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Valoree Swanson

So what’s happening with SB9, the vote suppression bill?

The big House committee hearing was on Wednesday.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Filed in early March, Senate Bill 9 by Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes emerged as a priority for Senate leadership and first appeared to seize on bipartisan support for modernizing outdated voting equipment and enhancing election security.

In opening his pitch on the Senate floor in mid-April, Hughes said the “heart of SB 9” was a provision requiring counties to use voting machines by the 2024 general election that provide an auditable paper trail that can be verified by voters.

“It’s our responsibility on behalf of the people of Texas to make sure each county is conducting elections in the most secure way possible or practicable and that voters can truly trust the results,” Hughes said. “This shift to systems with a paper component, with those audits that will follow, will give certainty to every Texan that their vote will be counted fairly.”

The Senate signed off on the measure on a party-line vote. But when it made it to the House Elections Committee on Wednesday, state Rep. Stephanie Klick, a Fort Worth Republican and the panel’s chair, offered a substitute version of the bill that stripped the voting machine language altogether.

The most recent version of SB 9 still makes more than two dozen changes to election practices that proponents have generally described as election security and integrity measures meant to zero in on wrongdoers, not legitimate voters. Hughes previously chalked the other changes up to an attempt to address problems he had heard about from election administrators, district attorneys and the attorney general’s office.

But those changes — many of which election administrators actually oppose — are extensive and significant. To name a few:

The legislation would make it a state jail felony for Texans to vote when they’re ineligible even if they did so unknowingly, elevating that offense from a Class B misdemeanor to include possible jail time and a fine of up to $10,000. Although federal law generally allows a voter to receive assistance in filling out a ballot by the person of their choice, SB 9 would authorize partisan poll watchers or election officials to be present at a voting station if a voter is getting help from someone who isn’t a relative. Those individuals would then be allowed to examine the voter’s ballot before it’s submitted to determine whether it was filled out “in accordance with the voter’s wishes.”

SB 9 would require people who drive at least three voters to whom they’re not related to the polls at the same time for curbside voting — popular among the elderly and people with disabilities — to sign a sworn statement affirming those voters are physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or health risks.

And the legislation grants the state attorney general direct access to the voter rolls and essentially allows Texas to participate in a controversial, Kansas-based voter verification program that’s intended to allow states to compare voter rolls to find people registered in multiple states. It has proved to be ineffective, inaccurate and mired in cybersecurity weaknesses.

Laying out SB 9 before a packed committee room Wednesday morning, Klick told her colleagues the intent of her version of the bill was “neither voter suppression nor to enable voter fraud.”

“Ultimately, the intent of SB 9 is to strengthen election integrity and make sure all votes cast are legitimate votes and no legal voter is inhibited from casting their ballot,” Klick said.

But most of the individuals who testified before the committee countered that.

You should read the rest. Suffice it to say that volunteer deputy registrars and county election administrators like Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman were among the many who opposed SB9. Testimony went well into the night, and in the end the bill was left pending, to be taken up on Thursday and voted out on party lines.

But then a funny thing happened.

Representative Valoree Swanson had a strange day. The backbencher from Spring was absent from the Legislature most of the day with an illness, putting a highly contentious voting bill in jeopardy. Yet somehow, Capitol wags noted, she was voting on other legislation. To move Senate Bill 9 out of committee in these waning days of the legislative session, Swanson was needed in the House Elections Committee, which is split between five Republicans and four Democrats. A 4-4 tie would mean the legislation wouldn’t advance. But Swanson was apparently ailing somewhere away from the Capitol. Until she returned, SB 9 was stuck. Yet meanwhile the massive vote tally boards located at the front the House chamber showed her voting on other legislation.

“Ghost voting”—where lawmakers vote for their colleagues on the House floor for usually innocent reasons—is not really controversial at the Capitol. But being AWOL on legislation desperately wanted by top Republicans is. Her absence left Democrats cheerful, if apprehensive, that they could run out the clock on legislation they see as yet another voter suppression bill aimed at discouraging the elderly and people of color from voting. (SB 9 would, among other things, make it a felony to vote if ineligible, even unwittingly, allow poll watchers to inspect the ballots of disabled people who use non-relatives to help them vote, and require registration of volunteers who drive three or more disabled voters to polling places.)

Even though Swanson showed up mid-afternoon, the House adjourned for the day without setting a hearing for the bill in committee. Though a hearing could still be set, its prospects dim by the hour.

