be set aside for a court fight over pay “parity.”

[…]

The mayor’s office cast the decision as a simple act of preparing for the election.

“The city is seeking outside counsel to review and assess all options in case Proposition B should pass,” mayoral spokesman Alan Bernstein said. “It is a prudent course of action.”

I have believed all along that there would be litigation regardless of the outcome, so they may well need to assess their options in the seemingly unlikely event that Prop B fails. Something to look forward to after the election.

Our poor old voting machines

They really do need to be retired.

A national spotlight fell on Texas’ voting equipment last week after some voters complained that their votes on electronic voting machines had changed.

State election officials chalked it up to user error.

Critics alleged malfeasance or a software bug.

The Austin-based company behind the machines says an important piece of context is missing from this debate: these machines are 16 years old.

“It’s very much like someone calling Apple and asking for support on their iPhone 1,” said Steven Sockwell, vice president of marketing at Hart InterCivic.

Most Texas counties last upgraded their electronic voting machines well over a decade ago, tapping billions in funds Congress approved to upgrade voting equipment around the country following election irregularities during the 2000 presidential election. Dozens of Texas counties purchased Hart’s eSlate machines.

[…]

While Sockwell said that the eSlate machines “have not been performing any differently” than they have in previous elections, he said it is time for municipalities to upgrade to Hart’s newer voter system, which is called Verity. The eSlate machines generally have a lifespan of between 10 and 15 years, he said, though he added that they do not stop working after 15 years.

[Rice computer science professor Dan] Wallach said that he is surprised that Texas’ eSlate machines have lasted as long as they have.

“We’ve got eSlates that are over 10 years old and in some cases approaching 20 years,” Wallach said. “Normally, computers don’t last that long.”

See here for the background. For the record, the first iPhones came out in 2007, so these machines are mostly at least five years older than that. However you view their utility and security today, the day is coming – likely soon – when we will have no choice but to replace these machines. At some point, they’re just not going to work anymore.

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.

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.

Projecting Tuesday turnout

Here’s the statewide view.

By the time the polls closed Thursday, 33.7 percent of registered voters in Bexar County had voted, well past the 17.3 percent turnout at the same point in 2014, the last midterm, and close to the presidential-year turnout recorded at the same point in 2012 and 2016.

And Bexar County’s election officials are not alone in having a lot to high-five each other about. Turnout during early voting in the state’s 30 largest counties easily surpassed the entire turnout – during the early voting period and on Election Day – of the 2014 midterm and continues to race toward the turnout seen in presidential election years.

In Harris County, the state’s largest county, 32.3 percent of registered voters had voted by the end of Thursday, compared to 15.5 percent at the same point in 2014. In Dallas County, the number was 35.1 percent, compared to 15.2 percent at the same point in 2014. Early voting turnout in Travis County had already surpassed total early voter turnout in both the 2014 midterm and the 2012 presidential election by the end of Thursday.

“We’ve got a lot of unhappy and activist voters out there who have been wanting to vote for a long time,” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk. She attributed the bump in the number of voters to President Donald Trump.

She said voter turnout dipped slightly earlier in the week, as is often the case, but that the numbers quickly rebounded toward the end of the week, which she said will help alleviate some traffic on Election Day.

[…]

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said that the “blockbuster” turnout seen during early voting this year sets a new bar for future elections.

“It’s clear that much of the future of Texas will be fought in suburban Texas,” Rottinghaus said.

He said counties like Collin, Denton, Montgomery and Williamson saw a greater number of Democrats turning up to vote than in previous elections. That doesn’t mean that Democrats are going to win those counties, he said, but it does mean that they have become much more competitive.

“On one hand, suburban Texas is now younger and more ethnically diverse, replacing the first generation which is middle age and white” Rottinghaus said. “And Donald Trump and some of the inflammatory rhetoric have really caused a lack of interest among Republican women and college-educated voters in the suburbs.”

Rottinghaus said statewide Hispanic turnout is up slightly from 2014, which he said is “good but not great for Democrats.” While it looked like Democrats were doing better than Republicans in border counties early on in early voting, he said that it now looks like Republican voters are turning up in larger numbers.

“It’s not the groundswell that Democrats had hoped for,” Rottinghaus said.

The same story applies to young voters, Rottinghaus said. Although more young voters turned out in 2018 than in 2014, he said the 2016 presidential year still has both of the midterm years beat.

“This seems to show that younger voters, although inspired by an electric O’Rourke campaign, still need that push of a president at the top of the ticket to turn out,” Rottinghaus said.

