In the most recent issue of The Nation, Ari Berman posits that political fundraising in the weaponized post-Citizen’s United, post McCutcheon era has had the effect of making wealth and the pursuit of wealthy donors a more critical limitation on candidate choices, and suggests that super PAC dominance of the primary elections may violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
Check out his article, “How the Money Primary Is Undermining Voting Rights.”
As I was cleaning dog poop out of our recycling bin today, it reminded me that it is high time to review the election-related accomplishments of the Texas Legislature this session. In 2014 the voters decided to experiment by electing a singularly undistinguished cadre of politicians with zero legislative experience. Let’s see how they did.
84th Texas Legislature – Tale of the Tape
Bills Waiting For the Governor’s Pen
- S.B. 1072 gives a political party the capacity to remove a precinct or county chair who has failed to perform the duties of office. This one is waiting for the Governor’s signature. It’s always been a bone of contention for the state parties that they have no access to any sort of government-enforced mechanism to remove the more useless or troublesome members of their little private clubs. This law will give the parties a chance to cite state law while policing up the conduct of their primaries.
- As of right now, I’m only aware of one bill other than S.B. 1072 affecting election matters has passed both the House and Senate – that’s S.B. 1703, a clean-up bill that gamely attempts to fix all the screwed-up deadlines enumerated in the Election Code that were thrown out of whack by previous fiddling, mostly by extending lots of statutory deadlines by roughly another week. To give election workers more time to mail out military ballots, deadlines for candidate applications have generally been pushed back another week, some tweaking has been done to specify the distinction between “national” and “state” holidays, and holidays and weekends now toll the deadlines for the Early Voting Ballot Board (meaning that election workers no longer have to meet on the weekend in order to satisfy the deadline requirements for resolving provisional ballots).
In other words, it’s a housekeeping bill.
These are a mixed bag of clean-up bills, wonky election nuts-and-bolts bills, and the occasional bills that are just plain nuts. I’ll rank them roughly in order of evilness and likelihood of passage. Please note that the informal bill titles provided are my own, and are not the titles provided by the bill authors or the Texas Legislative Council.
1. Evil Bills That Have Committee Action Scheduled
- H.B. 1096 (i.e., the Defense of Democracy from Icky Homeless and Disabled People Bill) is an eminently unreasonable bill (and therefore has a public hearing scheduled in Senate State Affairs on May 18th) that further beats up voters by forcing them to prove that their residence address is documented on their drivers’ license, when challenged by other voters. This is the sort of anti-voting rights bill that certain … unsavory … elements of the Legislature seem to love. It exempts the voters that the Right approves of and doesn’t want to lump in with the unsavory transients (i.e., military voters, judges, and law enforcement), but otherwise requires people to really, really super prove that they really, really, live somewhere. This is the sort of thing that would never have passed muster back when we had an enforceable preclearance requirement under the Voting Rights Act.
- S.B. 1115 (the Further Pandering To Military Voters Empowerment Act) would establish a pilot program to transmit and receive electronic ballots from military voters. This one is waiting for a floor vote in the House.
2. Probably-not Evil Bills That Are On the Way to Enrollment, Possibly
- S.B. 1448 (the We Can’t Get Our Act Together To Do A Primary Bill) would authorize a state party to contract with county officials to conduct a party primary in those circumstances where the party can’t be arsed to organize itself sufficiently to conduct its own nominating election. This bill looks to sail through on the House Local and Consent calendar.
- S.B. 1779 specifies that the order of candidate names on an expedited run-off ballot will be the same as the order of names on the expedited special election. Dumb, but there you have it – this one is on the House Local and Consent calendar.
- S.B. 383 would give biggish counties a few more days to process their early votes that were cast by mail, in an effort to get all that business out of the way prior to Election Day and hopefully speed up the tabulation process. This one is on the House Local and Consent calendar.
- H.B. 2027 (the Anti-Rolling Polling Place Bill) would require the use of county polling locations for local May elections. This bill is favored by the county election administrators, and opposed by the cities and school districts.The intended practice that the bill would limit is the targeted use of neighborhood early voting locations intended to capture voters that favor a position sought by local government officials. For instance, if a school district has a big bond package to pass, there’s an incentive to schedule voting to take place from 6-8 p.m. at the football stadium on the night of the big high school football game. And so on. Voter cherry-picking happens, and is not well-appreciated by those who see the practice as a dirty trick. However, the opponents of the bill note that taking away the choice of polling places can have equally disastrous effects on turnout, given that the county may not even maintain a precinct polling location within reasonable driving distance of the local government entity. Having lost so much autonomy already, what little choice is left to local voters might be taken away by a bill that favors “uniformity” over convenience. This bill has already been through the Senate Committee and is waiting to go on the calendar for a floor vote.