[…]

Instead of voting on the bill late Wednesday, Klick delayed the vote until Thursday morning. As members began to assemble for the committee hearing they learned she had cancelled the meeting because of Swanson’s absence. When Swanson showed up in the House chamber just before 2:30 p.m. (theatrically coughing in the direction of the press), the chairman told another committee member that she had not decided when she might reschedule a vote.

The decision comes at a critical moment for the Texas Legislature as the legislative session draws to a close on Memorial Day. Saturday is the last day for House committees to vote out Senate bills; Tuesday is the last day for the House to consider any Senate bills on the House floor. Given the complexity of the voter bill, one Democrat said it would be easy to load it up with a lot of amendments, which could delay passage of the legislation and endanger other legislation. For now, Swanson’s cough might be enough to kill SB 9.

That would be outstanding. One cannot rule out the possibility of a special session for the purpose of passing SB9 – Greg Abbott has had no qualms about doing that sort of thing in the past – but for today at least, there’s hope.

An early look at bills about voting

From the Texas Civil Rights Project.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Below are some bills to keep an eye on going forward.

SB74: Slashing early voting by seven days

In 2018, early voting in Texas surged, with over 4,514,000 Texans casting in-person ballots. To paraphrase more festive words, the folks down in Texas like early voting a lot. But Senator Bob Hall, who filed SB74 last Monday, apparently does not.

Current Texas law gives us 12 days of early voting in November elections. If early voting were a classic holiday song, it would describe the many types of people who vote early through lyrics such as: five souls to polls!four frequent fliersthree student voterstwo busy moms, and a guy who can’t get weekdays off. SB74 seeks to cut early voting from 12 days to only five for all November elections, getting rid of the only early voting weekend in the process.

Which makes complete sense. If you don’t want Texans to vote.

HB378: Proof of citizenship to register

It’s already hard to register to vote in Texas. Why not make it harder, and also add more racism? That seems to be the idea behind HB378, filed by Representative Mike Lang, which requires proof of citizenship to register to vote. As we know from recent history, the only people who will be asked to show proof of citizenship are people who get profiled as non-citizens. (Okay, we mean Latinx people. And black people. And basically everybody except white people.) Never mind that the Supreme Court declared the Arizona version of this law unconstitutional in 2013 and a district court did the same for the Kansas version just last summer.

HB154: Allows election officials to photograph voters and record voter documentation

The voter ID laws in Texas are already draconian, only allowing you to use a photo-less ID if you absolutely cannot get a photo ID and you swear that you are who you say you are. Representative Valoree Swanson’s HB 154 requires a voter using a non-photo ID—which, again, is 100% legal—to submit to being photographed by election officials. Under this bill, election officials can also act as democracy bouncers, forcing you to stop and pose if they suspect that you’re trying to vote using a fake ID. Nothing screams “Texas loves democracy” like a poll worker with a camera barking, “Turn to the right!”

There was a similar “proof of citizenship” bill last session. It died in committee like most bills do. I’m a little worried about it this session, and a little worried about the cut-early-voting bill, but only a little because both of those things would also inconvenience Republican voters. Nobody likes more bureaucracy, and nobody likes waiting on line. Always be vigilant, of course, but my gut says there will be other bills to worry about more. As the story notes there is also another attempt at doing an online voter registration bill. The good news here is that neither the Harris County Tax Assessor nor the Harris County Clerk will oppose such a bill any more. It’s still an underdog, but the odds are marginally better now. I’ll be keeping an eye on this sort of thing as usual.

Endorsement watch: A veritable plethora, part 5

Part 1 is here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here, part 4 is here and the full endorsements page is here.

We finish with the Republican races with challenged incumbents. And the first thing to note is the races in which no endorsements are made: US Senate and Governor. Yes, Greg Abbott has ridiculous token opposition, and none of Ted Cruz’s challengers are likely to be recognized by anyone on the street, but still. Not even a cursory “none of the alternatives are worthwhile” piece? That’s gotta sting a little. Of course, it could be worse. The DMN went whole hog and endorsed Stefano de Stefano over Cruz:

Texas Republicans have an opportunity in the March 6 primary featuring incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz and four Republican opponents to vote for the kind of public leadership that inspires America rather than divides it. A kind of leadership that gives America its best chance to address the very real challenges ahead.

To make the most of the moment, we urge voters to choose Houston energy lawyer Stefano de Stefano over Cruz. Stefano, 37, is an earnest if mostly untested conservative who offers Republicans a way past the bruising style that has characterized Cruz’s time in public life.