I think what we’re going to get is going to be somewhere between 2008/2012 turnout, and 2016 turnout, which is the current high-water mark. The main question here is how many people who are going to vote have already voted. In previous off-year elections, a bit more than half of the vote – around 55% – is cast early. In Presidential years, the share of the early vote is higher, with that number spiking up in 2016. I’ll show the details later, but for now I’ll say this feels more like a Presidential year, but not exactly like one. As such, I think we’ll still see a decent number of voters on Tuesday, but for sure the bulk of the vote has already been cast.

Here are the Friday/final totals, and here are the daily totals from 2010, from 2014, and from 2016, as well as a spreadsheet with totals from 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. The running tallies:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2010  52,112  392,536  462,527
2014  67,967  307,280  375,247
2018  89,098  766,613  855,711

2008  52,502  678,312  754,499
2012  66,310  700,216  766,526
2016  94,699  882,580  977,279

About where I thought we’d end up, though the potential was there for a bit more. I think the bad weather on Wednesday prevented some people from voting, with some of them shifting to Thursday or Friday and some of them still needing to vote. Here are a range of outcomes for final turnout based on what we’ve seen so far:

855,711 at 65% = 1,316,478
855,711 at 67% = 1,277,180
855,711 at 70% = 1,222,444
855,711 at 73% = 1,172,206
855,711 at 75% = 1,140,980

2008 EV = 63.5%
2012 EV = 63.7%
2016 EV = 73.0%

In other words, in 2008 and 2012 a bit more than 63% of the vote was cast early, while in 2016 that amount was 73 percent. My best guess, based entirely on gut feel, is that we’ll fall in the middle of that this year, which will put us in the 1.2 million range, or about the total for 2008 and 2012. It could still go higher or lower from there, and in the end the range of possibility is about 200K votes. The weather should be good on Tuesday, so at least there won’t be any nature-induced barriers.

One last thing to think about. In 2016, the top Republican votegetter was Tracy Christopher, who was running for the 14th Court of Appeals, with 621,960 votes, followed by Debra Ibarra Mayfield, running for the 165th District Court, with 621,060. The smallest number of votes any Democrat received who was on the ballot for everyone in the county was 610,648 by Grady Yarbrough, running for Railroad Commissioner. Most Republican judicial candidates, including all of the statewide judicials other than Eva Guzman and all of the courts of appeals candidates other than Christopher and Sherry Radack, failed to top Yarbrough’s total. If turnout really is 1.2 million or above, you tell me where the Republicans are going to get the votes to win Harris County.

The Courts of Appeals

The other judicial races where Dems have a chance to gain ground.

Republicans dominate Texas politics — but their stranglehold is especially noticeable in the courts.

Republicans hold all 18 seats on the state’s two high courts. Of the state’s 14 appeals courts, Democrats hold majorities on just three. On the other 11 courts, Democrats have no seats at all.

Democrats are hoping to flip that advantage on Election Day. In their eyes, the stars have aligned. They have a high-profile liberal darling running a competitive race for U.S. Senate at the top of the ticket. They have a controversial Republican president expected to generate backlash in his first midterm election. And enough judicial seats are up for election that Democrats could flip the four sprawling appellate court districts that serve Austin, Dallas and Houston. Hillary Clinton won those districts in 2016, but the courts are currently held entirely by Republicans.

If Democrats can sweep those races in 2018, they’ll take control of half the state’s appeals courts. And strategists say that goal is in sight.

[…]

No Democrat has been elected to the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals since 1992. The six-county district includes liberal-leaning Dallas, but also some of Texas’ most reliably red areas. In Dallas, as in Houston and Austin, large, urban centers contribute the lion’s share of the judicial district’s electorate, but right-leaning rural and suburban voters in surrounding counties have handed victories to Republicans for the past several election cycles. Only the 4th Court of Appeals, based in San Antonio, has a partisan split with Democrats in the majority. The Legislature controls these maps; the districts have changed only twice since 1967, most recently in 2005.

[…]

Ken Molberg, a district judge in Dallas, ran for 5th Court of Appeals in 2014 and came up nearly 72,000 votes short. This year, in another attempt, he’s confident things will be different. Molberg, a former Dallas County Democratic Party chair, has accumulated several hundred thousand dollars — an impressive sum for such an unstudied race — and said his region of the state is “ground zero for the party this go around.”

“The potential to switch this court in one election cycle is there, and it would be somewhat earthquake-like if that happened,” Molberg said. “It’s a tough race all the way around, but my analysis is that it can be done.”

Molberg is the best-funded of the eight Democrats battling Republicans for seats on the 13-justice court. But he said the slate will likely succeed or fail as a group.

