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Williamson County

The meta-campaign for Senate

Let’s talk about what we talk about when we talk about the Senate campaign.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

It’s the most backhanded of compliments.

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s campaign for U.S. Senate has caught so much fire throughout the state that the new favorite betting game in Texas politics is “How close can he get to Ted Cruz in November?”

The implication in the question’s phrasing is that O’Rourke’s loss remains a given.

Despite the high enthusiasm the El Paso congressman’s campaign has drawn among Democrats, Texas has not elected a Democrat statewide in over 20 years. An informal round of interviews with well over a dozen political players involved in Texas and national politics suggests that Cruz is expected to extend that streak with a re-election victory in the high single digits.

While such a margin would amount to significant progress for Democrats from past statewide performances, a loss is a loss, and Cruz’s win would likely ensure GOP control of the U.S. Senate for another two years.

Even so, O’Rourke’s 18-month statewide tour could still help significantly rebuild a flagging state party apparatus. The term being thrown around quietly among Democrats is “losing forward.”

In that sense, the stakes are much higher for both parties than a single race.

How this very strange match up of Cruz, a former GOP presidential runner-up, against O’Rourke, a rank-and-file congressman turned political sensation, shakes out could set the trajectory of the next decade in Texas politics.

[…]

More than one operative from both parties brushed off the O’Rourke excitement with a pervasive phrase — “This is still Texas” — a nod to the state’s recent history as the most populous conservative powerhouse in the union.

The enthusiasm for O’Rourke — his bonanza event attendance and record-breaking fundraising, in particular — is something the state has not seen in modern memory. But there remain open questions over whether the three-term congressman can take a punch when the widely expected fall advertising blitz against him begins, whether he can activate the Hispanic vote and whether he can effectively build his name identification in a such a sprawling and populated state.

“We’ve never been in a situation where November matters at a statewide level,” said Jason Stanford, a former Democratic consultant, about the uncertainty of the fall.

So what would a moral victory be, if O’Rourke is unable to close the deal outright? Operatives from both parties suggest a 5- to 6-point spread — or smaller — could send a shockwave through Texas politics.

Such a margin could compel national Democrats to start making serious investments in the state and force local Republicans to re-examine how their own party practices politics going forward.

But that kind of O’Rourke performance could also bear more immediate consequences, potentially scrambling the outcomes of races for other offices this fall.

Only a handful of statewide surveys on the race are floating around the Texas political ether. But one increasing point of alarm for Republicans is what campaign strategists are seeing when they test down-ballot races.

Often campaigns for the U.S. House or the Texas Legislature will include statewide matchups in polling they conduct within a district. Sources from both parties say some of those polls show Cruz underperforming in some state legislative and congressional races — particularly in urban areas.

In effect, O’Rourke could come up short but turn out enough voters in the right communities to push Democrats over the line in races for the Legislature and U.S. House.

I know I discussed this before back in 2014 when we were all high on Battleground Texas, but let’s do this again. What are the consolation prize goals for Texas Democrats in 2018?

– To discuss the consolation prizes, we have to first agree on what the main goals are. Clearly, electing Beto O’Rourke is one of the brass rings, but what about the other statewide campaigns? My guess is that based primarily on visibility and the implications for control of the Senate, the O’Rourke-Cruz race is in a class by itself, so everything after that falls in the “consolation prize” bucket. Thus, I’d posit that winning one or more downballot statewide race would be in the first level of lower-tier goals, with Lt. Governor, Attorney General, Ag Commissioner, and any Supreme Court/CCA bench being the ones that are most in focus.

– Very close behind would be the Congressional races, for which three (CDs 07, 23, and 32) are rated as tossups, a couple more (CDs 21 and 31) are on the radar, and more than we can count are on the fringes. You have to feel like CD23 is winnable in any decent year, so for this to count as a prize we’d need at least one more seat in addition to flip. Very good would be all three tossups, and great would be another seat in addition.

– In the Lege, picking up even one Senate seat would be nice, but picking up two or three means Dems have enough members to block things via the three-fifths (formerly two-thirds) rule. I don’t know how many House seats I’d consider prize-level-worthy, but knocking off a couple of the worst offenders that are in winnable seats, like Matt Rinaldi in HD115, Gary Elkins in HD135, and Tony Dale in HD136, would be sweet.

– Sweeping Harris County, breaking through in Fort Bend County, picking up any kind of victory in places like Collin, Denton, Williamson, Brazoria, you get the idea. And don’t forget the appellate courts, which will require doing well in non-urban counties.

It’s easy enough to say what counts as lower-level goals, it’s harder to put numbers on it. It’s not my place to say what we “should” win in order to feel good about it. Frankly, given recent off-year elections, it’s a bit presumptuous to say that any number of victories in places we haven’t won this decade might be somehow inadequate. I think everyone will have their own perception of how it went once the election is over, and unless there’s a clear rout one way or the other there will be some level of disagreement over how successful Democrats were.

State has not appealed the voting rights case on language interpreters

Interesting.

Texas has spent years defending its voting laws in court, regularly appealing rulings that found state lawmakers violated the rights of their voters. So when a federal appellate court in August ruled against the state’s restrictions on language interpreters at the ballot box, it was easy to assume an appeal would follow.

But more than three months later, Texas appears to be conceding the case.

“We have not heard anything from Texas,” said Jerry Vattamala, director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s democracy program, who is representing the plaintiffs in the case. “It appears that they are not appealing.”

At issue in the case was an obscure provision of the Texas Election Code that required interpreters helping someone cast a ballot to also be registered to vote in the same county in which they are providing help.

In its August ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s finding that Texas ran afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act by restricting the interpretation assistance that English-limited voters may receive and that the law should be struck down.

The appellate court found that Texas’ “limitation” on a voter’s choice “impermissibly narrows” rights guaranteed by a lesser-known section of the Voting Rights Act under which a voter who needs assistance because of visual impairments, disabilities or literacy skills can be helped in casting a ballot by the person of their choice, as long as it’s not their employer or a union leader.

“The problem remains that the Texas provisions expressly limit the right to the act of casting a ballot,” the judges wrote in August. “It should go without saying that a state cannot restrict this federally guaranteed right by enacting a statute tracking its language, then defining terms more restrictively than as federally defined.”

The Texas attorney general’s office, which is representing the state in court, for weeks has been unable to confirm whether its lawyers are appealing the ruling or letting stand the lower court ruling.

“At this time, we cannot confirm or deny any filings sent to the Supreme Court,” Kayleigh Lovvorn, a spokeswoman for the AG’s office, said last week. Instead, she pointed the Tribune to a link to the 5th Circuit’s August ruling on a free, online courts database.

But two weeks past a deadline to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the clerk’s office for the high court has not received a filing for the case. A clerk for the 5th Circuit confirmed the case is closed at the appellate court, and no recent filings appear on the case’s docket at the lower district court where the case originated.

See here for the last update. I don’t know if this means that no further appeals are possible or if it just means that it’s too late for the current SCOTUS term. I also have no idea why the AG’s office has not pursued this. Whatever the merits of an appeal by them may be, it’s not in Ken Paxton or Greg Abbott’s nature to let something go. Whatever the reason, I’m happy with the outcome.

Fifth Circuit rules against Texas’ voter interpreter law

Good.

Texas ran afoul of the Voting Rights Act by restricting the interpretation assistance English-limited voters may receive at the ballot box, a federal appeals court found.

In an opinion issued Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an obscure provision of the Texas Election Code that requires interpreters helping someone cast a ballot to also be registered to vote in the same county in which they are providing help clashes with federal voting protections.

That Texas law, the court found, violates a less-known section of the Voting Rights Act under which any voter who needs assistance because of visual impairments, disabilities or literacy skills can be helped in casting a ballot by the person of their choice, as long as it’s not their employer or a union leader.

Texas had argued that its interpreter requirement was meant to be “supplemental” to the VRA, but the appellate court ruled that the state’s “limitation on voter choice” instead “impermissibly narrows” the voting rights guaranteed by federal law.

“The problem remains that the Texas provisions expressly limit the right to the act of casting a ballot,” the judges wrote. “It should go without saying that a state cannot restrict this federally guaranteed right by enacting a statute tracking its language, then defining terms more restrictively than as federally defined.”

[…]

The interpreter voting law has been on hold since last year when U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman scolded the state for “arbitrarily” restricting voters with limited English proficiency. On Thursday, the 5th Circuit judges agreed with that judge’s ruling, but they sided with the state in determining that Pitman’s injunction on the law was too broad. Pitman must now take the case back up and reconsider the language he used in blocking the interpreter law.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. Basically, the district court judge’s opinion was upheld, with the injunction being vacated with a remand “for the entry of a new injunction, if appropriate, consistent with this opinion”. There were bills introduced in the Lege to address the issues in the lawsuit, but as far as I know they went nowhere. Maybe next time. Until then, we’ll see what the district court does, and if the state appeals. That’s quite the losing streak in voting rights-related cases we’re on here, isn’t it?

The rural/suburban tradeoff

Martin Longman returns to a point he has been making about the way the vote shifted in the 2016 election.

Let’s try to be clear about what we mean. Hillary Clinton won a lot of votes in the suburbs from people who had voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney. She lost even more votes from folks in small towns and rural areas who had voted for Barack Obama.

So, if I understand what Jeet Heer and David Atkins are saying, it’s basically that the Democrats can’t make much more progress in the suburbs than they’ve already made and that the easier task is to win back Democrats that they’ve recently lost. Either that, or they’re just wrong about how likely Romney Republicans are/were to defect.

I don’t have a strong opinion on which would be the easier task. But I do know that so far this trade has not favored the Democrats. The left’s votes are already too concentrated and I can make this point clear fairly easily.

When suburban Chester County was voting 50-50 in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012, it was possible for the Democrats to also win down ballot seats. And the Democrats have succeeded in electing representatives from Chester County to the state legislature. Gaining 25,000 votes at the top of the ticket helps, but the area is still competitive. But in many other counties in Pennsylvania, the Democrats went from winning 50 percent or 40 percent to winning only 30 percent or 20 percent. The result is that many more legislative seats became so lopsidedly red that downticket Democrats no longer have a fighting chance.

In this sense, not all votes are equal. It’s more valuable for the Democrats to add a voter in a rural area than one in a competitive suburb, and rural votes are definitely of more use than added votes in seats where Democrats are already winning by comfortable margins.

Longman confines his analysis to Pennsylvania, which is obviously a critical state in Presidential elections as well as one that has been greatly affected by strongly partisan gerrymanders. Be that as it may, I wanted to look at how this perspective applies to Texas. It’s been my perception that Texas’ rural legislative districts, which had already been strongly Republican at the federal level but which still elected Democrats to the State House, had become more and more hostile to Democrats since the 2010 election, when nearly all of those Democratic legislators from rural districts were wiped out. If that’s the case, then the increased redness of these districts, while problematic as a whole for statewide purposes, doesn’t change anything in terms of legislative opportunities. On the other hand, if the suburbs are becoming less red, that would open up new possibilities, both now and in the future as this is where much of the population growth is.

That’s my hypothesis, anyway. To check it, I took the electoral breakdown of the State House districts for the 2012 and 2016 elections from the Legislative Council, and put the results from the Presidential election into a new sheet. I also added the results from the Keasler/Burns (2016) and Keller/Hampton (2012) Court of Criminal Appeals races in there, to act as a more neutral comparison. I then sorted the spreadsheet by the Romney percentage for each district, in descending order, and grouped them by ranges. I calculated the change in R and D vote from 2012 to 2016 for each district in both the Presidential and CCA races, then summed them up for each of the ranges I defined. That’s a lot of words, so let’s see what this looks like, and I’ll explain it again from there:


Romney 70%+ (42 districts)

Trump     + 143,209    CCA R   + 267,069
Clinton   +  36,695    CCA D   -   8,330


Romney 60-70% (31 districts)

Trump     +  15,054    CCA R   + 135,280
Clinton   + 164,820    CCA D   + 116,534


Romney 50-60% (23 districts)

Trump     -  32,999    CCA R   +  69,230
Clinton   + 148,633    CCA D   + 101,215


Romney 40-50% (9 districts)

Trump     +   3,081    CCA R   +  16,418
Clinton   +  45,233    CCA D   +  39,721


Romney 30-40% (20 districts)

Trump     -   9,360    CCA R   +  17,429
Clinton   +  84,385    CCA D   +  69,785


Romney < 30% (25 districts)

Trump     -   3,485    CCA R   +  23,031
Clinton   +  90,251    CCA D   +  76,447

Let’s start at the top. There were 42 district in which Mitt Romney collected at least 70% of the vote in 2012. In those 42 districts, Donald Trump got 143,209 more votes than Romney did, while Hillary Clinton gained 36,695 more votes than Barack Obama. In the CCA races, Republicans gained 267,069 votes while Democrats lost 8,330 votes. Which tells us two things: The pro-Republican shift in these already very strong R districts was pronounced, but even here there were some people that refused to vote for Trump.

Now that doesn’t address the urban/suburban/rural divide. You get into some rhetorical issues here, because West Texas includes some decent-sized metro areas (Lubbock, Midland, Abilene, etc), but is still more rural in character than anything else, and some primarily suburban counties like Montgomery and Williamson include sizable tracts of farmland. Keeping that in mind, of the 42 counties in this group, I’d classify nine as urban/suburban, and the other 33 as rural. To be specific:


Dist  County      Romney   Trump   Obama  Clinton     Diff
==========================================================
015   Montgomery  57,601  56,038  16,348   24,253 D +9,468
016   Montgomery  45,347  52,784  10,229   12,666 R +5,000
020   Williamson  49,271  56,644  17,913   20,808 R +4,478
024   Galveston   49,564  51,967  16,936   20,895 D +1,556
033   Collin      51,437  56,093  18,860   27,128 D +3,612
063   Denton      50,485  53,127  18,471   24,600 D +3,487
098   Tarrant     58,406  57,917  18,355   25,246 D +7,390
128   Harris      40,567  40,656  14,907   17,165 D +2,347
130   Harris      53,020  55,187  15,928   22,668 D +4,583

These are urban/suburban districts among those were 70% or more for Mitt Romney. Hillary Clinton gained votes everywhere except in the two, with the two exceptions being the most rural among them; HD16 is the northernmost part of Montgomery County, including Conroe, while HD20 has most of its population in Georgetown and includes Burnet and Milam Counties as well. In the other 33 districts, all of which I’d classify as rural, Clinton did worse than Obama in all but three of them, CDs 82 (Midland County, Tom Craddick’s district, where she had a net gain of 16 – yes, 16 – votes), 81 (Ector County, which is Odessa and Brooks Landgraf’s district, net gain of 590 votes), and 06 (Smith County, home of Tyler and Matt Schaefer, net gain of 871).