- H.B. 2050 requires that county voter registrars report to the Secretary of State whether voters voted during early voting, by mail, or in person on election day. This kind of data is theoretically available, or should be, is hotly desired by candidates and campaign consultants, and is currently ineptly or incompletely reported by election officials. This is already on the Local and Consent calendar in the Senate.
- S.B. 142 would allow a county to use the volunteer deputy registrar guide on the Secretary of State’s website to satisfy the “training” requirement that was imposed on volunteer deputy registrars in 2011. Those in favor of less onerous training burdens like this bill (e.g., Bruce Elfant, MALDEF, and the League of Women Voters). This one’s on the Local and Consent Calendar for the House.
- S.B. 795 requires the Secretary of State to coordinate cross-checking voter registrations with the registrations in other states, subject to the National Voter Registration Act, to make sure that people aren’t simultaneously registering to vote in multiple states. Such cross-checking is perfectly reasonable, and happens in an ad-hoc and unsystematic way already. This is out of the House Elections Committee and ready for a floor vote.
- S.B. 733 would prohibit municipal utility districts from moving their election dates. A few MUDs have arguably tried to play a little fast-and-loose with their election schedules in order to artificially extend their tenure in office. S.B. 733 is now the subject of a joint conference committee to hammer out differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.
- H.B. 2366 would clarify that the early voting clerk is supposed to deliver a list of people who voted early to the Election Day precinct judge not later than the day before Election Day. This bill has already been heard, and is waiting to be calendared.
3. Bills that Are Probably Dead
- H.B. 2644 would expand an existing notice requirement following county redistricting – all counties, regardless of population, would have to notify county party chairs of changes in county election precinct boundary lines following redistricting. (Currently, the party chairs only get formal notice when in counties with populations of a million or more). This bill has been referred to Senate State Affairs.
- H.B. 675 (The OMG Scary Technology Is Out of Control Bill) tries gamely to deal with the vagaries and desires of smart phone owners. On the one hand, we don’t want people taking pictures of stuff inside a polling place – they could be identifying ballot choices, getting a leg up on secret information about voting trends, etc. On the other hand, who doesn’t love their smart phones – what if you’re a voter who has just typed all your tentative choices into your online notes, but now you’re in the booth and you can’t remember who it was you wanted to vote for. And that mean election judge is threatening to destroy you for slipping your phone out of your pocket while voting. Ack! What to do? This bill specifies that you can still use your phone as long as you just use it for your own benefit in the voting booth, but not to spy on other voters. This is another “pending” bill in Senate State Affairs.
- H.B. 621 is an odd duck of a bill. It provides more specific grounds for getting rid of volunteer deputy registrars – allowing election administrators to “fire” volunteers who destroy or misdirect voter registration applications. The odd thing about the bill is the assortment of strange bedfellows that it has made; the bill is opposed by both the Texas Democratic Party and the Republican County Chairman’s Association, as well as the Harris County Republican Party Ballot Security Committee and Bruce Elfant (the aggressively progressive Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector). The bill is supported by the Bexar County Elections Administrator, the Texas Association of Election Administrators, and the notorious True the Vote organization.
I suspect that the bill’s support comes from groups expressing a largely apolitical administrative desire on the part of election administrators to have more say in who gets to act as a volunteer deputy registrar, plus the rabidly anti-voter registration True the Vote bunch. The bill’s opposition probably reflects the fears on the part of partisans that any further throttling of volunteer deputy registrars will leave the candidates without any effective means of getting out the vote – using volunteer deputy registrars as punching bags may satisfy some short-term desire for political payback, but the long-term effects are bad for candidates on both sides of the aisle. H.B. 621 is now pending in Senate State Affairs.
- H.B. 258 is an eminently reasonable (and therefore likely doomed) bill that requires a county voter registrar to explain why a person’s voter registration application was rejected – the bill has been sent to Senate State Affairs where it is expected to get a chilly reception, given that it’s much easier to reject voter registration applications when you don’t have to give the voter specific reasons why their application was insufficient. Support for this bill has shaken out along partisan lines, with the Democrats being for, and the Harris County Republicans being against.
- H.B. 2354 continues the ongoing saga of where to put the May election, a problem that has existed ever since the election calendar got screwed up when the Legislature moved the primaries to March. Currently the May elections take place the day before Mothers’ Day, which everybody hates. Unfortunately, everyone hates every other possible date available for the May election. Too late in May and it interferes with high school graduation. Too early, and it bumps up against the post-election management of the primaries in even-numbered years.