“I don’t think individual campaigns have any effect at the court of appeals or district court level. …That’s an example of where you’re almost entirely dependent on straight-ticket voting,” said Jay Aiyer, a political science professor at Texas Southern University. “At the courthouse level, it’s easier for one party to dominate.”

[…]

“There is a real conformity, a uniformity of judicial thought on these courts that I think would really benefit from different experience,” said Meagan Hassan, who’s running as a Democrat for the Houston-based 14th Court of Appeals. She pointed to the tiny fraction of dissenting opinions written by Houston-area appellate judges, arguing that ideological balance is needed for the critical decisions these courts make.

In Tyler, for example, an all-Republican court of appeals struck down as unconstitutional the state’s new “revenge porn” law. The 3rd Court of Appeals is currently weighing the city of Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance. And state appellate courts are the last appellate stop for the vast majority of criminal cases in the state — yet many state appellate judges have no background in criminal law.

Democratic wins, Hassan said, “would bring balance to the court that hasn’t existed there in 25 years.”

That’s a theme several of the CoA candidates mentioned in the Q&As I did with them this year. They also point out that a lot of the Court of Appeals rulings stand because they don’t get heard by the Supreme Court or the CCA. I wrote about these races in 2016, when there were several pickup opportunities available, in part due to the wipeout of 2010. Dems did gain one seat each on the 4th and 13th Courts of Appeals in 2016, the latter being one they lost in 2010. They had gained three on the 4th and lost one on the 3rd in 2012, with all of those being up for re-election this time around.

For the 1st and 14th Courts, which are the ones that include Harris County, Dems lost the CoA races by a wide margin in 2014 but came much closer in 2016. Here’s an example from 2014 and an example from 2016. The deficit was close to 150K votes in 2014 but only about 40K votes in 2016. The formula for a Democratic win is pretty straightforward: Carry Harris County by a lot, break even in Fort Bend, and limit the damage in Brazoria and Galveston. That’s all very doable, but it’s likely there won’t be much room for error. It all starts with running up the score in Harris County (or Travis County for the 3rd, and Dallas County for the 5th). If that happens, we can win.

Early voting, Day 12: Final curtain

It was apparently a late night with long lines, and the report didn’t arrive by 10 PM, so you’ll have to settle for this.

When the polls closed in Harris County Friday, more voters had cast ballots than in any previous midterm election, positioning Harris County to surpass 1 million voters for the first time in a midterm election.

With a few voters still waiting in line to close out early voting, 849,406 residents had turned out, eclipsing even the tea party wave of 2010.

Friday — the 12th and final day of early balloting —saw a record 93,529 ballots cast in Harris County by 7:45 p.m. Voters faced long lines and parking woes, even as many wagered the wait on Tuesday would be worse with hundreds of thousands more voters on Election Day.

More than 4.3 million Texans have voted so far in the state’s 30 largest counties, just shy of the 4.7 million Texans who voted in the entire 2014 election.

Researchers said Democrats maintain a slight edge in Harris County that will likely grow on Election Day. The so-called Blue Wave here may not be enough to propel Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke to victory in the U.S. Senate race against GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, but could doom Republicans in local races.

The electorate that has turned out the past two weeks is younger, less Anglo and contains far more new or infrequent voters than normal midterms, factors that largely benefit Democrats.

“Republicans are very good at getting their voters to turn out,” said University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus. “If there are a bunch of voters who don’t typically vote in midterms but are now, it’s probably because they’re Democratic-leaning voters.”

I figured we’d get between 90K and 100K for Friday, and it seems I was right, though we don’t have the exact count yet. Until we do, here are the totals for Thursday, and here are the daily totals from 2010, from 2014, and from 2016, as well as a spreadsheet with totals from 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. The running tallies:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2010  52,112  392,536  462,527
2014  67,967  307,280  375,247
2018  85,665  670,212  755,877

2008  52,502  678,312  754,499
2012  66,310  700,216  766,526
2016  94,699  882,580  977,279

The 2018 figures are for Thursday, the rest are for the whole EV period of those years. I’ll post an updated table tomorrow. Just a reminder, these are total ballots cast, not how many votes any particular candidate received. The number of mail ballots will be higher in the final accounting because of ballots received between now and Tuesday.

UPDATE: Here are the Friday/final totals, from late last night. All in all, 855K people voted, which was about 96K from yesterday. I’ll have an updated table tomorrow.

Early voting, Day 11: Almost done

Before we get to the numbers, here’s my new favorite quote of the cycle:

“If Ted Cruz had Beto’s campaign manager he’d be leading by 20 points,” said Dan Rogers, the Republican chairman in Potter County, where Cruz drew about 600 people at rally on Wednesday night as kids were out trick-or-treating.