I’ve thrown a lot of numbers at you here, so let me sum up: Hillary Clinton absolutely got blitzed in rural Texas, with the gap between her and Donald Trump increasing by well over 100,000 votes compared to the Obama/Romney difference. However, all of this was concentrated in legislative districts that were far and away he least competitive for Democrats to begin with. The net loss of potentially competitive legislative races in these parts of the state is exactly zero.

Everywhere else, Clinton gained on Obama. More to the point, everywhere else except the 60-70% Romney districts, downballot Democrats gained. Even in that group, there were big steps forward, with HDs 66 and 67 (both in Collin County, both held by Freedom Caucus types) going from over 60% for Romney to under 50% for Trump, while HD26 in Fort Bend went from nearly 63% for Romney to barely 50% for Trump. They’re still a challenge at lower levels, but they’re under 60% red and they’re the swing districts of the immediate future.

Now I want to be clear that losing the rural areas like this does have a cost for Democrats. The reason Dems came as close as they did to a majority in 2008 is because they held about a dozen seats in rural areas, all holdovers from the old days when nearly everyone was a Democrat. Those seats went away in 2010, and with the exception of the one that was centered on Waco, none of them are remotely competitive going forward. The end result of this is that the most optimistic scenario I can paint barely puts the Dems above 70 members, not enough for a majority. To have a real shot at getting a majority sometime in the next decade or two, Dems are going to have to figure out how to compete in smaller metro areas – Lubbock, Abilene, Tyler, Odessa, Midland, San Angelo, Amarillo, Wichita Falls, etc etc etc – all of which are a little bit urban and a little bit more rural. Some of these places have growing Latino populations, some of them are experiencing the same kinds of problems that the larger urban areas are facing. Becoming competitive in the suburbs is great, but there’s still a lot more to this very large state of ours.

Anyway. I can’t speak for places like Pennsylvania and Ohio, but in Texas I’d call the rural/suburban tradeoff we saw in 2016 to be a positive step. There are plenty more steps to take, but this was a good one to begin with.

The bathroom bill is a threat to Quidditch

How much more do you need to know?

It’s not quite time to get out the broomsticks in Round Rock. A national quidditch tournament headed to town next year has been put on hold while legislators consider the bathroom bill during their special session, said Round Rock Mayor Craig Morgan.

U.S. Quidditch recently told the city that it wasn’t going to sign a contract to come to Round Rock until it finds out what happens with the bathroom bill, Morgan said. He said he couldn’t provide further details.

The city announced in early July that the U.S. Quidditch Cup 11 would April 14-15, 2018, at the Round Rock Multipurpose Complex.

[…]

If the city starts losing big tournaments because of the bathroom bill, Morgan said, it could have an effect on taxpayers who voted to allocate a half-cent of the sales tax for property tax relief.

“If events start leaving I think we will have to increase taxes or cut services if it becomes a big enough impact,” said Morgan.

Here’s the news story of the announcement that the 2018 Cup would be held in Round Rock, and here’s the US Quidditch webpage about it. Note that Wichita Falls will host the Southwest Regional Championship in partnership with Wichita Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau on February 24-25, 2018, and also that Lubbock – specifically, the West Rec Grass and Turf Complex Fields at Texas Tech University – was the runnerup to Round Rock for the finals. (It was not mentioned in this story if the Wichita Falls event is also in peril, but one assumes so.) My daughters and I saw a Quidditch match at Rice a couple of years ago, with teams from colleges around the country. It’s maybe not quite as exciting as it is in the books and movies, but it’s got a following. And it’s in danger of being taken away by our ongoing potty wars. If you’re a Quidditch fan or a concerned Round Rock taxpayer, you should reach out to Rep. Larry Gonzales and Sen. Charles Schwertner and tell them not to kill off this event.

MJ Hegar in CD31

Very cool.

MJ Hegar

In a Texas congressional district that includes one of the country’s largest military bases, a military hero is betting she can stage a political upset.

Air Force veteran MJ Hegar is launching a Democratic challenge against U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, in Texas’ solidly red 31st Congressional District.

“I see a threat to our Constitution, our democracy,” Hegar said in a recent interview, “and I feel compelled to do something more about it.”

Hegar served three tours in Afghanistan as a search-and-rescue pilot, and in 2009, she saved the lives of her passengers after her medevac helicopter was shot down by the Taliban. She subsequently received the Purple Heart as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor Device.

She went on to become a fierce advocate for women in the military, helping lead a 2012 lawsuit against the Defense Department over its now-repealed policy excluding women from ground combat positions.

Hegar’s memoir, “Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front,” was published earlier this year and is being made into a film. Angelina Jolie is reportedly in talks to star in it.

Carter’s district has been reliably Republican, but Hegar, now an executive coach and consultant living in Austin, believes she can flip it, confident in her ability to garner crossover support with her experience at the national and international levels. She said her decision to run was partly motivated by the election of President Donald Trump, who has caused concern among even his own party’s national security professionals.

“I think being a Republican is not what it used to be,” Hegar said. “Even though [the district] is historically Republican, I think some people are voting Republican because they have a misperception of what the Democratic Party is.”

[…]

National Democrats are currently targeting three Republican incumbents in Texas that party leaders view as vulnerable: U.S. Reps. John Culberson of Houston, Will Hurd of Helotes and Pete Sessions of Dallas. Carter is not on that list, but Hegar is urging them to pay attention.

“Please look closer,” she said her message is to groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Three observations:

1. On paper at least, it’s hard to imagine a more appealing candidate. Military hero, young mother, former Republican, possibly being played by Angelina Jolie in a movie. I mean, if she didn’t actually exist I’d have sworn she was the figment of a Democratic strategist’s overactive imagination. What that translates into in an actual campaign remains to be seen, but I feel confident saying this will not be the only feature story written about her candidacy.

2. Not to be a buzzkill, but the reason the DCCC hadn’t given CD31 much thought is simply that it’s not terribly competitive. It only went 52-40 for Trump after going 59-38 for Romney, but it was 57-37 downballot, which was no change from 2012. Incumbent Rep. John Carter was re-elected 58-36 in 2016 and 61-35 in 2012. If anyone has the creds to win crossover votes it’s Hegar, but she has a lot of ground to cover, and who knows how many gettable Republicans there are in that district, or anywhere.

3. As the story notes, there are three other candidate seeking the Democratic nomination in CD31: fellow veteran Kent Lester; Dr. Christine Eady Mann, a family physician in Cedar Park; and Mike Clark, who was Carter’s opponent last year. Both the fact that there is a crowded field vying to run in this not-a-swing-district and the fact that there is a candidate with star potential like Hegar are further indicators of Democratic enthusiasm for 2018. I’ll put it to you this way: CD31 has existed since the 2002 election. This would be the first time in its history that it would have a contested Democratic primary, let alone a more-than-two-candidate race.

Hegar’s website is here, Kent Lester’s is here, Christine Eady Mann’s is here, and Mike Clark’s is here. We won’t see a finance report for Hegar till the end of the third quarter, but I’ll be very interested to see how she does. If she wants to get the DCCC’s attention, that’s one way to do it.

Fifth Circuit to hear AALDEF lawsuit appeal

This happens today.

Amid last-minute efforts to overhaul the state’s voter identification law in light of an ongoing legal fight, the Texas Legislature gaveled out without addressing another embattled election law that’s now moving forward in federal court.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday will take up a legal challenge to an obscure provision in the Texas Election Code that requires interpreters helping someone cast a ballot to also be registered to vote in the same county in which they are providing help.

That state law has been on hold since last year after a federal district judge ruled it violated the federal Voting Rights Act under which any voter who needs assistance because of visual impairments, disabilities or literacy skills can be helped in casting a ballot by the person of their choice, as long as it’s not their employer or a union leader.

“There’s nothing that’s being imposed. The state just needs to get out of the way,” said Jerry Vattamala, director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s democracy program.

[…]

“I don’t see how we could in legislative action place a criteria that would limit it more than a constitutional standard,” said state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, who filed one of the measures during this year’s regular legislative session that would’ve only left in place the assistor provision. “I just don’t think the state is serious about the right to vote or access to the election box. We just seem to bend over backwards to place barriers instead of working to increase voter turnout.”

Her legislation to bring the state in line with federal law languished in the Senate State Affairs Committee after colleagues raised concerns that it would allow voters to obtain help at the polls from noncitizens, Garcia said. The voter registration requirement by default requires the interpreter to be a U.S. citizen and 18 years old.

But sometimes voters ask their minor children to help them cast their ballots, Democratic state Rep. Ramon Romero of Fort Worth told the House Elections Committee during an April hearing. His proposal was similar to Garcia’s and also did not advance out of committee.

Despite the intricacies between interpreters and assistors, the case could ultimately come down to a question of standing if the state has its way.

See here, here, and here for the background. There was a simple legislative fix to what really shouldn’t have been a problem in the first place – the state even admitted that the Williamson County election officials who created the fuss in the first place acted incorrectly – but nothing got done. The state is now claiming that the plaintiffs lack standing to pursue this litigation as the original voter has passed away, and I have a sinking feeling that if the Fifth Circuit doesn’t buy that argument, SCOTUS might. We’ll just have to see.

Bill to fix voting interpreters considered

This needs to happen, and it really shouldn’t be a big deal.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia

Almost three years after Mallika Das, a naturalized citizen who spoke Bengali, was unable to vote properly because she was not proficient in English, Texas lawmakers are considering a change to an obscure provision of Texas election law regarding language interpreters.

Members of the Senate State Affairs Committee on Monday took up Senate Bill 148 by Democratic state Sen. Sylvia Garcia of Houston, which would repeal a section of the state’s election code that requires interpreters to be registered voters in the same county they are providing help.

The measure will ensure that voters are able “to meaningfully and effectively exercise their vote,” Garcia told the committee. “This ensures that voters have the capacity to navigate polling stations, communicate with election officers and understand how to fill out required forms and answer questions directed at them by any election officer.”

Garcia’s proposal comes amid an ongoing legal battle over the state’s interpreter provision in a lawsuit brought by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund on behalf of Das, who has since died, and the Greater Houston chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans.

Because she had found it difficult to vote in the past, Das in 2014 brought her son, Saurabh, to help her cast her vote at a Williamson County polling place. But when her son told poll workers he was there to interpret the English ballot for his mother, they ran into the state’s interpreter requirements. Saurabh could not serve as an interpreter for his mother because he was registered to vote in neighboring Travis County.

[…]

One provision of the state election code allows for “assistors.” It says voters can receive help reading or marking a ballot and states that assistance “occurs while the person is in the presence of the voter’s ballot.”

Yet a separate provision allows voters to select an “interpreter” to help them communicate with an election officer and “accompany the voter to the voting station for the purpose of translating the ballot to the voter.” The interpreter, unlike an assistor, must be registered to vote in the same county.

In Das’ case, had her son simply told poll workers he was “assisting” his mother — and not that the assistance involved interpreting the ballot for her — he would have been able to go into the voting booth with her.

Garcia’s proposal would essentially consolidate all forms of assistance and remove any requirements related to voter registration.

While the measure has picked up support by the Texas Association of Election Administrators, representatives with the Harris County Clerk’s Office, including Ed Johnson, testified against Garcia’s proposal.

“In Harris County, we think the role of an interpreter is different to the role of an assistant,” Johnson said, adding that the issue was a currently a “moot point” because the law has been put on hold and court is “still working through that process.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The lawsuit in question is being appealed to the Fifth Circuit, but if Sen. Garcia’s bill were to pass, it would (I assume) moot the issue. I honestly don’t get the argument against this, but that doesn’t mean Stan Stanart isn’t going to do Stan Stanart things. Sen. Garcia’s bill was left pending in committee, and an identical bill by Rep. Ramon Romero was not withdrawn from the House Elections Committee schedule, so there has been no action taken yet. Contact your Senator on the State Affairs Committee if you want to see this bill get passed.

Statewide review: 2016 was like 2008, but not in a good way

vote-button

There’s no point in beating around the bush, so I’ll just come out and say it: Despite the excitement about increases in voter registration and heavy early voting turnout. statewide Democratic candidates outside of Hillary Clinton generally did not do any better than their counterparts in 2008. Republican statewide candidates, on the other hand, were generally setting new high-water marks for vote totals. Every statewide Republican other than Wayne Christian topped Donald Trump’s 4,681,590 votes, with all of them but one besting it by at least 100,000. Meanwhile, only Dori Contreras Garza’s 3,598,852 votes exceeded President Obama’s 2008 tally. Overall turnout was up in Texas (in absolute numbers, though not in percentage), but while Dem turnout was better than 2012, it didn’t hit any new heights. I fear we may be at a plateau, as we have been in the off years since 2002.

Why am I not more encouraged by Hillary Clinton’s 3.8 million-plus total? Because I estimate at least 100,000 of her votes came from people who supported Republicans in other races, and because the dropoff from her total to downballot candidates was enough to show no visible growth. For these purposes, I’m using judicial races as my metric, as I believe it is a better proxy for partisan intent. I used as a baseline for comparison between 2012 and 2016 two Court of Criminal Appeals races – the 2012 Sharon Keller/Keith Hampton race, and the 2016 Mike Keasler/Robert Burns race. I believe these contests are low enough profile to draw a relatively small number of crossovers, and in this particular case they were the only such races each year to have just a Libertarian candidate in addition, thus allowing for a more apples-to-apples comparison. I put all the county totals into a spreadsheet and then calculated the difference between the two. From a Democratic perspective, there’s good news, so-so news, and bad news.

I’ll get to the news in a second. You can see the spreadsheet here. I’ve put a list of the 62 counties in which Democrats gained votes from 2012 to 2016 beneath the fold. Take a look and then come back, and we’ll talk about what I think this means.

Ready? Democrats really killed it in the big urban counties. Harris, Bexar, Travis, El Paso, and Dallas combined for nearly 240,000 more Democratic votes in 2016, compared to 83,000 for the Republicans, a net of over 150K. Dems took such a big step forward in Harris County that HD144 might not really be a swing district any more, while HDs 132, 135, and 138 are now in the picture as pickup opportunities, with HD126 a little farther out on the horizon. I’ll have more to say about Harris County beginning tomorrow, but I feel like maybe, just maybe, we’ve finally turned a corner. I know that the off-year turnout issue is a problem until we can demonstrate that it’s not, but I believe it’s getting hard to dispute the assertion that there are just more Democrats in Harris County than there are Republicans. I also believe that national conditions will be different in 2018 than they were in 2010 and 2014. Doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be better, but they will be different, and when you’ve consistently been on the short end of the stick, having conditions change – even if you don’t know how they will change – is a risk you ought to be willing to take.