Hell hath no fury like a Republican-cheerleading editorial board scorned. Still, the fact that the Chron skipped the US Senate and Governor primaries is even more remarkable when you consider…

CD07: John Culberson

Rep. John Culberson

We don’t want to imagine what would have happened after Hurricane Harvey without U.S. Rep. John Culberson in Congress.

In Harvey’s wake, cities from Port Aransas to Houston waited for the Trump administration to release its proposed disaster recovery bill, which mayors, county judges and families of all stripes hoped would provide the robust federal support needed to rebuild destroyed towns and keep the coast safe from the next big storm.

We didn’t get it. Instead, the White House released a pathetic $44 billion proposal that attracted criticism even from fellow Republicans.

Luckily for Houston, Donald Trump doesn’t decide how federal dollars are spent. That duty falls on Congress and, specifically, the Senate and House Appropriations Committees – which includes Culberson.

The west Houston representative worked with his Republican and Democratic colleagues to double the size of the hurricane recovery proposal, turning a failure of a bill into a passable piece of legislation. Throughout the process, Culberson was a point-man for City Hall, ensuring that areas hit by flood after flood – such as Houston – would be first in line for federal dollars.

The bill wasn’t perfect, but it was better than the alternative.

[…]

If you ignore the most recent term, Culberson’s accomplishments for the 7th Congressional District, which covers west Houston neighborhoods from West University through the Energy Corridor, seem pretty thin. That historically weak record, combined with a district that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, has attracted a strong group of Democratic challengers for the general election.

It should be an exciting race, and there’s little reason for Republican primary voters to deny Democrats their shot at the incumbent.

I don’t think the Chron has ever endorsed Culberson in a November race, not even in 2010 when he didn’t have a Democratic opponent. I have no doubt this year will be the same. Seeing them say anything nice about him is kind of a weird experience, but here we are.

HD150 (Republican): James Michael Wilson

An interesting battle is taking place in the Republican primary in District 150 where first-term incumbent state Rep. Valoree Swanson is being challenged by James Richard Wilson for being a political extremist.

Swanson, 45, is a tea party member who became the first woman in the Freedom Caucus last year in the Texas Legislature. Her district covers a largely unincorporated area of north Harris County that includes parts of Spring, The Woodlands and Tomball.

She didn’t have much luck in Austin passing legislation, which she blamed on House Speaker Joe Straus and his supporters, who spent much of the session fending off what they considered bad bills.

But Wilson, 44, a long-time Republican who worked for Republican state representatives and then-U.S. Senator Phil Gramm, R-Texas, thinks the problem was more Swanson’s zealotry for causes only popular with the political fringe.

“I don’t feel and a large number of people in our community don’t feel that our state representative is representing the interests of our community,” Wilson told the Chronicle.

Swanson is the type of wingnut that can make one almost nostalgic for the likes of Debbie Riddle. If Wilson can make the Lege an inch or two less crazy, then I wish him well.

HD134: Sarah Davis

Last year Texas Monthly listed state Rep. Sarah Davis as one of the best legislators in the session and called her “one of the few true moderates left in an increasingly strident Legislature.”

Gov. Greg Abbott apparently doesn’t agree and has endorsed her opponent in this primary – Susanna Dokupil.

Before explaining our endorsement, we have to ask: Is moderate really the best way to describe Davis? Moderate implies compromise, a willingness to change one’s positions and seek out the path of least resistance.

If that were Davis, then she would have spent her time in Austin acting more, for lack of a better word, extreme. At at time when the Texas GOP welcomes conspiracy theories about Jade Helm 15 and the panic about transgender bathrooms, Davis could have spent her days prattling on about black helicopters and the threat of chupacabras in West University and probably avoided a primary challenger. She could have acquiesced to the governor’s bizarre personal goal of overriding local tree regulations and easily earned his support.

But Davis did not seek out the path of least resistance. Instead, she stood alongside House Speaker Joe Straus against the reckless political antics of Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and their acolytes. She held various leadership roles in the House, which she used to get money for foster care, mental health and women’s health programs and tried unsuccessfully to secure property tax relief for some Hurricane Harvey victims.

She fought Patrick’s attempt to include private school vouchers in the school funding bill and led an investigation into shenanigans at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission that resulted in the resignation of the commission’s seven top officials, two of them Abbott appointees.

This one appeared earlier, but I’m including it here. I don’t care about Sarah Davis, and I figure we Dems have a much better shot at that seat if she gets ousted in the primary. That said, I hate the idea of Greg Abbott and his goons, which in this race includes the anti-vaxxers, degrading our politics even more than they already have. All I’ll say at this point is that if I were Sarah Davis and I’m still standing on March 7, I’d tweet this picture at Greg Abbott every day for the rest of my life. Maybe someone can set up a fake Twitter profile to do that for her in the likely even she has too much class to do it herself. RG Ratcliffe has more.