And if the referees weren’t biased against him, and the sun wasn’t in his eyes, and the traffic lights were better timed, and the dog hadn’t eaten his homework, and so on and so forth. There’s gotta be at least a master’s thesis in plumbing the psychological depths of that wistful thought.

But that’s not what you came here for. Here are the totals for Thursday, and here are the daily totals from 2010, from 2014, and from 2016, as well as a spreadsheet with totals from 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. The running tallies:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2010  49,202  332,892  382,094
2014  64,729  255,652  320,181
2018  85,665  670,212  755,877

2008  52,502  591,027  643,529
2012  64,024  614,131  678,155
2016  91,817  777,575  869,392

A return to Monday’s level, but not a step up. We’ll surpass the final total for 2010 tomorrow, and if the usual pattern of the last day being busy holds, I’d expect us to finish up at around 850K. That’ll be a bit higher by the time Tuesday rolls around, as more mail ballots arrive. I’ll put together another set of projections for final turnout once we know what we’ve got. I feel like we’ve got a solid shot at topping the total turnout from 2008 and 2012, which is to say about 1.2 million. I’ll let you know after the Friday numbers come in. Until then, do what you can to make sure everyone you know gets out and votes.

A broader look at the statewide judicial races

From the Trib:

Judge RK Sandill

Judicial candidates are subject to strict campaign finance restrictions, making it difficult to get their names out across a state of 28 million. And they must walk a difficult line as they campaign, running as partisans without compromising their judicial impartiality.

That means judicial candidates’ fates often rest with the top of the ticket — which is perhaps why no Democrat has been elected to the Texas Supreme Court or the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals since 1994. This year, five Democrats are vying for six seats on the state’s two high courts, which hear civil and criminal cases, respectively.

These low-information, down-ballot races are rarely competitive, but this year, as El Paso Democrat Beto O’Rourke draws attention to the top of the ticket in an unusually tight campaign for U.S. Senate, Democrats hope their judges can ride his coattails to the state’s highest benches.

Republicans, meanwhile, expect history to repeat itself.

“I do think to a large extent that my success will depend on how the entire ticket of my party goes,” said Texas Supreme Court Justice Jeff Brown, one of three Republican incumbents on the court up for re-election this fall. In that context, he said, he feels confident. “Of course, Beto O’Rourke’s popularity has certainly got Republicans thinking that maybe Texas is getting a little purpler. But I still feel like it’s going to be a Republican sweep.”

If anyone is poised to spoil that sweep, it’s R.K. Sandill, a long-serving Democratic district judge in Harris County who’s consistently outraised his opponent, Justice John Devine. In addition to an impressive cash-on-hand tally, an endorsement from the Houston Chronicle and victories in the Houston Bar Association and Texas Bar Association polls, Sandill faces perhaps the most controversial incumbent on the high court. Before being elected to the high court in 2012, Devine was sued for displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. Devine has also boasted publicly that he was arrested 37 times protesting outside abortion clinics.

But that history may not hurt Devine’s chances, Sandill said in an interview last week.

“It doesn’t matter who the Republican [candidate] is in a statewide office in Texas,” Sandill says, smiling but resigned across the table at a downtown Houston coffee shop. “It’s been 24 years. There’s no vulnerability. We all live and die together on the Democratic ticket.”

That’s not entirely true – there’s always some variation in the vote totals for Supreme Court and CCA justices, just as there’s variation in the vote totals for District Court judges. In 2016, Eva Guzman got 4,884,441 votes while Paul Green received 4,758,334; among Democrats, Dori Contreras Garza picked up 3,608,634 votes while Mike Westergren got 3,378,163. Didn’t make any difference then, but if we’re sufficiently close to even it becomes a live possibility that one or two Dems win while the others lose.

Beyond that, I covered some of this in my earlier post about Sharon Keller. I note that the Trib discusses the impending end of straight ticket voting, which could have a negative effect on Republican incumbent justices and possibly judges here in Harris County. I’m gonna wait and see what the data says over the next couple of cycles before I make any pronouncements on that.

Seeking a solution for the translators

Glad to see it.

Three days after election workers barred translators from asking Korean-American voters if they needed assistance inside a Spring Branch polling place, Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart met with a group of Korean-Americans to find a way to avoid a similar outcome on Election Day.