Democrats also showed a nice gain in the big Latino counties (Hidalgo, Cameron, and Webb), while netting over 9,000 votes in Fort Bend. I’ll be looking at Fort Bend data later as well, and while this wasn’t enough to push any non-Hillary Dems over the top there, it’s a step in the right direction.

The so-so news is that Dems more or less held steady in most of the big suburban counties, by which I mean they mostly lost a little ground but not that much. Other than Fort Bend, Dems posted a solid gain in Hays County and barely gained more votes in Brazoria County than the GOP did. They had modest net losses in counties like Tarrant, Collin, Denton, and Williamson, such that one might feel we are at or near an inflection point in those counties. In math terms, the second derivative is approaching zero. This is a genteel way of saying that we’re falling behind at a slower pace. Better than falling behind in huge chunks, but still not good news.

The bad news is that in several other suburban counties, and basically all the non-Latino rural ones, Democrats got crushed. Montgomery County continues to be a sucking chest wound, with 21,087 more Republican votes and 8,432 more Dems. Comal County is Montgomery’s little brother, with continued steady growth and a deep red tint that shows no signs of abating. And if you’re old enough to remember when Galveston County was reliably Democratic, well, the score here is 10,335 more votes for the GOP, and 1,521 more for the Dems. So, yeah.

It’s the rural counties where things really become dreary. I said the Dems gained votes over 2012 in 62 counties. That means they lost votes in 192 others. Now, most of these are small counties, and the losses themselves were small in most of them; the average loss was 323 votes. But Republicans gained an average of over 700 votes in each of those counties, and as they say after awhile it adds up. Plus, some of these counties are now more exurban than rural, and like the suburbs are seeing steady growth. Two examples for you are Johnson County, northwest of Travis and home of Cleburne, and Parker County, west of Tarrant where Weatherford is. Those counties saw a combined voter registration increase of about 20,000. Of that, 17,201 were Republican and 449 were Democratic. That right there is enough to negate the Democratic net gain in Dallas County.

The single most eye-catching item in here is Polk County, up US59 between Houston and Lufkin; Livingston is the county seat. Unlike Johnson and Parker, it has about the same number of voters as it did four years ago. The difference is that in 2012 fewer than half of registered voters bothered, while this year nearly everyone did. Turnout in the Presidential race in Polk County was an mind-boggling 89.48%, and nearly the entire increase came from Republicans. In this CCA comparison, Mike Keasler got 12,183 more votes than Sharon Keller did, while Robert Burns improved on Keith Hampton by only 1,845 votes. All this with only 38,530 total registered voters. OMG, to say the least.

So what should we be doing about this? Well, we should keep doing what we’re doing in the urban counties, because it definitely bore fruit this year. I’d like to think we’re starting to maybe get a little traction in the suburbs, at least some of them, but it’s going to take a lot more resources and an effort that doesn’t just gear up at campaign time to really get that going. Mostly, we need to have a way to make sure we’re being heard in these places, because I don’t think we are, not outside of the faithful who are there. If I were a fabulously wealthy person who wanted to move the needle outside the urban counties, I’d throw a bunch of money at the Texas Organizing Project and ask them to figure out (and execute) a way to do for these suburbs and exurbs what they’ve been doing in Pasadena. It’s slow and methodical and just one piece of the puzzle, but we have got to start somewhere.

Data on the counties where Dem turnout grew is beneath the fold. More to come over the next week or so.

(more…)

John Bradley to leave Palau

He’s coming home.

Former Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley is resigning from his job as attorney general in the Republic of Palau.

Bradley sent a letter to the president of Palau on Sept. 13 announcing his plans to quit his job Nov. 30 due to family reasons.

[…]

The president of Palau, Tommy Remengesau, said he was happy with Bradley’s performance, according to a local news website PacificNote. Bradley was hired as attorney general in Palau in 2014 and his contract was set to expire on Jan. 19, 2017. Palau is a tiny nation of 250 islands in the western Pacific southeast of the Philippines.

During his tenure in Palau, Bradley has clashed with the nation’s Vice President Antonio Bells, who suspended Bradley for insubordination in December 2015. Bradley, when contacted at the time by the American-Statesman, said he was not suspended.

Bells also sued Bradley and other officials in April, claiming that a U.S. grant was deposited into a nongovernmental account and expended illegally, according to the Pacific Report newspaper.

See here for the background. I don’t have anything to add, I’ve just been fascinated by this chapter in Bradley’s history. One wonders what Bradley will do when he returns stateside. It’s fairly common for former prosecutors to become defense attorneys once they leave that office, and if anyone can credibly claim to know the tricks and shenanigans that prosecutors pull against defendants, it’s John Bradley. I just can’t quite bring myself to accept the idea in this case.

More on the latest voting rights lawsuit ruling

Coverage from the Chron:

In contrast to the discourse over the voter ID law, it’s not clear there are many political stakes over the law [Judge Robert] Pitman tossed out Friday.

There are enough Hispanic and Latino voters in every county in Texas to mandate Spanish-language assistance at polls across the state, so Friday’s ruling does not apply to that segment of the population.

Instead, the interpreter case largely hones in on Asian Americans and other minorities in Texas, who in the vast majority of counties do not comprise enough of the population to require language-assistance at the polls, and thus often rely on interpreters. Many times, these voters are elderly and grew up speaking another language, [Jerry Vattamala, director of the Democracy Program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and one of the attorneys on the case] said, and rely on children, sometimes even minors, to be their interpreters and helpers at the polls.

Vattamala said that in Texas, Asian Americans vote equally for both Republicans and Democrats.

[…]

Pitman’s ruling Friday may be particularly significant in the Houston area, which has a large Asian population. While he did not have specific numbers, testimony in the case indicated that several voters in the Houston area have not been allowed to bring interpreters into the polls.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon responding to questions about the case and its impact on Harris County, a spokesman for county clerk Stan Stanart’s office said Stanart is “in favor of following the law. He has asked that we follow the law as mandated by the court and required by the Secretary of State.”

The statement indicates that voters will now be able to use “interpreters of their choosing” barring limitations prescribed by other laws that prohibit a voter’s employer or labor union representative to be their interpreter.

The spokesman, Hector DeLeon, said in the statement that the county makes ballots and elections materials available in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese.

“We also have advisory groups for Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese that engage the leadership in those communities to help educate the registered voters about the election process,” DeLeon said. “These groups meet to maintain close contact to engage the community, to find bilingual poll workers and to educate the public during an election cycle.”

See here and here for the background. Vattamala’s statement about how Asian-Americans vote in Texas is one for which I’d be very curious to see some detailed polling data, which unfortunately I rather doubt exists. We know that nationally in 2012, Asian-Americans voted for President Obama at a higher rate than Latinos did, something like 78-21 in the President’s favor. That doesn’t mean it was the same here – “Asian-American” is a very wide designation, covering many diverse nationalities, and as Latinos in Texas vote Republican at a higher rate than their counterparts elsewhere, it’s certainly possible the same holds true for Asian-Americans. I don’t know, and with all due respect I’m not sure that Jerry Vattamala has access to anything more than a deeper well of anecdotal data. I’m just saying I’d love to see some real data, with sufficient samples of varying nationalities to be able to draw good conclusions.

Back to the decision itself, the Texas Election Law Blog gives us some historical context on this:

The Texas Election Code is a mess, as I’ve pointed out before. Our election laws are a cruel jumble born of mean-spirited political expediency, sloth, torpor, and ignorance. One particular piece of work within this ramshackle edifice of vote suppression and general discouragement of the democratic process is Section 61.033 of the Election Code, which states that in order to serve as an interpreter for a voter who requires language assistance, “a person must be a registered voter of the county in which the voter needing the interpreter resides.”

The law, such as it is, has a long pedigree stretching back to 1918, (Act of March 23, 1918, 35th Leg., 4th C.S. Ch. 30 (H.B. 104), although a requirement that election officials could only communicate via English in the polling place was added by the Act of March 13, 1919, 36th Leg. Ch. 55 (S.B. 244), 1919 Tex. Gen. Laws p. 94), The 1919 law reflected a longstanding nativist fear (pumped up by anti-immigration sentiment after World War One) that some language other than English might intrude into the polling place; that fear is still reflected in Section 61.031(a) of the Election Code, which more-or-less tracks the xenophobia of the old 1919 law.

After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the state law was softened to permit language assistance at the same time that multilingual ballots were provided.

But … while Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act provides that voters should be able to make use of language assistance of their own choosing, the state law still exhibits a weird reluctance to help voters out by imposing that pesky “have to be registered to vote in the same county as the voter” requirement on interpreters.

That restriction found in the state law was never defensible (given that it directly contradicts federal law), but it’s interesting that it took so long for a group of plaintiffs to find a test case to knock it down.

Here’s a copy of the ruling, from that post. The key here is that the original plaintiff who needed the assistance, Mallika Das, was voting in Williamson County, while her son/interpreter, Saurabh Das, was registered in Travis County. When he told the election officials that, he was not allowed to act as interpreter for his mother. Everything else followed from there.

Anyway, it is unclear at this time if the state will appeal Judge Pitman’s ruling, so barring any further action people who need some language help at the ballot box can bring an interpreter of their choosing with them. Which is how it should have been all along.

Texas loses another voting rights lawsuit

Good.

A federal judge Friday blocked Texas from enforcing a state law that limits the availability of interpreters in polling places, ruling that it violates protections guaranteed by the U.S. Voting Rights Act.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman of Austin came in a lawsuit filed on behalf of Mallika Das, who was born in India and who, in October 2014, brought her son into a Round Rock polling station to act as an interpreter because she had limited proficiency in English.

Officials at the Williamson County polling station, however, barred Saurabh Das from helping his mother, relying on a state election law that requires interpreters to be registered to vote in the same county as the person they intend to help.

Because Saurabh Das was registered in Travis County, his mother had to vote without his help.

In a summary judgment relying on briefs and a hearing held Monday, Pitman ruled that the residency requirement violated Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act, which guarantees voters the right to be helped by a person of their choice if they need assistance because of blindness, disability or inability to read or write.

To enjoy the same opportunity to vote as other citizens, Pitman wrote, limited-language voters must be able to navigate polling stations and communicate with election officers.

“They must be able to understand and fill out any required forms, and to understand and to answer any questions directed at them by election officers. And they must be able to do so with the assistance of a person whom they trust,” the judge added.

In addition to voiding the law on interpreters at the ballot box, Pitman gave state lawyers seven days to provide him with “additional remedies” needed to protect the rights of limited-language voters. Lawyers for Das will have another seven days to respond to the state’s suggestions.

See here for the background. I can’t find much coverage of this, nor even as much as a press release from the Organization of Chinese Americans-Greater Houston or Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, who filed the lawsuit. As such, I can’t tell you anything more than what this story says. We know that the Lege passed a bill in 2013 by wide margins that would have addressed this issue, but Rick Perry vetoed it. A bad decision on his part, one of many he made over his too-long career. I’ll keep my eyes open for more information about those “additional remedies” the state is on the hook to provide.

UPDATE: Here’s the AALDEF statement.

John Bradley does John Bradley things

From Grits for Breakfast:

Former Williamson County District Attorney and Texas Forensic Science Commission Chairman John Bradley – who left Texas to become Attorney General of the island nation of Palau after facing national disapprobation, losing reelection, and struggling to find work in Texas as a prosecutor – has been suspended “for ten working days without pay on grounds of insubordination” by Palau’s Vice President, reported Pacific Beat.

In response, according to this source, Bradley issued a statement declaring the VP had no authority to suspend him, defending his record in Texas, suggesting the veep committed a felony by suspending him, and threatening a defamation suit.

Some people seem to make friends wherever they go.

This is vintage John Bradley; our man appears in top form.

The President, who is out of the country, was quoted as saying he hadn’t reviewed Bradley’s suspension but expected the vice president’s decision was made in the “best interest of the Republic.”

See here and here for the background. I admit, it’s a bit unseemly to keep piling on the man, who clearly can’t help himself. But honestly, how can one resist?

Another Voting Rights Act lawsuit filed

Naturally, it originates in Texas.

Today, on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) sued the State of Texas, the Williamson County Elections Department, and the city of Round Rock for denying Asian American voters with limited English proficiency the right to an assistor of their choice, in violation of Section 208 of the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA). Section 208 provides that voters may choose anyone to assist them at the poll site, except their employer or union representative.

Jerry Vattamala, Director of AALDEF’s Democracy Program, said: “Asian Americans have had to overcome many barriers to exercise their right to vote, especially due to the lack of language assistance. Texas must comply with all provisions of the Voting Rights Act and allow voters to secure assistance from persons of their choice.”

Asian American voters benefit from section 208 because most jurisdictions in Texas are not required to provide Asian language interpreters. This provision allows limited English proficient (LEP) voters to be assisted by their friends or family members inside the voting booth.

AALDEF’s lawsuit challenges a provision of the Texas Election Code that requires interpreters to be registered to vote in the same county as the voter who needs assistance. This state requirement unduly restricts the range of individuals who are permitted to provide language assistance under Section 208.

Mallika Das, one of the plaintiffs, is a registered voter who lives in Williamson County, Texas. She brought her son, Saurabh Das, to assist her during the early voting period for the Midterm Elections on October 31, 2014. Poll workers did not allow Saurabh to assist his mother because he was registered to vote in neighboring Travis County. As a result, Mrs. Das had to vote without language assistance from the person she had designated.

On behalf of the organizational plaintiff, OCA – Greater Houston president Cecil Fong said, “Section 208 is vitally important for the LEP Asian American community in Texas. The state law conflicts with the VRA and prevents qualified voters from receiving the assistance that they are guaranteed under federal law.”

The complaint seeks to enjoin Texas from continuing to attach unlawful requirements to interpreters, declare the Texas state law invalid, and ensure that Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act is properly enforced.

Fish & Richardson P.C., is pro bono counsel in this lawsuit. “Ensuring that all citizens have not only the right, but also the practical ability, to exercise their voting franchise helps our nation more fully realize the promise of our democratic system,” said Lawrence Kolodney, Chair of Fish’s Pro Bono Program. “Fish is proud to serve as co-counsel with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund on this important and timely issue.”

I found this on Glen Maxey’s Facebook page, then found the link to the press release on the AALDEF Twitter feed, which has been commemorating the 50th anniversary of the VRA; here’s an article for the New York Law Journal that’s worth perusing. A copy of the lawsuit itself is here, and it’s pretty straightforward, as described in the press release. Maxey notes that two sessions ago he helped pass a bill allowing language minorities to bring an interpreter of their choice to the polls, thus bringing Texas into compliance with this part of the VRA, but then-Governor Perry vetoed it. The same bill was filed again this past session, but it didn’t go anywhere, and so here we are. I’ll keep an eye out for this.