The May election date has bounced back and forth. It’s been on the third Saturday, the first Saturday, the second Saturday, the first Saturday, and the second Saturday. This bill would push it back to the first Saturday in May again.
My recommendation, as always, would be to move the primaries to June, and put the May election back in the month of April where God intended it to be in the first place. The Senate State Affairs Committee will hear testimony on this bill on May 18th.
- H.B. 3122 is intended to provide some mechanism for correcting the knee-jerk rejection of ballots by the early voting ballot board, by allowing the election administrator to seek a court injunction to overturn the ballot rejection. This one has gone to the Senate State Affairs Committee to die a quiet death.
- H.B. 2986 is a short bill intended to clarify that when a governing body canvasses an election, the information is supposed to be recorded in the minutes of the canvassing authority. Not a change in the law, but a reaction to the frustratingly mistake-riddled tendency by local governments not to maintain an actual election register as the law has always required. This one has been referred to Senate State Affairs.
- S.B. 1984 (the Crimethink Bill) contains the astonishingly stupid idea that the Attorney General should be the one who canvasses the gubernatorial and Lieutenant governor elections, and not the Legislature. Why should an elected executive officer canvass the elections of the other top two statewide elected officers? Um. Reasons. Because otherwise, old, grubby lame-duck legislators will get their dirty little mitts all over the canvassing. This bill is dependent on the voters approving a constitutional amendment to
upend the whole structure of state government. Or something.
- H.B. 3056 [CORRECTION – thanks to Sondra Haltom] would allow late-arriving ballot APPLICATIONS to be effective in subsequent run-off elections. Pending in Senate State Affairs.
- H.B. 1927 would permit one application for a ballot by mail to operate as a request for ballots for more than one election. This is schedules for a public hearing at Senate State Affairs on May 18th.
- S.B. 1034 is very similar to H.B. 1927, and would allow an application for a ballot by mail to be operational for multiple elections. Pending in the House Elections Committee.
- H.B. 1308 would permit a person to return a marked ballot by mail in person, rather than by mailing it. Um. Okay. Why exactly did you vote by mail? Anyway, this one is pending in Senate State Affairs.
- H.B. 2778 would allow the transmission of emailed ballot materials to military voters for local (non-federal) elections, in the same manner as provided for in federal elections. This will be discussed at Senate State Affairs on May 18th.
4. Bills that are Boring or Stupid
- H.B. 3902 authorizes the distribution of explanatory material to primary voters who don’t know what a party convention is, presumably to head off the problems caused by thousands of voters jamming up the party nominating process because they don’t know what they’re doing. This one is in Senate State Affairs.
- S.B. 1073 (the Why Can’t I Google Every Candidate? Bill) requires that all candidates, as a condition of applying for a place on the ballot, must provide their email, mailing address, and website for their campaign. This one was referred to House Elections.
- S.B. 19 (the No Druggies Running for Office Bill) is even more stupid, requiring that all candidates must submit to public drug testing as a condition of running for office. Okay. Not surprisingly, this bill died an ignominious death in committee.
- H.B. 484 adds a requirement that candidates must also be registered voters in order to run for office, except when the State or Federal Constitution specify the particular requirements for the office. Again, huh – this is another example of a solution in search of a problem. Plus, it’s probably an unconstitutional restraint on candidacy. Be that as it may, Senate State Affairs considered this at the May 14th public hearing.
- H.B. 1026 specifies that a tabulation supervisor must also be a registered voter in the county conducting the election. [Correction – the purpose of this bill is to expand the available pool of tabulation clerks, and is viewed by the county election officials as a clean-up bill].
- H.B. 2900 fixes a reference to the Election Assistance Commission. This one is on the Senate intent calendar.
- H.B. 3880 (The We’re Sick of Judicial Petition Signature Requirements Bill) would repeal the requirement that appellate judges collect signature petitions on top of the other requirements to run for office. This one hasn’t been assigned to a committee yet.
- H.B. 1532 would require quarterly finance reports from special-purpose political action committees. Okay. Scheduled for a public hearing on May 19th in Senate Business and Commerce.
- S.B. 1437 would authorize the filing of electronic finance reports. Scheduled for public hearing on May 21 in the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee.
- H.B. 1114 would require special PACs favoring or opposing school bonds to file ethics reports. Looks like the school voucher crazies may have killed this one.