At the end of the hour-long meeting, which was brokered by Houston Councilwoman Brenda Stardig, the two sides were unable to agree on a solution that would allow volunteer translators to efficiently help Korean speakers cast ballots while following Harris County’s interpretation of the Texas Election Code. Stanart and the Korean-Americans agreed to work together on a fix, and each proposed a set of rules for translators.

“I want them to be successful,” Stanart said of the voters, who are largely elderly naturalized U.S. citizens. “But I want it to be within the law.”

[…]

On Wednesday afternoon, the Korean-Americans and their supporters sat around a table in the Korean Community Center in Spring Branch with Stanart, Stardig, and members of their staffs. Stardig invited each side to share ideas on how to improve the voting experience for Korean speakers.

Stanart said groups like the Korean American Voters League should inform the county when they plan to take voters to the polls so election workers can be prepared. He suggested the translators could set up a stand outside the 100-foot buffer zone and solicit voters there.

Some of the Korean-Americans said that would be impractical, since polling places are often crowded and non-English speakers are unsure where to go. They said making translators shuffle in line for an hour or more in some cases, instead of being available on an ad-hoc basis when voters reach the booths, is inefficient.

Others objected to being called loiterers by the county, noting that label is not applied to journalists and exit pollsters, who are free to work inside the 100-foot zone. They said Harris County is unfairly applying the Texas Election Code, which is silent on what a loiterer is and does not explicitly state where translators may or may not stand.

“It’s really not that clear,” said Sang Shin, Houston branch president of the Asian American Bar Association. “There are different opinions to that, legally.”

See here for the background. I feel like this is an area of the law that has not been greatly tested in the past, and as such no one is quite sure what to do now. As I said in my earlier post, it would be a good idea to revisit this law and take a stab at clarifying and updating it to better serve modern voters. We have nothing to lose here but our current state of confusion.

Early voting, Day 10: Happy Halloween

Here are the totals for Wednesday, and here are the daily totals from 2010, from 2014, and from 2016, as well as a spreadsheet with totals from 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. The running tallies:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2010  48,478  288,568  337,046
2014  63,857  220,505  284,362
2018  82,009  605,869  687,878

2008  49,558  513,888  563,446
2012  61,972  549,816  611,788
2016  89,271  700,697  789,968

There was a dip in participation yesterday, which I would attribute to one part Halloween and one part bad weather. My guess is the numbers will bounce right back today. We are still very much on track to exceed the entire turnout for 2010 by the end of early voting.

Shame on you, Stan Stanart

Just go away.

Judging by Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart’s campaign website, you might think that he is running against George Soros — the billionaire Jewish philanthropist who’s become a worldwide lightning rod for anti-Semitic groups, white supremacists and conspiracy theorists, but who has no apparent connection to the county clerk’s duties or to any current Harris County race.

“Make NO mistake,” begins the main article on re-elect.stanstanart.com. “George Soros wants to control Harris County Elections and Stan Stanart is in his way…. There are many more Flag Waving, defenders of the Constitution then [sic] those who support Soros’ world views, but remember ‘All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.’”

The page unnerves observers attuned to historic attacks on Jews — particularly in light of the past two weeks, in which a Trump supporter sent a pipe bomb to Soros’ house, and a conspiracy-theory-fueled neo-Nazi gunman killed 11 congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Stanart’s focus on Soros is “clearly a dog whistle,” said Houston voter Rachel Dvoretzky, who discovered Stanart’s website last week via a discussion on Facebook. “It’s red meat for a wave of anti-Semitism that’s infecting American public discourse right now.”

The Anti-Defamation League noted earlier in October that Soros had become the focus of “outsized conspiracy theories, including claims that he masterminds specific global plots or manipulates particular events to further his goals. Many of those conspiracy theories employ longstanding anti-Semitic myths, particularly the notion that rich and powerful Jews work behind the scenes, plotting to control countries and manipulate global events.”

That’s part of a rising tide of anti-Semitism, which had been growing fast even before the past week’s violence. According to the ADL, in 2017, the number of reported anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. surged 57 percent.

Stanart, for his part, said there’s no anti-Semitic intent behind his website. “Are you serious?” he shouted on the phone. “Are you serious?”

Asked about the ADL statement decrying conspiracy theories related to Soros, Stanart called it “B.S.! Big B.S.! He meddles in lots of races across the U.S. It has nothing to do with religion.”

I’m going to pay Stanart the compliment of taking it as a given that he’s not too stupid to grasp why the obsession that people like him have with George Soros is stinkingly anti-Semitic. Thankfully, Stanart is apparently able to be shamed (eventually), so there you have it, two nice things I can say about the man. Not much else to say beyond that except that all decent people should vote him out of office.

Early voting, Day 9: Who are these people?