More counties issuing same sex marriage licenses

Montgomery County:

RedEquality

Montgomery County Clerk Mark Turnbull said he turned one same-sex couple away on Friday who requested a marriage license, but wound up issuing the license after regular hours on Saturday.

He initially refused because he was waiting for clarification from the state on what form to use, but after the courthouse closed Friday evening, Texas Department of Health Services sent a revised form that removed all gender references and referred to those applying for the license only as “applicant one” and “applicant two,” Turnbull said.

With a new form in hand, he telephoned Pam Kunkle, 55, an insurance manager in Houston and her partner, Connie Moberley, 67, and asked them to return to the Montgomery County courthouse so he could issue the license Saturday.

“We needed some time to make adjustments with the language and make sure it worked on our computer program. We were glad they volunteered to come back and be our first guinea pig to make sure the system worked,” he said, adding none of the clerks in his office had raised any religious objections to issuing licenses to same-sex couples. “We are officers with ministerial duties. We have no discretion. We follow rules listed in our handbook.”

However, he recalled a former employee who objected to issuing liquor licenses on moral grounds and said she later switched to another county job where that did not pose a problem.

That’s Montgomery County, one of the reddest in Texas. The theme of “we do what the law says we are to do” is one you will see again.

Tarrant County:

Tracey Knight didn’t know if the day would ever come when she would be legally married in the state of Texas.

At long last it did come Friday, after a landmark Supreme Court ruling swept away the state’s longtime ban against same-sex marriage.

“We dreamed of this day,” said Knight, a corporal with the Fort Worth Police Department who serves as the LGBT community liaison. “We weren’t sure if it would ever happen. Now we have started planning our wedding.”

Knight and her wife, Shannon, who wed two years ago in California but wanted to exchange vows again in Texas, shared smiles and tears Friday as they were the first same-sex couple in Tarrant County to receive a marriage license.

Several other counties in North Texas were awaiting “guidance” from AG Ken Paxton. Denton County, which had originally refused to issue same sex marriage licenses, has now become compliant with the law of the land.

The Denton County clerk’s office is now issuing same-sex marriage licenses, following Friday operations that turned at least three couples away.

Whitney Hennen and Sara Bollinger was the first same-sex couple in the county this morning to be given a marriage license.

On Sunday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton declared religious objections a legitimate excuse for county clerks and their staffs as a means of denying licenses to same-sex couples.

Denton County Clerk Juli Luke said she is opposed to gay and lesbian couples getting married for religious reasons, but maintained her personal beliefs cannot prevent her from issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

“Moreover, my faith in Christ ensures I have compassion and respect for those who feel differently,” she wrote in a statement.

See, Ken Paxton? It’s not hard to do at all. Collin County has joined in as well, though several other counties in the area are not there yet.

Williamson County has fallen in line, too.

Williamson County is now issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, as of 8 a.m. Monday. That comes after getting advice from County Attorney Dee Hobbs.

“I would like to acknowledge the gravity of the Supreme Court decision and the passion citizens have on both sides of this issue,” reads a statement by Hobbs, posted outside the Williamson County Clerk’s Office. “I would like to thank those that contacted this office for being respectful int heir questions and also understanding regarding time to review.”

That’s two outlaw counties that have come back to their senses. Smith County makes three, with Gregg thrown in as a bonus.

An East Texas same-sex couple became the first in Smith County to be issued a marriage license on Monday morning.

About 8:30 a.m., a couple showed up seeking a marriage license at the Smith County courthouse. Karen Wilkerson and her fiance Jolie Smith began the process to obtain their marriage license shortly after 8:30 a.m. and were issued the document about 9:20 a.m. The couple was the first to show up at the courthouse office.

The license was issued following a Friday Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states.

Earlier in the day, the Smith County Vital Statistics Department was temporarily closed for a staff meeting. A sign posted in the courthouse said the department was also testing the system to accommodate new forms.

Smith County Clerk Karen Phillips said the state changed the vital statistic form needed to issue the licenses.

Midland County was a Friday adherent, but neighboring Ector was a holdout. Not any more.

Ector County Clerk Linda Haney will issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, opting not to take an out offered by Attorney General Ken Paxton for clerks who wish to deny such licenses due to religious beliefs.

“I took an oath to uphold the law and I intend to follow the law,” Haney said, although the marriage licenses could not be issued early Monday morning because the new application was not yet available on the computer system.

Her decision comes after the Friday ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that marriage is a Constitutional right for same-sex couples.
Sunday, Paxton issued an opinion that clerks could deny licenses based on religious beliefs, just as justices of the peace could decline to perform the weddings based on religious beliefs.

Haney, however, said she will follow the Supreme Court’s ruling and what she believes is the correct thing according to the law.

“An act of civil disobedience on my part would not honor my God and I don’t want to put my county at liability either,” Haney said. “I do have strong religious convictions and anybody that knows me knows what those convictions are. But I did take an oath and I will follow the law.”

Amazing how clear and simple that is, isn’t it? I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see all these counties, from different parts of the state, ignore Ken Paxton’s advice and do the job they’re supposed to do. And congratulations to Karen Wilkerson and Jolie Smith!

Not all counties needed prodding. Fort Bend County had it right from the beginning.

While the topic has produced a variety of opinions among the American public, the Fort Bend County Clerk’s office has issued a direct statement – current marriage forms won’t be modified, but when new forms arrive for same-sex marriage, they will be honored in accordance with the new law.

Same-sex couples will be allowed to marry, using the current forms, until the updated ones arrive.

Again – easy peasy. So simple even Ken Paxton should be able to understand it. Let’s let Brazoria County explain it to him anyway, just in case.

After an opinion from the District Attorney’s office this afternoon, County Clerk Joyce Hudman said Brazoria County is officially issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

Hudman said her offices have been issuing licenses since 1:30 p.m. and will throughout the day.

District Attorney Jeri Yenne gave the county clerk’s office a one-sentence opinion that issuing same-sex marriage licenses is mandatory based on the Supreme Court’s decision today.

“As a follow-up to your inquiry regarding marriage licenses, please be advised that on today’s date, the Supreme Court of the United States issued an opinion indicating the Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex,” Yenne’s memo reads.

After getting that memo, Hudman said her offices were instructed to grant the licenses.

One couple already has obtained a marriage license from the Pearland clerk’s office, she said.

A “one-sentence opinion” that explained the facts. Are we going to fast for you, Kenny?

Unfortunately, every state has its slow learners.

“I’m standing up for my religious liberty,” said Hood County Clerk Katie Lang, who said her office would not give out same-sex marriage licenses on religious grounds. “I do believe that marriage is for one man and one woman because it did derive from the Bible.”

After the decision Friday, some county officials said they would wait to hear from state Attorney General Ken Paxton, who issued a written opinion Sunday saying clerks with religious objections to same-sex marriages can refuse to issue those licenses. But if they do so, he wrote, they might face fine or lawsuits.

Paxton said pro bono lawyers would be ready to defend those who refuse, noting “the reach of the Court’s opinion stops at the door of the First Amendment and our laws protecting religious liberty.” Lang said after reading Paxton’s opinion, she chose to face possible legal action.

“I could get fined and I could get sued,” she said, “but you could get sued for anything.”

You can also be held in contempt of court if it comes down to it. And remember, for this you could be sued personally, not just named as a defendant in an action against the county or your office. But hey, every cause needs a martyr, and I’m sure that future Fox News gig will be sweet.

That’s about all the counties I have the energy to look up today. Other resources: The DMN has an interactive map that’s at least somewhat inaccurate since they have no report on Fort Bend’s status. The Current has contacted a bunch of Hill Country counties and reports that all except possibly Kerr are now in compliance. Glen Maxey has been keeping tabs on Facebook – see here for his running count, and be sure to see the comments for updates. If you don’t see your favorite county listed somewhere, you may just have to call the Clerk’s office there yourself. Overall, though, the picture is pretty good and it appears to be improving. All the national headlines have been about Paxton and his get-out-of-following-the-law opinion for County Clerks, but at this point very few clerks, almost none in larger counties, have heeded him. Unlike Greg Abbott, they understand how the law works and they respect it. Paxton’s words – and Dan Patrick’s, and Greg Abbott’s, and Ted Cruz’s – will make Texas look bad to the rest of the country, but at least we still have enough sensible local officials to maybe mitigate that a bit.

In closing, here’s a non-legal opinion regarding a better way for county clerks with religious objections to handle this:

Religious freedom is so central to our nation that no public official should be required to do anything that violates the religious principles that direct his or her life.

And there is clear and proper recourse here for any public official who, as a result of this landmark change in the law, finds himself or herself uncomfortable with or unable to perform the revised duties of office.

They should quit.

Amen. Thankfully, very few of them have decided that they cannot do their jobs. Let’s hope the remainders follow their lead and not Paxton’s. Trail Blazers and BOR have more.

Where same sex marriage is still functionally illegal in Texas

Smith County:

RedEquality

After a historic Supreme Court ruling, making same sex marriage legal in all fifty states, couples across the country flocked to courthouses to be legally married.

Despite the ruling, an East Texas County Court will not be issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

Smith County Clerk Karen Phillips said they first need new paperwork that is not gender specific. The current application is a state form that cannot be altered in any way, said Phillips.

The current state application has fields for male and female, an issue Karen Wilkerson and her fiancé Jolie Smith say is merely administrative.

In the Smith County vital statistics office, the couple completed the marriage application and attempted to turn it in to the clerk.

“[Male] is not something I can white out because that’s a legal form,” said Phillips to the couple. “This is a state form and I can’t do anything without a state form.”

“Is the purpose of Smith County to obstruct the law of the land for administrative purpose?” Wilkerson asked.

She then offered that other counties in Dallas and Austin were issuing licenses in Texas.

PHILLIPS: “Well, they may be doing that but I don’t want to have to call up a bunch of people saying we have to redo this.”

WILKERSON: “I’m willing to redo it.”

PHILLIPS: “Well, I’m not.”

WILKERSON: “I want you to act in your capacity as county clerk and follow the law of the United States government””

Phillips went on to explain that an incorrect form could jeopardize the legality of the marriage. In addition, marriage licenses are entered into a software system that also does not recognize non-gender specific information.

The headline to the story says that a lawsuit was filed over this, but there’s no mention of it in the body of the story. The justification that County Clerk Phillips gives is, to put it politely, bullshit, as County Clerks in Harris, Dallas, Travis, Bexar, McLennan, and elsewhere have demonstrated. I’m Facebook friends with Karen Wilkerson, and from what I can tell we will know more about this situation today. I will be keeping an eye on it.

Then there’s Denton County.

The Denton County Clerk Juli Luke refused two same-sex couples an application for a license Friday, saying first that she needed to receive legal guidance from the district attorney’s office.

Later, she announced that the office would not be issuing licenses because they needed to update their computer software.

Another same-sex couple in The Colony said they started calling other county satellite offices looking for one that would issue a license. They, too, were refused.

Denton County Judge Mary Horn said that, at this point, if a same-sex couple came to her requesting to be wed, she would refuse them.

She said that the difference between the actions of elected officials in Dallas County and Denton County on Friday reflected “a difference in core philosophies.”

Every county level elected office in Denton County is held by a Republican.

[…]

District Attorney Paul Johnson said the decision whether to issue licenses belonged to the clerk’s office.

A sign on the clerk’s door said that the office would not be issuing same-sex licenses today because of “changes that must be made for our vendor.”

No explanation was provided.

Again, pure bullshit. Why the County Clerk would need to consult with the District Attorney in a strictly civil matter is a question I can’t answer, but the real question is why she needs to consult with anyone at all on this crystal clear matter of following the law of the land. As yet I have not seen word of a possible lawsuit, but I am confident one will be in the offing if Denton County doesn’t get its act together quickly. If you have any reports from your county about similar behavior, please drop me a note (kuff – at – offthekuff – dot – com) or leave a comment. Thanks.

And if these clerks or any others are waiting to be advised by AG Ken Paxton, they should know he’s giving them very bad advice.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican social conservative, offered at least moral support Sunday for county clerks and their employees who feel their religious beliefs dictate that they decline to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

In a nonbinding legal opinion, Paxton said religious freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment “may allow accommodation of their religious objections to issuing same-sex marriage licenses.”

The clerks who balk at licensing gay marriage “may well face litigation and/or a fine,” Paxton warned.

“Importantly, the strength of any particular religious accommodation claim depends on the particular facts of each case,” he concluded.

“But,” he added in a press release, “numerous lawyers stand ready to assist clerks defending their religious beliefs, in many cases on a pro-bono basis, and I will do everything I can from this office to be a public voice for those standing in defense of their rights.”

Paxton’s opinion also said justices of the peace and judges similarly may rebuff requests that they officiate at same-sex weddings, especially if their colleagues in their areas are receptive to doing so.

[…]

Neel Lane, a San Antonio lawyer for the same-sex couples who challenged Texas’ gay marriage ban in federal court, said Friday that state and local officials who refuse to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling set themselves up for costly lawsuits. Lane said private citizens could file federal civil rights lawsuits, which are called “Section 1983″ claims, against recalcitrant state and local officials. Other lawyers supportive of gay rights have said gay and lesbian couples who are refused marriage licenses could ask U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio to hold the particular county clerk in contempt of court. Garcia has issued an injunction against enforcement of Texas laws defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

In his advisory opinion to Patrick, Paxton noted that county clerks could delegate their duty to issue marriage licenses to subordinates. He implied that might solve the conundrum for a clerk who feels issuing a same-sex marriage license would violate a sincerely held religious belief. But what if the employees feel similarly?

Paxton noted that under Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) that both the Texas Legislature and Congress passed in the 1990s, “deputy clerks and other employees may have a claim that forcing the employee to issue same-sex marriage licenses over their religious objections is not the government’s least restrictive means of ensuring a marriage license is issued, particularly when available alternatives would not impose an undue burden on the individuals seeking a license.” Paxton wrote that if everyone in a clerk’s office has a religious objection, and if the office is still issuing licenses to opposite-sex couples, “it is conceivable that an applicant for a same-sex marriage license may claim a violation of the constitution.” Completely refusing to issue marriage licenses to anyone also would be problematic, he wrote. The two RFRAs, the state and federal constitutions, state employment laws, state laws on clerks’ duties all may come into play, depending on the facts of a scenario, he said.

Essentially, Paxton invited clerks and their employees to defy the Supreme Court, but didn’t promise they’ll win.

There’s a map of what counties are doing at the post, so go check it out. Paxton issued his opinion in response to a request from Dan Patrick. This is probably the fastest opinion ever issued by an AG, and surely the least researched. The Trib quotes the ACLU of Texas reminding everyone that Paxton is basically full of it, but that is unlikely to be persuasive to anyone determined to fall on his or her sword. Again, I am not aware of any planned litigation at this time, but you can be sure it will happen if it needs to. Stay tuned, because this is far from over. The Current, which has a copy of Paxton’s opinion, has more.