Of course, the decision by the Legislature to punish gay people has upended the schedule for the end of the session, because the members of the moderate rump have all vowed to gum up the works and slow approval of around 200 bills. Most of the pending election bills aren’t particularly critical, and at least a few would benefit from dying (drug testing for candidates, disenfranchising people without drivers’ licenses). [Update – of course, as you know, the Democrats successfully ran the clock on the monumentally stupid “We Hate Gay People” bill, leading everyone to breath a sigh of relief].
But … what about all the good that could have been done this session? What about the broad bipartisan support for electronic online voter registration, an administrative godsend that would have saved the State money, gotten more people registered to vote, sped up and modernized election administration, and ushered Texas into the 20th Century? (Or at the very least, gotten us into the latter half of the 19th Century).
Alas, what I heard was that “broad bipartisan support” for online voter registration should have been read as “broad bipartisan support from people whose opinions don’t matter, but opposed by the tiny but powerful cadre of arch-conservatives who dread the idea of more people registering to vote.” Surprisingly, the Elections Division at the Secretary of State is rumored to have lobbied against online voter registration, which presages a disturbing partisanship in what should be a non-partisan office.
May 9th, inconveniently placed just prior to Mother’s Day, is Election Day for thousands of political subdivisions across Texas. No, it’s not the Presidential Election. And no, it isn’t an election that draws a lot of media attention.
It’s just the election that determines a tremendous amount of your day-to-day interaction with government. Depending on where you are, there are likely to be school bond issues, city council elections, water district tax approvals, Emergency Services Districts creation elections, incorporation elections, civil service agreements, animal registration authorizations, city charter amendments, school board elections, irrigation district board of supervisor elections, community college annexations, property tax exemptions, county road district elections, local option liquor elections, library district elections, hospital district elections, navigation district elections, freshwater conservation district elections, annexations, deannexations, rate increases, rate decreases, airport management district elections, city referenda, and on, and on, and on.
Although the May election is diminished somewhat of late (because of recent changes in the law and in the management of elections that throttle back on democracy and limit what was once a much more visible and obvious civic event), this election will have a direct and immediate impact on your life. So yeah, it’s important.
Limiting Public Participation In Government
Chapter 41 of the Texas Election Code describes generally how and when elections happen in Texas, more or less. (See, e.g., Section 41.001 of the Election Code).
Except … there are specific, particular laws both within and outside the Election Code that explicitly limit how often elections can happen. County governments can no longer schedule elections in May of even-numbered years. The February and September election dates were eliminated almost a decade ago. School districts have to move their trustee election dates to conform to the election schedules of some other political entity (as a consequence of Section 11.581 of the Texas Education Code, one of the most diabolical and disruptive pieces of anti-school-district legislation of the past decade). To add to the limitations, county election administrators don’t have to help local entities conduct elections in May of even-numbered years, but in the era of electronic voting systems, county assistance is critical to the conduct of local elections.
If I’m going to throw out words like “diabolical” and disruptive” in reference to Section 11.581 of the Education Code, I suppose I owe it to my readers to explain myself.
In the general and special legislative sessions of 2005-2006, the Legislature was once again brought face to face with its functional incapacity to do anything about the abysmal state of public education funding. Finally, in the 3rd Called Session in 2006, the members managed to pass H.B. 1, a massively flawed and vindictive “screw you” public education finance bill that had as its primary intent the stripping away of local taxing authority for school districts.
At the last minute a rider was added to the bill – a floor amendment that drew almost no debate. It specified that school district trustee elections had to be conducted jointly with regular city council elections, notwithstanding (1) the fact that many cities now cancel their city council elections for lack of opposed races; (2) school districts don’t share the same territorial boundaries as cities, and often aren’t associated with incorporated city territories; and (3) imposing city control over school district trustee election schedules is a further limitation of school district autonomy.
The effect of the law was electric – it dramatically disrupted trustee election schedules, delayed elections in many districts, violated the state constitutional prohibition against terms of office being extended beyond four years, prompted years of political wrangling and waste, and accomplished exactly nothing positive. In short, it was a stupid, mean-spirited “fix” of a nonexistent school-related problem that our Legislature seems to excel at. Ostensibly, it was intended to promote “one-stop” voting in order to increase turn-out in school district trustee elections, but practically, it functioned to further limit voter input into the government of school districts.
Speaking of the Legislature, the 2015 general session is winding down towards what looks to be another interminable collection of special sessions. In my next post, I’ll take a look at the “accomplishments” of the House Elections Committee and the Senate State Affairs Committee with respect to election-related laws this session.