The question keeps getting asked, who is it that has been voting so far?

An unprecedented number of Texans cast their ballots during the first week of early voting, but it is impossible to predict whether that surge will benefit Republicans or Democrats because more than 25 percent of the voters have no primary election voting history, an analysis of data from the Secretary of State shows.

People whose voting records provide no clue of their party affiliation cast 27.8 percent of the ballots in the 15 most populous counties in Texas, according to the analysis by Republican consultant Derek Ryan.

About one-third of the early voters in those counties had voted in a Republican primary in the past; for Democrats, it was 30 percent. Those percentages are consistent with early voting totals from the last midterm primary, in 2014, Ryan said.

But the 2018 numbers leave too many unknowns to draw conclusions, Ryan said.

“Unless somebody’s out there polling those people and calling them, there’s really no way necessarily to know if those people are voting Republican or Democrat,” Ryan said. “The same goes for the people that have primary history. Just because somebody voted in a Republican primary, it doesn’t always necessarily mean that they’re a Republican or that they are voting for all the Republicans on the ballot.”

In Harris County, 30 percent of early voters had no primary voting history. Thirty-three percent of early voters in the county most recently voted in a Republican primary, compared to 28.6 percent who most recently voted in a Democratic primary.

In Bexar County, 28.5 percent of early voters had no primary voting history. For those who have cast ballots in primary elections before, 29.3 percent most recently voted in a Republican primary, compared to 32.6 percent who most recently voted in a Democratic primary.

The 15-county analysis also found an increase in voters with Hispanic surnames. Those voters have cast 19 percent of the ballots in early voting so far; in 2014, 15.2 percent of early voters in Texas had Hispanic surnames.

In the 2018 election, People aged 60 to 69 made up 21 percent of early voters so far, the largest age group, the 15-county analysis shows. Voters aged 50-59 made up the second largest group at just under 20 percent, and voters aged 40-49 percent made up the third largest group at about 15 percent. Early voters aged 20-29 made up about 8 percent. This breakdown was consistent with totals for the 2014 midterm elections.

One point to bear in mind when pondering the people with no primary history: In 2016, 2.8 million people voted in the Republican primary in Texas. That means that the no-primary-history people are not from that group. The comparable figure from 2016 for Dems is 1.4 million people. It’s true that in 2008, some 2.8 million people voted in the Democratic primary, but that was five election cycles ago. There are a lot of people who have voted in Texas elections since then who could not or did not participate in the 2008 primary.

I don’t want to draw any broad inferences from that. There were still about two million people who voted mostly Republican in November of 2016 but not in March, and a bit more than that on the Democratic side. The people with no primary history are mostly evidence of a larger electorate, for which I think we can all agree we already have evidence. There is evidence of more younger voters and of unlikely voters. I’ll say that benefits Democrats, but remember that Dems can do a lot better in 2018 than they did in 2014 and still fall short.

So. Here are the totals for Tuesday, and here are the daily totals from 2010, from 2014, and from 2016, as well as a spreadsheet with totals from 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. The running tallies:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2010  45,219  250,066  295,285
2014  60,400  191,432  251,832
2018  80,279  557,264  637,543

2008  47,413  443,267  490,680
2012  59,304  491,349  550,653
2016  86,456  626,627  713,083

A little less than Monday, but still 62K in person and 64K overall. By tomorrow, barring a complete dropoff, we will surpass the entire final turnout for 2014. By Friday, even if there isn’t the usual end-of-early-voting surge and we stay on the same pace as now, we’ll surpass the entire final turnout for 2010. Have I mentioned that we were breaking records and the only real question was by how much? This is what I mean. Things are pretty brisk in Dallas County, too. Have you voted yet?

Translators

I wish there were a better way to handle this.

The Harris County Clerk’s office on Monday defended a decision by election workers to bar translators offering assistance to Korean-American voters from a Spring Branch polling site the day before.

The county said translators are free to approach voters outside the 100-foot protected zone at each polling place, but Dona Kim Murphey of the Korean-American Association of Houston said Harris County is too strict in its interpretation of the Texas Election Code.

“Nowhere does it say we can’t offer that translation at the entrance of the facility,” Murphey said. “That is unacceptable.”

Local Korean-language outlets urged voters to cast ballots at the Trini Mendenhall Community Center on Sunday because translators, including Murphey, would be there to provide assistance. She said poll workers barred the group of translators from asking Korean speakers in line if they needed help.

The translators were permitted to approach voters in the parking lot, but Murphey estimated they were only able to help 40 to 50 Korean speakers instead of the hundreds they had planned. Several thousand Korean-Americans reside in Spring Branch, and more than 30,000 live in the Houston area.