UPDATE: Missed this earlier, but Williamson County is on the naughty list, too.

A look at how Democratic legislative challengers did against the spread

It’s been long enough since the election that I feel like I can go back and look at some numbers. Not a whole lot of good out there, but we’ll try to learn what we can. To start off, here are all of the Democratic non-incumbent candidates for the State House and a comparison of their vote total and percentage to those of Bill White and Linda Chavez-Thompson from 2010:

Dist Candidate Votes White LCT Cand% White% LCT% ============================================================ 014 Metscher 6,353 9,980 7,540 28.5 36.3 27.8 016 Hayles 4,744 8,490 5,995 13.6 22.5 15.9 017 Banks 12,437 17,249 12,852 35.4 43.3 32.8 020 Wyman 10,871 15,512 11,232 22.7 31.4 22.9 021 Bruney 9,736 13,174 10,499 25.6 31.3 25.3 023 Criss 14,716 19,224 15,866 45.4 50.1 41.8 026 Paaso 11,074 16,104 12,290 30.3 37.0 28.4 043 Gonzalez 10,847 14,049 12,635 38.6 45.8 41.7 044 Bohmfalk 9,796 13,369 9,847 24.3 32.1 23.7 052 Osborn 12,433 12,896 10,539 38.5 39.4 32.4 058 Kauffman 6,530 10,672 6,913 19.5 29.0 18.9 061 Britt 7,451 10,103 6,725 17.0 23.4 15.6 063 Moran 9,016 10,797 8,107 22.7 27.4 20.6 064 Lyons 12,578 12,238 9,722 33.8 38.0 30.3 065 Mendoza 10,419 10,926 8,921 35.7 37.3 30.5 083 Tarbox 6,218 9,664 6,250 18.7 25.9 16.8 084 Tishler 6,336 9,444 6,969 27.3 33.7 24.9 085 Drabek 9,628 14,460 10,758 33.4 44.8 33.6 087 Bosquez 3,656 6,945 4,736 15.6 25.4 17.4 089 Karmally 11,105 11,192 8,925 28.4 31.7 25.4 091 Ragan 9,346 10,214 8,039 28.2 32.2 25.4 092 Penney 12,553 12,374 10,020 36.4 35.7 29.0 094 Ballweg 16,461 14,852 12,247 40.5 37.1 30.7 102 Clayton 12,234 15,709 12,110 37.5 44.1 34.3 105 Motley 10,469 11,766 9,793 42.7 43.8 36.7 106 Osterholt 9,586 9,112 7,212 27.5 30.1 23.8 107 Donovan 13,803 14,878 11,936 45.0 46.3 37.5 108 Bailey 16,170 17,401 12,859 39.3 42.0 31.3 113 Whitley 12,044 13,483 11,575 40.6 44.8 38.7 115 Stafford 11,761 12,428 9,955 39.5 39.8 32.0 129 Gay 12,519 17,441 12,896 32.2 37.5 28.0 132 Lopez 10,504 12,016 9,677 33.8 37.9 30.8 133 Nicol 11,728 19,800 12,595 25.4 35.7 22.9 134 Ruff 20,312 31,553 21,380 38.8 51.0 35.1 135 Abbas 10,162 13,971 11,005 34.1 39.6 31.4 136 Bucy 15,800 14,742 12,031 41.1 39.7 32.6 138 Vernon 8,747 12,918 9,878 33.2 40.5 31.2 150 Perez 10,317 13,086 9,829 26.8 31.0 23.4

The most encouraging numbers come from Williamson and Tarrant Counties. I discussed the race in HD94 before the election, where the combination of Wendy Davis’ presence on the ballot plus the outsized wingnuttery of Republican candidate Tony Tinderholt helped boost the performance of Democratic challenger Cole Ballweg. Tina Penney, running in HD92 against freshman Jonathan Stickland, also benefited. We’ll want to see what the full comparisons for this year look like, but Tarrant Dems ought to look to those two districts for a place to try to make further gains in 2016.

Nearby in Denton County, Emy Lyons in HD64 and Lisa Osterholt in HD106 both exceeded Bill White’s vote total, though not his percentage. I don’t know offhand where those districts are relative to the city of Denton, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the fracking ban referendum helped them a bit. These results are a reminder of two things – the importance of local issues in engaging voters in off years, and that it’s not enough in places like Denton County to increase vote totals. You have to keep up with the overall population increase as well. Otherwise, you’re falling farther behind even as you move forward. I’ll give Sameena Karmally in Collin County’s HD89 a nod for a decent showing in that tough district as well, with the same caveat about keeping up with the overall growth.

In Williamson, John Bucy’s strong showing in HD136 against freshman Tony Dale should make it a top target for 2016. Bucy nearly equaled President Obama’s 41.2% in HD136 from 2012, so there’s plenty to build on there. Chris Osborn didn’t do too badly in HD52, either. Note that in each district, the Libertarian candidate scored around five points – 5.03% in HD52, and 4.70% in HD136 – so the win number in each of those districts could wind up being less than 48%.

Finally, in Dallas County, the Battleground-backed candidates all fell short, but generally didn’t do too badly, and they continue to offer the best pickup opportunities for continuously Republican-held seats in HDs 105, 107, and 113. An ambitious goal for the Presidential election year would be to win back HDs 117 and 144, and take over 105, 107, 113, and 136. With no statewide race above the level of Railroad Commissioner but Presidential year turnout – if we work at it – to make things more competitive, I see no reason not to view that as a starting point.

That’s not all we should focus on, of course – I agree with Campos that we should put a lot of effort into local race around the state, which in Harris County means finding and funding a challenger to County Commissioner Steve Radack. Frankly, we should be doing that in 2015 as well, in municipal and school board races. Maybe that will help some people understand that we hold elections in the other three years, too, and their participation in those elections is needed and would be appreciated. This is something we all can and should work on.

2014 Day Three EV totals

But first, a little angst.

EarlyVoting

I feel a bit uncomfortable after Day Two of Early Voting in Person. Here are a couple of concerning tweets from yesterday:

Scott Braddock ‏@scottbraddock 2h2 hours ago
Those Harris County early vote totals are not good for Democrats. *If* Texas is a battleground, #Houston is ground zero #TxLege

And:

Teddy Schleifer @teddyschleifer • 5h 5 hours ago
Dems excited by big vote-by-mail numbers here in Harris County, but in-person down 25%. Not good for them. #HOUNews | http://blog.chron.com/houstonpolitics/2014/10/in-person-early-vote-turnout-still-down-in-harris-county/ …

Here is from Chron.com:

The number of voters showing up at Harris County’s 41 early-vote locations was down by 25 percent for the second straight day on Tuesday, according to tallies released by the County Clerk.

A total of 20,380 registered voters cast a ballot on Tuesday, more than 7,000 fewer voters than cast one on the first Tuesday of early voting during the last midterm election in 2010. While Monday’s results revealed a massive increase in the number of mail ballots received this fall, the number received on Tuesday slightly trailed those seen on the corresponding Tuesday in 2010. A majority of the vote-by-mail ballots typically arrive on the first day.

A total of 21,612 votes were cast Tuesday, 1,232 of them mail ballots. On Monday, the first day of the two-week early-voting period, 61,735 total votes were cast.

A Commentary review of Early Voting locations likely frequented by African American and Latino voters shows a slight decrease in voter turnout as compared to the 2010 numbers after Day Two. Sure Dems are doing better with the mail ballots but we have to increase the Early Voting in Person numbers – or else. What is happening out there?

Here are your Day Three totals, and here are the full 2010 EV totals. As was the case with Day Two, in person totals are below what they were in 2010, though there were more absentee ballots received. The grand total so far for 2014 is 107,433, while the comparable total for 2010 was 107,782, so we are now officially a smidgen behind 2010. Does that mean we’re doomed?

Well, that depends on who is turning out. We’ve been through this before, but let’s remember, “turnout” doesn’t just mean Democrats. Republican voters count towards “turnout” too, and as you may recall they turned out like gangbusters in 2010. One of the prerequisites for Democrats doing well, or at least doing better, this year was for Republican turnout to come back down to earth. If what we’re got here is a Democratic increase combined with a Republican decrease, that would be pretty good, no?

Now bear in mind, the early vote gap – both in person and mail ballot – from 2010 in Harris County was pretty massive. A review of the 2010 numbers suggests it was about 59-39 in favor of the GOP, with mail ballots going 68-31 and in person early votes being 58-40. There’s a lot of room for Ds to go up and Rs to go down without the leader changing.

There are two indicators to suggest that the gap has narrowed considerably, though not all the way. One is that while Campos’ observation about Latino EV locations is accurate, it’s not the whole story. Here are the three day totals for the heaviest EV locations in GOP districts, then and now:

Location name SRD 2010 2014 ===================================================== Champion Forest Baptist Church 126 4,110 3,206 Kingwood Branch Library 127 4,075 2,823 Freeman Branch Library 129 4,190 3,044 Cypress Top Park, Cypress 130 3,548 3,052 Trini Mendenhall Community Center 138 3,839 3,048

Those are some pretty steep declines. Some of this I would attribute to the large increase in absentee votes, as I believe some of that represents people changing their behavior from voting early in person to voting by mail. Some of it I would (hopefully) attribute to the surge of 2010 Republican voters abating. Greg’s Day Two analysis, which suggests mail ballots are running about 50-50 and overall turnout being about 46% Dem, supports that. No question, we’d like to see Dem in person performance improve, but those mail ballots count, too, and they’re clearly making a difference. The usual pattern is that Dems turn out big on Saturday and generally participate more in Week 2, so we’ll see if that holds. Right now, all signs clearly point to Dems doing considerably better than they did in 2010. Doing better than 2010 is not that high a bar to clear, of course, so there’s still room to go up. Just don’t fixate on the “total turnout” number without at least considering where that turnout is coming from.

At the state level, the picture is interesting. The two day EV results for 2014 on the SOS webpage show an overall increase over 2010, fueled entirely by the massive uptick in mail ballots. Democratic counties like Dallas, Travis, El Paso, Hidalgo, and Cameron are up a bit. So are Republican counties like Montgomery, Collin, Williamson, and Denton, but Galveston is down and Fort Bend is flat. Tarrant is way up, but that’s Wendy Davis’ home turf. Again, it’s a function of who is showing up. I don’t have enough information to make any guesses.

Bottom line, keep calm and keep working to turn out our voters. There’s a Walk2Vote event at UH-Downtown tomorrow, to turn students out there. If you really want to make a difference, consider helping out with Drive for Democracy, which aims to help people who need a ride to the polls get them. I’m told they have identified around 1000 voters who need a ride to the polls and are recruiting volunteers to help with those rides. I can’t think of a better way to get involved. Check ’em out, and sign up to help if you can.

Palau catches a little heat for hiring John Bradley

Hilarious.

The president of Palau has defended appointing a US lawyer who left his previous role as Texas county prosecutor amid controversy over an innocent man who spent almost 25 years behind bars.

President Tommy Remengesau confirmed former Williamson County district attorney John Bradley would take up a position as assistant attorney general in the tiny Pacific nation later this month.

[…]

Remengesau said Bradley acknowledged he was wrong to block the DNA testing and “is painfully aware that his actions kept an innocent man locked up for longer than he should have been”.

But he said Bradley deserved a second chance and was seeking it in the island nation of 22,000 people, which is best known for its spectacular diving sites.

“Mr. Bradley says that the Morton case has changed him as a person and has made him a more balanced, fair, and humble prosecutor,” Remengesau said in a statement.

He said Bradley had more than 25 years of prosecution experience and had never been found to have violated any law or ethical rule over the Morton case.

“The Republic hired Mr. Bradley because our nation needs experienced and skilled prosecutors to help keep our community safe Mr. Bradley fits that bill,” he said.

See here for the background. Like Grits, who found this story, I don’t buy Bradley’s claims that he’s a changed man. As noted in that previous post, he has made claims to that effect before, but so far has not backed them up with action. I hope, for his sake but more importantly for the sake of the people of Palau, that he’s sincere this time. I’d nonetheless advise President Remengesau to keep a close watch on him.

John Bradley’s second act

Lisa Falkenberg brings a fascinating and unexpected update to the story of John Bradley, the former Williamson County DA and Texas Forensic Science Commissioner who served as one of the main villains in the Michael Morton case.

Since losing elected office, Bradley has tried to find work. In 2012, I wrote about him applying to lead the state’s Special Prosecution Unit.

No one would take him. Until now. It seems Bradley has landed another prosecutor’s post. Not in Texas. Not in the United States. In the tiny Republic of Palau, where, according to several sources, Bradley has accepted a position in the attorney general’s office.

The former U.S. territory of about 20,000 people in Micronesia was granted independence in 1994, and now operates in “free association” with the United States.

Barry Scheck, co-founder and co-director of the New York-based Innocence Project, said he learned about Bradley’s new job in a mass email from Bradley’s wife.

[…]

Rob Kepple, executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association and a former colleague of Bradley’s at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said he hoped the island nation would provide a fresh start for his friend.

“It’s been awhile,” Kepple said, referring to the Morton revelations. “You know, maybe he gets another chance. Maybe he’s got to go all the way to Palau to get it. But I wish him well.”

Scheck, at the Innocence Project, echoed that sentiment.

“He’s certainly going quite a few thousand miles away in order to reinvent himself and we’re all in favor of second acts in American lives,” Scheck told me Tuesday.

Even Michael Morton maintained his graciousness when I asked what he thought about the prosecutor who wronged him returning to prosecuting.

“I don’t wake up every morning gnashing my teeth and shaking my fist at, you know, ‘where’s John Bradley?’ I’ve literally and figuratively moved on,” he said.

“At this stage of the game, I wish him well,” Morton said. “And, you know, adios.”

Morton’s Houston-based attorney John Raley, who worked the case for free, and fought Bradley at every turn as he tried to stymie Morton’s appeals, was a tad less gracious.

“I’m not aware of any evidence that he has learned the lessons of the Morton case,” Raley said of Bradley. “His actions in the future will answer that question.”

Part of me thinks everybody, even John Bradley, has the right to make a living, to learn from mistakes and to get on with life after grievous errors.

The other part thinks Bradley is still a danger to justice everywhere, even 8,000 miles away.