HD127: Dan Huberty

State Representative Dan Huberty is effectively already the winner in the race for District 127 in northeast Houston because his only opponent in the Republican primary, Reginald C. Grant Jr., has been ruled ineligible for living outside the district and nobody is running for the Democratic nomination.

Even though Grant’s name will remain on the ballot, it would take a very strange occurrence for Huberty not to win a fifth consecutive term to the Texas House of Representatives, which is good news because he has emerged as a competent, well-intended legislator and the body’s leading expert on the very complicated topic of school finance.

Huberty has drawn his own share of ire from the Taliban wing of the local GOP, presumably because of his support for public education. If they succeed in taking out Sarah Davis, don’t be surprised if he’s on the hit list in 2020.

And that’s a wrap. I hope you feel like you have enough information to make educated decisions in the primary of your choice.

Bathroom bill 2.0

Beware.

House lawmakers will debate a so-called “bathroom bill” next week that supporters hope will be less worrisome to business interests concerned the measure could hurt the Texas economy.

The decision to debate the House bill, and to set aside a more severe version passed last month in the Senate, marks the latest split the two chambers have endured during a particularly divided legislative session. The House bill will probably get the backing of the Dallas Cowboys, their lobbyist said, but the state’s largest business group is withholding its support at this time.

“It’s a bill that’s trying to strike a balance between all the interested parties,” Rep. Ron Simmons, the bill’s sponsor, told The Dallas Morning News on Thursday. “It’s our belief that discrimination issues related to privacy should be handled at the state level.”

[…]

House Bill 2899 will be debated in the State Affairs Committee on Wednesday. The amended bill would ban cities, school districts and any other “political subdivisions” from passing local laws that protect certain people from discrimination in an intimate space. This would render local nondiscrimination ordinances that protect the rights of transgender people to use bathrooms that match their gender identity unenforceable.

“Except in accordance with federal and state law,” the bill’s language reads, “a political subdivision, including school districts, may not enforce an order, ordinance, or other measure to protect a class of persons from discrimination to the extent that the order, ordinance, or other measure regulates access to multiple-occupancy restrooms, showers, or changing facilities.”

While the language isn’t an exact match, Simmons bill looks quite a bit like the revised bathroom law recently passed in North Carolina. Both ban local governments from regulating use and access of restrooms, changing rooms and locker rooms.

Unlike the North Carolina law, Simmons’ measure would not affect colleges campuses. It also would not restrict bathroom use based on biological sex, which the Senate Bill does. The House bill is co-sponsored by Republican Reps. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock, Cole Hefner of Mount Pleasant, Jodie Laubenberg of Parker, Valoree Swanson of Spring and Terry Wilson of Marble Falls.

[…]

The fact that Simmons’ legislation appears similar to North Carolina’s law could be an issue for business, said Texas Association of Business president Chris Wallace, who added that his organization doesn’t think the laws passed there “are right for Texas.”

“We remain focused on stopping discriminatory legislation and keeping Texas open for business and inviting for all,” Wallace said. The TAB is still looking at the House bill, but was “focused on defeating” the Senate version “and other discriminatory legislation,” he said.

Sorry, but any bill that includes overriding local non-discrimination ordinances is a non-starter for me. Forget the local control issues for a minute, this is once again a bad solution for a problem that doesn’t exist. NDOs have been on the books in multiple Texas cities for almost 20 years. Yet we are led to believe that now this is something the Legislature needs to fix? No. The House has had the right idea up until now. Moving forward with this bill would be a terrible mistake.

State Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Cook made the decision to hold debate on Simmons’ bill. In the past, he’s echoed Straus’ concerns that the legislation seems to be a solution in search of a problem. Last month, he said there’s “no evidence” Texas needs a bathroom bill.

But on Thursday, Cook said the House bill was the “appropriate” approach “for the issue before us.”

“It’s important that we contemplate the right kind of balance that speaks to the privacy issue and also ensures that we don’t do something that has a chilling effect on business,” Cook said. “What I’m hopeful is that this legislation will end up being something that people can be for, which I think is important.”

Asked about the Texas Association of Business’ choice not to throw their support behind the bill at this time, Cook said, “I think what you’ll find is that the business community will be supportive of what Mr. Simmons has put forward.”

Sorry, but the only people who are going to be for this are the people who were for SB6. The right answer here is to do what was already being done about that bill, which is to say, nothing. The Chron and Think Progress have more.