Douglas Ray, a deputy in the Harris County Attorney’s Office, said the translators were considered loiterers under the Texas Election Code when they were inside the polling place, because they lacked a “legitimate business purpose” for being there. The code bars loitering and electioneering — advocating for a particular cause or candidate — within the 100-foot protection zone.

[…]

Voters are permitted to bring translators for assistance, so long as they swear an oath to translate accurately. Ray said the problem arose Sunday because the translators were asking voters if they needed help, instead of the other way around. Though journalists and exit pollsters are permitted to speak to voters waiting in line, with the permission of poll workers, Ray said translators offering help are prohibited.

Ray said translators are free to offer their services to voters at any point before they enter the 100-foot zone.

“We just don’t want them to solicit inside the polling place,” he said.

Sam Taylor, spokesman for the Texas secretary of state’s office, said the election code supports Harris County’s rationale because a translator who has yet to be requested by a voter does not meet the description of an authorized person who is permitted at a polling place.

See here for an earlier story. I suspect the county’s interpretation of the law is accurate, though perhaps there’s room for a little slack. More likely, I’d say this law was built on some less-than-progressive assumptions and could use a revamp by the Legislature. Wouldn’t be the first time this was the case. I’d like to see someone give this a thorough review and put forth a bill that makes it easier for well-meaning volunteers like the folks from the Korean American Association of Houston to help the people who need it at the polls.

Early voting, Day 8: On to Week 2

Here are the totals for Monday, and here are the daily totals from 2010, from 2014, and from 2016, as well as a spreadsheet with totals from 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. The running tallies:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2010  42,795  214,778  257,573
2014  57,929  163,275  221,204
2018  78,590  494,712  573,302

2008  46,085  376,761  422,846
2012  57,031  429,186  486,217
2016  85,120  555,383  640,503

The in person total yesterday was roughly what it was on Friday, which is to say on the high end for Week 1 but not a step up. My guess is that today and Wednesday will be similar, Thursday will be about the same or a bit higher, and Friday as per usual will be the busiest day, maybe fifty percent or so higher than the totals we’ve seen so far. Again, roughly speaking, that puts us in range for 850K to 900K for the early voting period, perhaps a bit more than the “45% in the first five days” scenario I outlined here. Could still be more, likely won’t be less. We’ll all then guess what next Tuesday’s turnout will be. Have you voted yet? If not, when do you plan to hit the polls?

Day 7 early voting: Let the hot takes begin

I’m just going to quote this bit from this story about how the Senate campaigns are interpreting the early vote turnout so far.

Derek Ryan, a GOP data consultant who previously worked for the state party, said there are a couple metrics among the 15 counties that could be heartening each candidate. In Ryan’s analysis, Republican primary voters currently have a 90,000-vote advantage over their Democratic counterparts in early voting — a margin that is “definitely going to help Cruz out considerably,” Ryan said.

O’Rourke, meanwhile, could be boosted by early voters who have not voted in a general or primary election over the last eight years — currently 8.5 percent versus 5 percent for the entire 2014 period, according to Ryan’s analysis.

“The campaigns are seeing the same numbers that we are,” Ryan said. “Cruz is probably focusing on these primary voters. Beto’s probably optimistic about the ones that don’t have any primary election history.”

Two additional pieces of context to add here. One is that it’s always helpful to have a point of comparison. What kind of primary voter advantage did Republicans (presumably) have in 2014? My guess is that it was greater than it is now, but it would be nice to know that. We can also tell a bit more about those people with no primary history; I’m sure Derek Ryan knows that, he may just not want to do that kind of analysis in public. There’s also the question of when each party’s voters tend to come out. In Harris County at least, the first five days tend to be Republican, the weekend belongs to the Democrats, then the last five days generally trend in the Dems’ direction from the baseline of the first week. From what I know, this pattern has held true so far, at a higher Democratic level than in 2014. Whether that will continue in this highly atypical year is anyone’s guess.

Anyway. Here are the totals for Sunday, and here are the daily totals from 2010, from 2014, and from 2016, as well as a spreadsheet with totals from 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. The running tallies:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2010  40,553  181,084  221,637
2014  57,546  137,137  194,683
2018  77,347  429,009  506,356

2008  45,361  314,252  359,613
2012  53,131  362,827  415,958
2016  80,681  486,060  566,741

We are now well past the cumulative EV total for 2010. I expect we’ll exceed the 2008 and 2012 totals by the end of the week; if past patterns hold and the final day or two of early voting have the highest individual day totals, we could exceed 2012 by a lot, and maybe approach 2016. Historic patterns have held for the first week, so I’d say the odds are they’ll hold for the second week. We’ll know soon enough.