I’ve said repeatedly on this blog that I’m a believer in redemption. It’s the Catholic in me – I may not be a churchgoer any more, but what I learned while I was stays with me and still shapes how I think. The thing is, as we Catholics also know, you can’t be absolved of a sin until you stop committing it. Other than one brief feint in the direction of acknowledging his responsibility in the Morton saga, John Bradley has never shown any indication that he thinks he did anything wrong. If it were up to him, Michael Morton would still be in jail, Ken Anderson would still be on the bench, and the evidence that exonerated Morton and ousted Bradley and Anderson would be in a box somewhere, if it hadn’t been destroyed. So count me in the tad-less-gracious group here. It’s fine by me if John Bradley wants to put his life back together, but he can do that outside the practice of law. Flip burgers, sell cars, groom dogs, dig ditches, paint houses – there’s tons of honest, dignified jobs John Bradley can hold that won’t put him in a position of power over someone’s freedom. If he truly wants redemption, he knows what he has to do to earn it. Grits, who is more gracious than I, has more.

Early voting, one (six day) week in

We have one week completed for early voting, though it was only a six day week thanks to the Presidents Day holiday. Here are the daily totals from the County Clerk. Republicans continue to be the majority of early voters in Harris County, by almost a 3-1 margin. I thought it might be interesting to compare early voting totals so far in the 15 biggest counties from 2010 and 2014. The Secretary of State tracks this information, though they generally don’t update on weekends. As such, the best I can do for now is a comparison of the first four days for each. Here’s 2010, here’s 2014, and here’s how it looks in a table:

County 2010 R 2014 R Diff 2010 D 2014 D Diff =========================================================== Harris 21,067 25,789 4,722 12,358 9,541 -2,817 Dallas 9,326 16,777 7,451 6,140 10,246 4,106 Tarrant 11,491 18,164 6,673 2,689 7,851 5,162 Bexar 10,353 14,575 4,222 8,370 10,476 2,106 Travis 6,140 5,083 -1,057 4,614 7,798 3,384 Collin 7,419 8,593 1,174 726 1,456 730 El Paso 2,938 2,023 - 715 6,844 7,102 258 Denton 4,635 7,768 3,133 508 1,227 719 Fort Bend 4,470 4,967 497 1,179 1,266 87 Hidalgo 984 1,520 536 11,232 13,619 2,387 Montgomery 5,235 9,022 4,787 523 532 9 Williamson 4,810 4,585 - 225 1,056 1,413 357 Nueces 2,344 2,414 70 1,948 1,826 - 118 Galveston 1,838 4,010 2,172 1,607 910 - 697 Cameron 747 839 92 3,300 4,426 1,126 Total 93,797 126,129 32,332 63,094 79,689 16,595

EarlyVoting

Both parties’ turnout are up from 2010, though unsurprisingly the R side is up more. All those contested statewide races, and all the money in them, do have an effect. While there is a contested race for Governor on the D side, it’s not nearly as high profile as it was in 2010. Dems are depending more on local races for their turnout. On that note, whoever had Tarrant as the county with the largest gain in Democratic primary voters so far, please come collect your winnings. Still, it’s good to see turnout up in the places that have hot primaries up and down the county ballot – Dallas, Travis, and Bexar, in particular. The dropoff in Harris County I would largely attribute to the turnout driven in 2010 by the Bill White campaign. We have several contested county races, but nothing of that stature, and only one legislative primary that’s likely to move a significant number of people, that being in SD15. The dropoff in Galveston is probably in part a spillover effect of the lac of Bill White’s campaign, and in part due to Galveston having Democratic countywide incumbents running for re-election in 2010 but not in 2014. The dip in Republican primary turnout so far in Williamson, and the modest growth in Collin, are interesting if the trends continue, but not necessarily suggestive of anything. Surely Dallas County has shown us that there isn’t necessarily a correlation between primary turnout and partisan performance in November. And of course this is only through Day Four. We’ll see how it looks after all the early votes are in.

One other thing that the SOS historic early voting pages can show you is the registered voter totals for each of the top 15 counties. Let me add in the 2006 Day 4 page to show you how these numbers have changed over time.

County 2006 2010 2014 06-14 Diff ======================================================= Dallas 1,168,476 1,129,814 1,170,598 2,122 Travis 544,483 586,882 627,040 82,557 El Paso 367,284 375,128 390,949 23,665 Hidalgo 271,132 290,097 307,426 36,294 Cameron 161,648 171,024 181,802 20,154 Tarrant 882,459 924,682 969,434 86,975 Collin 369,493 413,772 466,533 97,040 Denton 320,307 355,340 388,608 68,301 Montgomery 217,354 243,027 270,019 52,665 Williamson 200,285 230,122 259,878 59,593 Harris 1,880,042 1,889,378 2,006,270 126,228 Bexar 877,484 891,082 915,839 38,355 Fort Bend 257,140 300,777 349,550 92,410 Nueces 193,079 188,165 184,789 -8,290 Galveston 183,805 179,928 185,850 2,045

I separated the top 15 counties into three groups: Strong D, strong R, and in between. Quibble with my choices if you want, it works well enough for me. Note that these are all March numbers; we will see further changes in November. I’m delighted to see such a large jump in Harris County. That number was just barely over 2 million in November 2012, but it was back under 2 million in 2013. It’s also nice to see Dallas County regain all the voters they lost between 2006 and 2010. I don’t have anything to add beyond that. I just wanted to present this data to you as an FYI.

Ken Anderson accepts a plea deal

Some closure in the Michael Morton case.

Former Williamson County State District Judge Ken Anderson, who oversaw the wrongful murder conviction of Michael Morton as a prosecutor, was sentenced to nine days in jail on Friday and will surrender his law license as part of a deal to resolve criminal charges and a civil lawsuit.

Anderson entered into a comprehensive settlement involving all matters before the court. Those include a charge of criminal contempt tied to an accusation of failing to disclose evidence during Morton’s 1987 trial, and the State Bar of Texas’ disciplinary case against Anderson over prosecutorial misconduct allegations. Charges of tampering with evidence were also dropped as part of the settlement.

Presiding District Judge Kelly G. Moore ordered that Anderson’s jail sentence — a 10-day sentence with a 1-day credit for time served — should begin on or before Dec. 2. Anderson was also ordered to pay a $500 fine along with serving 500 hours of community service in the next five years. His resignation to the State Bar will be acted on by the Supreme Court of Texas and will be treated as disbarment. Anderson did not address the presiding judge during Friday’s session and exited the courtroom promptly after the hearing was adjourned.

“There’s no way that anything we can do today will resolve the tragedy that occurred related to these matters,” Moore said, before addressing Morton, who was present in the courtroon during the hearing. “The world is a better place because of you.”

See here, here, and here for some background. Grits said that “compared to what Morton faced”, the punishment Anderson received was “relatively weak tea”. I agree with the sentiment, but honestly anything short of a life sentence could be called that. For what it’s worth, Michael Morton himself seems satisfied with the outcome.

Morton sat in the front row of the courtroom on Friday with his wife, Cynthia, and his attorneys and celebrated with his legal team following the hearing.

“When it began, I was asked what I wanted. I said ‘The only thing that I want, as a baseline, is for Ken Anderson to be off the bench and no longer practice law,'” Morton said. “Both of those things have happened and more.”

“I don’t know if satisfying is the right word,” he added, but he said the Anderson case “had to be done.”

My hope is that this will serve as a cautionary tale for other prosecutors. Now they know there will be at least the possibility of real consequences for the bad behavior Ken Anderson displayed. The reforms that Sen. Rodney Ellis passed that will require more disclosure from prosecutors will be beneficial, too. These are steps in the right direction, and there will be more to follow. Nothing can give Michael Morton back what was taken from him, but he will help others avoid a similar fate, and that’s something.

Hog killin’ update

Because I know you like to know about this sort of thing.

After a competition to kill feral hogs left more than 1,000 of the destructive animals dead in Hays and Caldwell counties, plans are emerging to further control the population.

Both counties participated in the state’s Hog Out County Grants Program, a competition among counties to kill the most feral hogs and to educate people about the hogs from October through December.

The 28 counties that participated last year, including Hays, Caldwell and Williamson, earned points for the number of hogs killed and the number of participants at educational workshops.

According to the state’s Department of Agriculture, Texas is home to nearly 2.6 million feral hogs, the largest population nationwide, and one that’s growing. The Hog Out County Grants Program is one of two the department funds that is aimed at eliminating feral hogs, which damage property, crops and pastures.

The Texas AgriLife Extension Service estimates that the economic damage cause by hogs statewide is $500 million annually. The funds the department will award as a result of the Hog Out program are to be used by counties to implement a plan to reduce their feral hog populations.

The county with the most points wins $20,000. The second- and third-place counties earn $15,000 and $10,000, respectively.

It’s all just a drop in the bucket, really. As we heard before, killing 750,000 of these beasts a year would not be enough to cause a drop in their population. But what are you gonna do? And in case you were wondering, yes, they’re going to try to do something useful with all that meat. Good luck with that.

What I’ll be looking for tonight

Just a reminder that I’ll be on KPFT tonight starting at 7 PM to talk about the elections. Here’s a preview of the things I’ll be looking for:

1. SD10 – Sen. Wendy Davis vs Mark Shelton: Easily the most important race on the ballot in Texas. Davis has been a progressive champion and a pain in Dan Patrick’s rear end, and will make for a strong statewide candidate when she’s ready. She also ensures that the Dems maintain enough votes in the Senate to invoke the two-thirds rule until whenever Rick Perry calls the special election to succeed the late Sen. Mario Gallegos. I am heartened that Robert Miller thinks Davis is leading, though he subsequently amended that, but I won’t rest easy until I see that lead on the Secretary of State’s election results webpage.

2. Legislative races – While Dems start out with only 48 seats in the Lege, they will automatically pick up three today – HDs 35, 40, and 101 – because there are no Republicans running in them. Beyond that, the over/under line for Dems is 55 seats total. Three in particular to watch: HD23, in which Rep. Craig Eiland is one of the only, if not the only, threatened Democratic incumbents; HD134, in which Ann Johnson’s challenge to freshman Rep. Sarah Davis will be a good test of how well a message attacking the Rs for cutting $5.4 billion from public education will work; and HD136, the open seat in Williamson County, which will be a test of whether 2008 was a fluke or a trend for Democrats in places like that.

3. Adrian Garcia and Mike Anderson – Everyone expects both candidates to win, as both have become poster children for not voting a straight ticket this year. As such, they will both likely represent the high-water mark for each party this year, as Garcia and Ed Emmett were in 2008. I’ll be paying particular attention to how they did in various legislative and other districts once the precinct data is out, because that may provide an early roadmap for future electoral targets.

4. Fort Bend County – Fort Bend came very close to going Democratic in 2008. President Obama received 48.49% of the vote there, and no Republican won the county by as much as 10,000 votes out of 200,000 cast. Is this the year Democrats break through? Also worth keeping an eye on is freshman County Commissioner Richard Morrison in his race against double voter Bruce Fleming.

5. CCA – Hampton vs Keller – I think we’re all familiar with this one by now. Whether Hampton has a chance to win depends largely, though not entirely, on how well Obama does in Texas. The presence of a Libertarian candidate in this race means that Hampton can win with less than 50% of the vote. Most of the statewide judicial races in 2008 had Libertarians in them, and they got about 3% of the vote on average. I suspect the ceiling for that may be higher in this case, as some Republicans may prefer to not vote for Keller but not vote for a Dem, either. I will not be surprised if 48% is enough to win. If Obama can improve on 2008, even a little, it makes it that much easier for Hampton to get over the hump. If not, we may be stuck with Keller for another six years or until she finally has the grace to resign.

6. 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals – Jim Sharp broke through for Democrats in 2008, and there’s a nearly full slate of them running for seats on these courts, whose jurisdictions cover multiple counties, this year. As was the case in 2008, a sufficiently strong showing in Harris County may be enough to make it across the finish line, though if Fort Bend is blue as well, that would be a big help. This is where future Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals candidates can emerge.

7. Bonds, Metro, and SA Pre-K – I expect the Houston bonds to pass. Keep an eye on the charter amendments, since if they pass as well there can be no further charter amendments on the ballot till May of 2015. I think the Metro referendum will pass, but I would not bet my own money on it. The San Antonio Pre-K initiative is expected to be close. Given the recent love affair in the national media and from the national party for Mayor Julian Castro, a loss here will undoubtedly be portrayed as a setback for him.

I think that’s plenty to think about. What races are you watching?

Beating Bradley

The Statesman writes about the aftermath of the GOP primary for District Attorney in Williamseon County where voters resoundingly threw out John Bradley.

Jana Duty

Michael Morton wasn’t on the ballot, didn’t campaign and didn’t back a candidate, but the recently exonerated former inmate cast a long shadow on the Williamson County district attorney race, becoming the key issue in the defeat of a once-popular John Bradley.

Jana Duty, a 10-point victor in Tuesday’s Republican primary, made Morton a centerpiece of her campaign, focusing on Bradley’s decision to fight Morton’s 2005 request for DNA testing. It would take six years for a court to order tests that cleared Morton of the 1986 murder of his wife, Christine, and led authorities to another suspect, Mark Alan Norwood.

Voters responded by turning out Bradley, Williamson County’s lead prosecutor for the past 10½ years and one of the state’s most prominent district attorneys.

Political observers said Duty was aided by lingering resentment over Morton’s treatment, a superior campaign organization and votes from crossover Democrats drawn to the GOP primary by an opportunity to torpedo Bradley.

And unlike prior years when Bradley made news by securing long prison sentences — accounts that played well with Williamson County’s conservative-leaning voters — this election cycle was punctuated by headlines involving controversy in and out of the courtroom.

Beyond the Morton affair, Bradley also was criticized for his leadership of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which was investigating the science used to convict and execute Cameron Todd Willingham for the arson murder of his three young daughters.

[…]

One of Bradley’s leading backers, Dan Gattis Jr., said the Morton connection meant “everything” to the district attorney race.

“Jana Duty’s whole campaign was tying him to the Morton case,” Gattis said, adding that the Morton case “humbled and matured” Bradley and would have made him a better DA. Instead, his handling of the Morton matter left him vulnerable to challenge.

I’m pretty sure Michael Morton’s attorney John Raley would disagree with the assertion that Bradley was in any way changed for the better as a result of this experience. As people like Sen. Rodney Ellis and Scott Henson said back when Bradley was proclaiming that he had learned his lesson, actions speak louder than words, and Bradley’s actions were loud and clear. The voters made the right choice, and Bradley got what he deserved. Not that he has any need to fear for his future, of course. I’m sure his patron Rick Perry will find something for him to do, and if not there’s always the professional airing-of-grievances circuit. Don’t you worry about ol’ John, he’ll be just fine.

“Open letter to Williamson County”

John Raley is the attorney who worked for years to exonerate Michael Morton on the charge of murdering his wife in 1987. The key to the case was a bloody bandana, which DNA testing showed belonged to the real killer. Williamson County DA John Bradley fought against allowing the DNA test to proceed at every step. Bradley has had to explain his role in this process since Morton was declared “actually innocent”, and lately he’s been saying some things that Raley says are untrue. Raley wrote the following to set the record straight:

Open Letter To Williamson County:

I have resisted becoming involved in the upcoming election for District Attorney of Williamson County, because I believe that the decision should be made by local citizens. However, I have become increasingly concerned about statements made by Mr. Bradley regarding the Michael Morton case, and now feel the need to set the record straight. In doing so, I am not speaking on behalf of my dear friend and pro bono client for the last eight years, Michael Morton, nor am I speaking on behalf of my co-counsel with the Innocence Project who fought with me so long for DNA testing. I am speaking personally, and am not endorsing any candidate.

The world now knows that Michael is, and always has been, innocent. His dear wife was murdered in their home while he was at work, just as he has always maintained. When Michael was formally exonerated last fall, Mr. Bradley called to apologize to me and asked that I convey his apology to Michael. I hoped at the time of the call that Mr. Bradley had learned from this experience and had changed. However, I am concerned from reading recent statements by Mr. Bradley during the campaign that he is retracting his previous admission of responsibility for decisions that kept Michael in prison an extra six years and eight months.

On February 11, 2005, we filed our motion for DNA testing of, among other things, a bloody bandana found behind the Morton home after Christine’s murder. Such testing would cost the State of Texas nothing, because the Innocence Project offered to (and later did) pay for it completely. In 2005, and in virtually every brief and argument since, in state trial and appellate courts and in federal court, we contended that the bandana was found behind the house along the likely escape route of the murderer. We also pointed out that the bandana (1) may contain the blood of Christine Morton, (2) may also contain the DNA by blood, sweat, or skin cells of the murderer, and (3) the DNA of the murderer may lead to a hit on the national databank of known offenders. [Note: we did not know at the time that the DA’s trial file from 1987 contained a description of a stranger seen the days before the murder, driving an old van, and walking around behind the Morton house – exactly where the bandana was found.

Michael’s 1987 trial defense counsel have signed affidavits that they never were made aware of this key document and other critical investigative documents that would have been used in Michael’s defense.] Contrary to Mr. Bradley’s statements during the campaign, there are no valid chain of custody issues or contamination issues regarding the bandana. The bandana was seen by law enforcement on the very spot it was found by Christine’s brother and immediately handed to law enforcement for safekeeping. Following protocol, it would have been placed in a separate bag. There is no evidence otherwise. The blood, one day after the murder, would have dried. But the DNA was there, waiting like a time capsule to be tested.

I am not a criminal lawyer, but I come from a law enforcement family. I sought the advice of my father, a retired prosecutor, and he recommended that I call Mr. Bradley on a personal level to see whether he would agree to the testing, or at least not oppose it. I made several such efforts, even driving from Houston to Georgetown for a meeting with Mr. Bradley and my co-counsel from the Innocence Project, but all such efforts were rebuffed.

Instead of agreeing to a simple test, that can only reveal the truth, that would be free to the State, Mr. Bradley spent countless hours and taxpayer dollars opposing the testing every way he possibly could. It cannot reasonably be denied that if the murder happened in 2005, the bandana would have been DNA tested as part of law enforcement’s efforts to identify the murderer. The technology was not available in 1987, but it is now. There is no good reason not to allow DNA testing to reveal the truth – whatever it is. When I asked Mr. Bradley why he was fighting so strongly against DNA testing, he said “it would muddy the waters.” I responded, “Mr. Bradley, truth clarifies.” I tried to explain to Mr. Bradley the many flaws in the State’s presentation at trial against Michael, but Mr. Bradley was not interested in hearing about it. I tried to hand him the two lie detector tests Michael passed shortly after his wife’s murder, and he refused to look at them.

During this time, Mr. Bradley publically belittled our efforts, saying the bandana was “irrelevant”, that we were “grasping at straws”, and that we were searching for a “mystery killer.” He wrote letters to the parole board opposing a parole for Michael (who had by that time spent 23 years in prison) because Michael had not “accepted responsibility for the murder of his wife by mercilessly beating her to death.” He told the media: “The public might want to remain skeptical of a defendant who to this day doesn’t accept responsibility.” Around this time, Michael was informed that he would be likely paroled if he would “show remorse for his crime.”

Michael Morton is one of the finest men I know. He is a man of honor and integrity. He refused to lie to get out of prison. He said “All I have left is my actual innocence. And if I have to stay in prison the rest of my life, I am not giving that up.”

When we finally obtained testing of the bandana, after many years of strenuous opposition by Mr. Bradley, the highly sophisticated technology revealed (1) Christine Morton’s blood, (2) the DNA of a man who is not Michael, which when run through the databanks of known offenders (3) led to a direct hit on Mark Allen Norwood, who has a long criminal record in several states for, among other things, breaking and entering residences and assault with intent to murder. Thus, the DNA testing Mr. Bradley fought against so long not only proved Michael is, according to the State of Texas, “actually innocent” — it also led directly to the arrest and indictment of Mark Allen Norwood, who is now awaiting trial for the murder of Christine Morton.

Even after the hit on Norwood, Mr. Bradley’s office continued to fight against Michael’s exoneration, and Mr. Bradley publically discounted the bandana’s importance. Our office and the Innocence Project informed the Travis County District Attorney that a cold case in Austin of the murder of Debra Jan Baker, who was killed in her bed exactly the same way as Christine, might be linked to Norwood because he lived nearby at the time. They investigated and found important evidence, which they shared with Judge Sid Harle who was, at that time, presiding over the Morton case. Mr. Bradley could no longer oppose Michael’s exoneration, and a few days later backed down and agreed to Michael’s release.

I am hopeful people remember that when an innocent man is convicted of murder and wrongfully incarcerated, that means that the real murderer is allowed to go free and commit other crimes. Resistance to an honest search for the truth through DNA testing only prolongs the time that the the real murderer (or rapist, or other form of serious criminal) may be at large. People like to talk about being “tough on crime.” I propose, rather, being “smart on crime” – making sure that the guilty party is the one who is caught and eventually convicted. That’s what keeps our streets safe, and is what prosecutors should strive for. Although Mr. Bradley did not try the case that wrongfully sent Michael to prison and let the murderer go free, he is largely responsible, in my opinion, for adding the last six years and eight months to Michael’s tragic story. For nearly 2,400 additional days, the cell doors clanged shut on an innocent man. At one time Mr. Bradley accepted responsibility for his role. I hope he has not changed his mind about that.

Truth and justice are more important than winning an election.

John W. Raley

All I can say is “wow”. Via Grits and Wilco Watchdog.

“Crazy” ants come to Austin

They’re on the move.

Hello, Austin!

There’s a new ant in town, and wherever it goes, fire ants start disappearing. It also doesn’t sting or bite. But don’t get excited yet. The Rasberry crazy ant which showed up in Travis County and Round Rock this fall swarms into homes by the hundreds of thousands in search of food.

In the Houston area, where the ants are much more prevalent, they have already made some homeowners miserable, said Roger Gold, professor of entomology at Texas A&M University.

“People that have them said they wish they had the fire ants back,” he said. “We have pictures of families sweeping them up with brooms where there are piles of ants. … They can get into AC systems and short them out.”

When the ants get electrocuted they produce a pheromone that causes other ants to rush in, Gold said, leading to so many ants in the electrical system that it shorts out. An infestation of the ants temporarily shut down a Pasadena chemical plant, causing a $1 million loss, he said.

“They have huge populations made up of hundreds of thousands to multiple millions,” Gold said.

Ed LeBrun, a research associate at the University of Texas’ Brackenridge Field Laboratory, said the crazy ants haven’t caused Central Texas the problems that have been seen in the Houston area, where they were discovered in Pasadena in 2002 by exterminator Tom Rasberry.

Not yet, anyway. See here, here, here, and here for more. The map on the sidebar of the story shows that the ants have been sighted in Travis, Williamson, and Bexar counties, but not in counties in between them and the Houston area. Seems to me that means they just haven’t been spotted, not that they’re not there. At this point, it’s just a matter of time before the take over the state. Brace yourselves.

The battle for Williamson County DA

Outside of the Congressional races, the hottest primaries this year are District Attorney races. We’ve got them in Harris County, in Travis County, and of course in Williamson County.

An 11-year Republican incumbent who hasn’t faced an opponent since 2002, District Attorney John Bradley now finds himself in a pitched battle against the current Williamson County attorney just to keep his party’s nomination.

“It’s the most intense race I’ve seen in Wilco — period — and I was born and raised here,” said 48-year-old Bill Gravell, a political consultant and a pastor in the area. “It makes the Texas football game against Texas A&M look like a peewee game.”

Jana Duty scrapped her plans to seek re-election as county attorney, a position she’s held since 2005, to challenge Bradley.

The battle to keep his seat is a unique challenge for Bradley, who has been district attorney since he was appointed in 2001. He won the 2002 Republican primary with 68 percent of the vote.

The candidates are challenging each other’s record in office in campaign rhetoric. Duty said she’s running against Bradley because he has “propelled Williamson County into the national spotlight in a very negative light.”

You know what I think of John Bradley. I doubt I’d care much for Jana Duty, but she would have the virtue of not being John Bradley. There is a Democrat running – Ken Crain – and as always one wonders who would be the better opponent for an underdog candidate. Williamson County is trending the right way, and while it’s unlikely to be there yet the right candidate at the right time can break through. Eye on Williamson and Wilco Watchdog are good resources if you want to follow this race more closely, and of course Grits is on it as well.

If it were good for Travis it would be good elsewhere as well

This article asks if Travis County is better off being split into five different Congressional districts. Seems to me that’s a question that answers itself, but I’ll play along.

The voters and geography of Travis County are split among five congressional districts in the redistricting plan enacted by the Texas Legislature and now adopted in the federal court’s interim plan. Travis County residents do not constitute a majority of the voters in any of these districts.

Some politicians and political consultants spin this result as possibly either depriving Travis County of any effective voice in Congress or enhancing that voice by allowing the county’s voters to have a say on the election of more members of Congress.

Whether the interests of a political group or jurisdiction are better served by being an overwhelming majority in a few districts, or a less important part of many more districts, is one of the oldest disputes in redistricting. There is no answer that is correct for all circumstances.

[…]

This splitting of Travis County among five congressional districts in 2011 was clearly intended to dilute, not enhance, the effect of the county’s voters (especially Democrats) and to target Democratic U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin for defeat. These objectives are not surprising for a Republican-controlled Legislature, because Travis County is the only major Texas county in which a majority of non-Hispanic white people continue to vote consistently for Democratic candidates, and Doggett is seen by many Republican lawmakers as a partisan troublemaker.

By contrast, the Legislature kept intact heavily Republican counties, such as Collin, Denton and Fort Bend. Each is less populated than Travis County, but each in the new plan has a congressional district wholly in the county or has an overwhelming majority of voters in a congressional district.

However, redistricting voters is always a net-sum game. By attempting to dilute Travis County voters by dividing them among many districts, the Texas Legislature also may have ultimately increased the number of districts in which candidates from Travis County (including Democrats) can be successful if propelled by unexpected political winds.

The voters of Travis County cannot necessarily elect the person of their choice in any new congressional district, but there is not another population center outside Travis County that clearly dominates most of the districts.

For example, Travis County residents’ share of Congressional District 21 increased to more than 27 percent in the new redistricting plan, while Bexar County residents’ share fell from 53 percent to 36 percent. Travis County residents’ share of District 10 (35 percent) is now slightly less than before, but the other population center, Harris County, has seen a much greater reduction, from 46 percent to 35.

In other words, the new plan favors U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul of Austin by keeping many Harris County Republicans in District 10 while also reducing the possibility that he will face a strong opponent from Harris County. But this change also makes District 10 more winnable by a Travis County Democrat.

Seems pretty clear to me that if being sliced and diced like a Sunday ham were beneficial, the Lege would have done it to the Republican strongholds as well – Denton, Collin, Williamson, and Montgomery. But no – Montgomery is entirely within CD08 and Williamson in CD31, while nearly all of Denton is in CD26. Collin has three districts in it, but that includes all of CD03. In each case, you can be sure that the representative from those districts is from that county. If Travis County is lucky, CDs 10 and 35 will be from there, but those two districts combine for only 45% of the county’s population; if Rep. Lloyd Doggett loses, only 24% of Travis County will be represented by someone from there. Which would you prefer? Note that if Rep. Mike McCaul steps down, it could just as easily be the case that not a single member of Congress from these five districts is from Travis. Like I said, the question pretty much answers itself.

It’s a long way to Damascus

The Trib has a good story about Williamson County DA John Bradley, whom you may recall as Rick Perry’s chief hatchet man on the Forensic Science Commission, and his apparent conversion to open-mindedness in the wake of the DNA exoneration of Michael Morton, who was convicted of murdering his wife in 1987 by Bradley’s predecessor and mentor, Ken Anderson. It’s a big scandal now because Anderson, now a district court judge, apparently withheld exculpatory evidence to the defense, and Bradley, as is his wont, fought against Morton’s attempts to get DNA testing done and unseal prosecution files for years before finally losing and learning how wrong he was to have fought. I have not followed this saga on the blog – you should read Eye on Williamson and Wilco Watchdog if you want the full story. Anyway, Bradley is now claiming to be a changed man as a result of this experience.

“I have been through a series of events that deeply challenged me,” Bradley, the Williamson County district attorney, said during an extended interview with The Texas Tribune. “I recognized that I could be angry, resentful and react to people, or I could look for the overall purpose and lesson and apply it to not only my own professional life but teach it. And I chose the latter path.”

In the last two years, Bradley and his trademark sharp tongue have been at the center of two of the most controversial murder cases in Texas. In 2009, as chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, he and the New York-based Innocence Project battled aggressively over re-examining the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, the Corsicana man executed in 2004 for igniting the 1991 arson blaze that killed his three daughters. For six years, Bradley also fought the Innocence Project’s efforts to exonerate Michael Morton, who was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife under Bradley’s then boss in Williamson County 25 years ago.

Bradley discovered that not only was he wrong all those years about Morton’s guilt, of which he had been so certain, but that there are serious questions about whether his predecessor may have committed the worst kind of prosecutorial misconduct: hiding evidence that ultimately allowed the real murderer to remain free to kill again.

[…]

Bradley said he regrets that his opposition to DNA testing over the last six years meant more time behind bars for an innocent man. He also regrets sending letters to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles urging them to keep Morton locked away.

Had he known then what he knows now about the Innocence Project and Scheck, he said he might have handled the Willingham case differently, too.

This experience has taught him to be more open-minded, to try to see cases from both sides, he said. Bradley emphasized that his office is more open than his predecessor’s was. And in the future, when defense lawyers bring him cases to review, Bradley said, he will have a new perspective.