Day 6 early voting: A very early stab at projecting turnout

This is the point in the early voting process where early voting hours expand, and as a result daily EV reports come in later. That may affect my ability to present the latest data each day, so I’m going to break the pattern today and engage in one of my favorite exercise, which is to use the data we have so far and make some wild guesses about where we may end up. Let’s take a look back at the first five days of early voting from the past elections we’ve been tracking, and see what fraction of the final EV total they were, and then how much of the complete vote was cast during the EV period. We begin with a table:


Year  5 Day EV  Final EV  5 Day%
================================
2010   164,190   447,701  36.67%
2014   158,399   379,282  41.76%

2008   260,105   746,061  34.86%
2012   313,405   777,067  40.33%
2016   452,124   985,571  45.87%

I’ve separated the Presidential years from the non-Presidential years because we generally have very different electorates in each, and as such the behavior of one crowd may not be that predictive of the other. This year sure seems more like a Presidential year, so we’ll take all the numbers into account. The other factor, as you can see above, is that there has been a steady shift towards more and earlier early voting. Week 2 of early voting is always busier than Week 1, though that is becoming less the case. My guess is that we’ll see a pattern more like 2014 or 2016, but we can take a broader range of possibility into account:

380,266 at 35% = 1,086,474
380,266 at 40% = 950,665
380,266 at 45% = 845,035
380,266 at 50% = 760,532

I have a hard time believing we’ve already seen half of the early votes, but it’s possible. I think the third possibility, which would be approximately what we saw in 2016, is the most likely, though as with all things this year I hesitate to be too definitive. Note that outside of the last scenario, the early voting total will surpass the entire turnout for any off year in Harris County. The question here is not whether we’ll break records, it’s by how much.

The other side of this equation is projecting final turnout from EV turnout. We go once again to the historic data:

2016 = 73.61% early
2014 = 55.13% early
2012 = 64.53% early
2010 = 56.03% early
2008 = 62.76% early

Again we see a distinction between the Presidential and non-Presidential years, and again we see a trend towards more of the vote being cast early, 2014 notwithstanding. So again, we consider a range of possibilties:

760,532 at 75% = 1,014,082
845,035 at 75% = 1,126,713
950,665 at 75% = 1,267,553
1,086,474 at 75% = 1,448,632

760,532 at 65% = 1,170,049
845,035 at 65% = 1,300,053
950,665 at 65% = 1,462,561
1,086,474 at 65% = 1,671,498

I’m basically assuming this will be more like a Presidential year in terms of when people vote. It makes no sense to me that we’ll have nearly half the vote cast on November 6, so I’m not going to calculate a 55% scenario. Even with the most conservative projections, we’re on pace to top one million, and beating past Presidential years is within range. Final turnout in 2008 was 1,188,731, and it is certainly possible we could top that. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that 2016’s mark of 1,338,898 could be exceeded, but I can’t rule it out. Ask me again after early voting is done. Like I said, it’s not a question of whether we’ll break records, but by how much.

UPDATE: The Saturday EV totals came in a bit before 9. Google Drive is being unresponsive so I can’t give you a link, but I can tell you there were 8,646 mail ballots received, 79,641 in person votes cast, and the overall total is up to 468,549, which is more than the entire EV turnout of 2010. As the man once said, hold onto your butts.

Harris County makes its robot brothel ban official

We can all sleep more soundly now.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously adopted new rules to prevent so-called “robot brothels” from opening and more strictly regulate sexually oriented businesses in unincorporated areas.

The county already had been revising its sexually oriented business rules, first adopted in 1996, but decided to specifically address lifelike sex dolls for rent after Toronto-based company KinkySdollsS considered opening a Houston branch where patrons could try out human-like “adult love dolls” in private rooms at the shop.

[…]

Assistant County Attorney Celena Vinson said the county largely adopted language Houston’s legal department had written.

“We wanted to address the sex robot shop that was allegedly going to open in the city, and wanted to ensure our regulations were consistent with what the city of Houston was doing,” Vinson said.

The changes now clearly define sex dolls like the ones advertised by the Toronto firm as “anthropomorphic devices” and prohibit companies from renting them out to customers. Residents of the city and county remain free to purchase such devices for use in their own homes.

See here, here, and here for the background. Despite my best efforts, I still don’t have anything useful to say about this. I just can’t resist blogging about it, and Lord knows we can use the occasional respite from the real news. You’re welcome.