“If I had to come up with a slogan,” Bradley said, “I don’t know that I would use it, but essentially the slogan would be ‘We are more than tough on crime.'”

Some of his critics, though, see Bradley’s contrition as too little, too late. And they note that he is facing re-election next year. They want more than words.

“The jury is still out on whether those words will manifest themselves into real actions to help fix what is clearly a broken justice system,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, chairman of the Innocence Project.

Scott Henson, who writes the well-regarded criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast, said Bradley could demonstrate his changed perspective by joining with innocence advocates to promote reforms to the Texas justice system. “He’s got a long record,” Henson said. “And it will take more than a few words of humility to get everyone to believe that he’s had some road to Damascus moment.”

I’m as big a believer in redemption as the next person, but talk is cheap. I agree with Sen. Ellis and Henson that it’s what Bradley does next that will determine if he means this or is just hoping to deflect a weapon that will surely be used against him in the 2012 election. A phone call to Craig Watkins for advice on how to go about ensuring the integrity of past convictions would be a good start. There’s a lot Bradley can do to try to atone and get right with the universe. It’s up to him to do it. Link via Grits, who has more here.

Investigating the DA

There may be something interesting going on in the grand jury room.

A Houston grand jury apparently investigating recent allegations about the Houston Police Department’s troubled mobile alcohol-testing vehicles may now be setting its sights on the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

An appellate court ruled on Thursday that the grand jury can continue to exclude prosecutors from listening to witnesses testify in secret proceedings in the ongoing investigation, despite protests from Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos.

Because grand jurors meet behind closed doors, their intentions are unclear, but court documents filed this week shed light on the investigation. Defense attorneys involved in the case also have their suspicions.

Chip Lewis, an attorney representing a former police crime lab super­visor who testified Thursday, said it is his understanding that she was called to talk about problems with the HPD’s breath alcohol testing vehicles – known as BAT vans – as well as issues with the DA’s office and the police department.

Lewis also said it was possible the grand jury is investigating the district attorney’s office.

“I wouldn’t call it a runaway grand jury,” he said, as much as I would call it a well-focused grand jury.”

I don’t have a particular opinion about this one way or another. It makes sense to me that if there were issues with the evidence, then those issues are most likely not limited to just the police, but beyond that I don’t know enough to comment. I’m noting this story mostly because of how unusual it is for the DA’s office to be investigated in this manner. It seems to me that in general, a lot of DA’s offices operate without a whole lot of oversight, and that this is how you get situations like that of Michael Morton, in which an innocent man was convicted of a crime in part because exculpatory evidence was never given to the defense attorneys. When you look at all the legal maneuvers the current DA in Williamson County and the District Court judge who was the DA at the time are pulling to avoid having to go on the record about what they did and why they did it, you can clearly see the incentives they have for playing to win rather than working for justice. It may well be that the voters will ultimately hold John Bradley and Ken Anderson accountable at the ballot box, but if that’s the only consequence for conspiring to deprive a man of 25 years of his freedom, well, that ain’t much of an incentive to play by the rules, if you ask me. I don’t know what the answer to this is, but I do know that we ought to be asking some questions about it.

UPDATE: See Murray Newman for more on the Harris County story.

Our gay state

Is getting gayer, according to the Census.

It’s no secret that Austin and Central Texas have much appeal for same-sex couples, but new census data from 2010 underscore the depth and breadth of the attraction. Among the highlights from an American-Statesman analysis of the data:

• Travis County has the state’s highest rate — 1.25 percent, more than twice the statewide average — of households describing themselves as led by same-sex couples. There were about 5,000 same-sex households in Travis County in 2010, a 69 percent increase since 2000.

Travis County’s percentage of same-sex couple households ranks 13th among U.S. counties with at least 200,000 households, according to City of Austin demographer Ryan Robinson. Travis ranked 10th nationally in percentage of lesbian couple households.

• The percentage of same-sex couple households in Austin also grew since 2000 and was even higher than the county’s — 1.28 percent of the city’s 324,892 households were led by same-sex couples in 2010. Those 4,182 same-sex couples were split almost evenly between male couples and female couples.

• Growth among same-sex couple households extended to the four other counties which make up the Austin metropolitan area — Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays and Williamson — expanding on a trend noted across the country after the 2000 census, which found more same-sex couples living in suburban communities outside traditional urban enclaves.

Like Travis, other metro area counties exceeded the statewide average for same-sex couple households and had gains from 2000 ranging from 52 percent in Caldwell to 146 percent in Hays and 170 percent in Williamson, where the overall population increased 69 percent since 2000. Hays’ total population grew 61 percent since 2000.

Bastrop County ranked third, and Hays County fourth, among Texas counties with at least 4,300 households.

You should see the accompanying graphic of growth by county for more information. The greater Houston area saw considerable growth as well, with Montgomery and Fort Bend Counties registering in the 101-300% range, while Galveston, Brazoria, Liberty, and Waller Counties were in the 51-100% group. Harris and Chambers grew at “only” 1 to 50%, which is obviously too big a range to judge whether those scare quotes are needed. Please note that a high growth rate may be simply a function of a very low starting point. Going from one to three represents 200% growth, after all. Also, as the story notes, the growth may really be a reflection of how many such households are willing to identify themselves as such. Anyway, just another dimension to the diversity of Texas to think about.

Veasey’s Congressional plan

We didn’t get a Congressional map from the Senate Redistricting Committee, though we may now get one in a special session but that didn’t stop State Rep. Marc Veasey from drawing his own before sine die.

In Veasey’s map, thirteen of the state’s 36 districts would be minority districts, all of which would lean Democrat, along with one in Travis County. The other 22 districts would lean Republican.

Veasey said he was using the “same logic” Republicans used in 2003 redistricting in arguing that 55 percent of the seats should favor Republicans because 55 percent of the state voted Republican at the time.

“A certain percentage of the population is African-American and Latino and a certain number of seats should be as well,” Veasey said.

Part of Veasey’s motivation in presenting his own map was to promote his approach to redistrict his home of southeast Fort Worth. The African-American community is still smarting from 2003 redistricting, when it was drawn into Denton County-based District 26, now held by U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville. In Veasey’s map, the community would be part of District 35, an African-American district which would also include southeast Arlington and southwest Dallas.

“I wanted to do this for folks in my district who felt they had been wronged last time,” Veasey said.

Veasey emphasized that his map still provides plenty of political opportunities for “the next young stable of leaders in the Republican Party” citing Anglo state representatives Kelly Hancock of Fort Worth, Ken Paxton of McKinney and Van Taylor of Plano.

“It doesn’t take away any opportunities from the Van Taylors and Kelly Hancocks or anyone like that who are future leaders in the Republican Party…Their communities that they represent still have more opportunities than Black and Latino,” Veasey said.

Of course, the Republicans drew a map that was intended to give them far more than 55% of the seats, but that’s neither here nor there. Veasey’s plan is Plan C121, so let’s look at some pictures.

Dallas and Tarrant Counties

According to Veasey’s press release, which is beneath the fold, CD34 is a “new, effective Latino Opportunity District” and CD35 is a “new, effective African American Opportunity District”. I would have to check to see if CD35 includes Rep. Veasey’s home precinct, but I’d be shocked if it didn’t.

South Texas

CD33 is “a new, effective Latino Opportunity District in South Texas.” No room here for Aaron Pena, that’s for sure. The interesting thing is that CD33 continues up into Bexar County, where it takes over a lot of the turf currently in CD23. CD23 in turn gets shifted to the east, while CD28 takes over the western portion of what had been CD23. Here’s a look at the new CD23 and the districts around it:

Central Texas

CD23 would be the “new” Central Texas district in this plan; it would clearly lean Democratic, as would CD27 in South Texas. Veasey’s plan gets to 14 Democratic seats, which by the way is only 39% of 36 total seats and thus still quite reasonable for the Republicans even if you think 2010 was a normal year, by adding those two currently R-held seats to the three new Democratic ones. The district that really interests me in this map is CD31. There’s a piece of Bell County in that district that I can’t quantify, but here are the Sam Houston numbers for the other counties from 2008:

County Wainwright Houston ============================ Blanco 2,951 1,490 Burnet 10,764 4,903 Hays 26,845 26,389 Williamson 81,458 61,782 Total 122,018 94,564

That’s a 56% Republican district, with the population centers of Williamson and Hays trending blue. That would be a district to watch.

Finally, the new Republican district:

Harris County and Southeast Texas

No new Latino district for Harris County, which as Greg notes stands in contrast to MALDEF’s vision. Basically, CD02 takes up more turf and shifts west. CD36 is an amalgam of territory from CDs 02, 08, 14, and 22 and would certainly be Republican. A piece of it is in Harris as well. CD10 becomes solid red as it sheds Travis County and becomes the fourth CD with a piece of Fort Bend. For comparison’s sake, here’s the same area as it is today:

Harris and its environs today

While this is all mostly an academic exercise, as Veasey’s map is hardly likely to get debated, there is a reason for this beyond showing what could be, and that’s showing a court what could be.

Sen. Kel Seliger said his redistricting committee ran out of time, but did produce a map that a federal judge could consider. The committee has not made the map public, and Seliger would not characterize what his map would do in terms of ethnic representation.

“We will take our product … and ask our state officers to present this product to the court as our answer to the legal proceeding,” Seliger said. The court “will get dozens and dozens of them and ours will be a good deal more credible than almost all of them.”

Fort Worth Rep. Marc Veasey, a Democrat on the House redistricting committee, also produced a map that will go before the court. He says his would create two Hispanic-opportunity districts and one African-American district.

“The dramatic growth of the Latino and African American population is the only reason Texas is receiving additional congressional seats, and any plan that fails to add at least three additional effective minority opportunity districts would violate the Voting Rights Act,” Veasey said.

The Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund also proposed an alternative map that produced two Hispanic opportunity districts, one along the border and the other in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Perhaps that mystery map is the one that he and Rep. Burt Solomons now claim to have agreed on. Why they couldn’t get it out in time remains a mystery, but whatever. As for MALDEF, they will argue for their map in court as well. We’ll just see how it plays out from here.

(more…)

New map, new opportunities: Outside the urban areas, part 2

More districts to look at for Democratic opportunities outside of the traditional urban areas.

HD45

District: 45

Incumbent: Jason Isaacs (first elected in 2010)

Counties: Blanco, Hays

Best 2008 Dem performance: Barack Obama, 46.78%

Patrick Rose won this district in 2002, the only Democratic takeover of an existing Republican seat that year. Like many other Democratic legislators, he was swamped by the 2010 tide. The new HD45 drops Caldwell County, which was moderately Democratic at the downballot level in 2008; adding it in makes Susan Strawn, at 47.1%, the top Democratic performer. Rose always won with crossover appeal; as that was in short supply last year, he lost. If Hays County gets blue enough, crossover appeal won’t matter much, but until then a candidate will likely need at least a few Republican defectors to win. I don’t know what kind of Democratic organization exists in Hays right now, but there needs to be some for 2012.

HDs 52 and 149

District: 52
District: 149

Incumbent: Larry Gonzales (HD52, first elected in 2010); none (HD149)

Counties: Williamson (part) for each

Best 2008 Dem performance:Barack Obama for each, 46.18% in HD52, 45.92% in HD149.

Unlike a lot of other districts, Obama outperformed the rest of the ticket here, by three to six points in each case. I don’t know how that changes the dynamic, but I thought it was worth noting. Both districts are in the southern end of WilCo, the fastest growing and closest to Austin parts of the district. I don’t know how conducive they’ll be to electing Democratic reps in 2012, though obviously they both need to be strongly challenged, but it’s not hard to imagine them getting more competitive as the decade goes on. I don’t expect there to be too many boring elections in either of them.

HD54

District: 54

Incumbent: Jimmie Don Aycock (first elected in 2006)

Counties: Bell (part), Lampasas

Best 2008 Dem performance: Sam Houston, 49.01% (plurality)

This one was totally not on my radar. It was so unexpected to me that I figured Aycock, who won easily in 2006 and hasn’t faced a Democrat since, must have gotten screwed somehow by the committee. The 2008 numbers for his old district, in which Houston also got a plurality with a hair under 49%, says otherwise. HD54 swaps out Burnet County (now in HD20, one of the three Williamson County districts) for more of Bell but remains about the same electorally. Typically, downballot Democrats did better than the top of the ticket, with only Jim Jordan and JR Molina not holding their opponents under 50% (McCain got 51.20%, Cornyn 53.85%). I figure the 2008 result in HD54 was a surprise, but the 2012 possibilities should not be. One possible wild card: Aycock was a ParentPAC-backed candidate in 2006, and as far as I know he maintained that endorsement in 2008 and 2010. Back then, the main issue was vouchers, which have been dormant in recent years. Will Aycock’s vote for HB1 and its $8 billion cut to public education cost him ParentPAC support? If so, might that result in a primary challenge, or a general election opponent? That will be worth paying attention to, as it could affect other races as well.

Collin and Denton Counties

District: 64
District: 65
District: 66
District: 67

Incumbent, HD64: Myra Crownover (first elected in 2000)
Incumbent, HD65: Burt Solomons (first elected in 1994)
Incumbent, HD66: Van Taylor (first elected in 2010)
Incumbent, HD67: Jerry Madden (first elected in 1992)

Counties: Collin (66 and 67) and Denton (64 and 65)

Best 2008 Dem performance, HD64: Sam Houston, 41.98%
Best 2008 Dem performance, HD65: Barack Obama, 43.04%
Best 2008 Dem performance, HD66: Barack Obama, 40.21%
Best 2008 Dem performance, HD67: Barack Obama, 39.59%

I don’t actually expect any of these districts to be competitive in 2012. However, if the Democrats hope to have any chance to take the House before the next round of redistricting, they’ll need to be by the end of the decade. Collin and Denton have been two of the fastest growing counties in the state – each got a new district in this map – and they have been slowly but surely trending Democratic. They started at a pretty low point, of course, so they can trend for a long time before it becomes relevant, but as more and more non-Anglos move into the traditional suburbs, I expect the trend to continue. The question is how fast, and how much blood and treasure the Democrats will put into hastening it.

HD85

District: 85

Incumbent: None

Counties: Fort Bend (part), Wharton, Jackson

Best 2008 Dem performance: Susan Strawn, 45.29%

This is the new Fort Bend district, comprising territory that had previously been represented by John Zerwas (Wharton and part of Fort Bend) and Geanie Morrison (Jackson). As with the Denton and Collin districts, it’s probably out of reach in 2012, but it’s also likely to see a lot of growth and demographic change over the course of the decade, and as such ought to get more competitive over time. And again, it needs to be, as I don’t see a path to a Democratic majority that doesn’t include districts like this.