Category Archives: voting

Texas election roundup: Runoff results are in!

Numbers are in from Tuesday’s primary runoff elections across the state. On a day that raised serious questions about the state’s ability to hold an effective election during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were a few surprise wins and losses. Some mail ballots had yet to be counted early Wednesday morning. Because of this and issues with reporting by the Texas Secretary of State’s office, which documents election results, these results remain unofficial and subject to change.

U.S. Senate

In the marquee race on the Democratic runoff ballot, U.S. Air Force veteran MJ Hegar defeated state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) 52% to 48%. Hegar will face Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in the November election. Sen. West will continue to serve out his term as a state senator.

State Board of Education (SBOE)

Two SBOE primary races resulted in a runoff that concluded last night. Both races are for open seats where the incumbent is not seeking re-election.

Michelle Palmer defeated Kimberly McCleod in the Democratic runoff for SBOE District 6, which represents Houston. Palmer will face Republican Will Hickman and Libertarian candidate Whitney Bilyeu in November. The seat is currently held by Donna Bahorich (R-Houston), who is not running for reelection.

Republican Lani Popp defeated controversial candidate Robert Morrow in the District 5 GOP runoff. Popp will face Democrat Rebecca Bell-Metereau and Libertarian candidate Stephanie Berlin in in November. Notably, Popp had been endorsed by all sitting Republican members of the board, including incumbent Ken Mercer (R-San Antonio). SBOE Chair Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) weighed in on the race Tuesday morning via Twitter with one of the day’s less subtle endorsements:

Texas House of Representatives

Several Texas House incumbents lost their primary runoff contests Tuesday, including several who had trailed their opponents by a substantial margin during the March primaries and a couple who had only held their House seats for a few short months.

State Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van), who served in the House since 2002 and previously chaired the House Pensions committee, lost to repeat challenger Bryan Slaton by a vote of 37% to 63% in the House District (HD) 2 Republican runoff. Flynn had been endorsed by Gov. Greg Abbott and by the pro-public education group Texas Parent PAC. Slaton will go on to face Democrat Bill Brannon in November.

Republican Cody Vasut defeated Ro’Vin Garrett in HD 25, which is the open race for the seat currently held by outgoing House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton). Vasut will face Democrat Patrick Henry in November.

In a HD 26 double header, Republican Jacey Jetton beat Matt Morgan, while repeat candidate Sarah DeMerchant defeated Suleman Lalani in the Democratic runoffJetton and DeMerchant will now face each other in the fall for the seat held by outgoing state Rep. Rick Miller (R-Sugar Land) who is not seeking re-election. Voters in HD 26 have elected Republicans in the past, but the district has been trending Democratic. Beto O’Rourke won the district by 1.6% in 2018 after Donald Trump won by 4.9% in 2016. Greg Abbott won the district by more than 33% in 2014.

Republican candidate Carrie Isaac handily defeated Bud Wymore in HD 45. Isaac, the wife of former Rep. Jason Isaac, will face incumbent Democratic Rep.Erin Zwiener and Green Party candidate Dan Lyon in the November general election. This one is considered a very competitive swing district.

In another Republican match-up, Justin Berry defeated Jennifer Fleck in HD 47. Berry will go up against incumbent Democratic Rep. Vikki Goodwin along with with Libertarian candidate Michael Clark in the general election. HD 47 is yet another swing district deemed to be competitive for both major parties.

State Rep. J.D. Sheffield (R-Gatesville) fell to challenger Shelby Slawson in the HD 59 Republican runoff, 38% to 62%. Like ousted incumbent Flynn, Sheffield had been visibly supported by the governor, and he was endorsed by Texas Parent PAC over the course of multiple elections. Slawson is unopposed in the general election, making this one a “winner-take-all” runoff.

In a stern rebuke of anti-public education provocateurs Empower Texans, Glenn Rogers defeated Jon Francis in the open HD 60 GOP runoff, 52% to 48%. Rogers was supported by Texas Parent PAC and Gov. Abbott, while Francis’s campaign was bankrolled almost entirely by his father-in-law, West Texas billionaire and Empower Texans megadonor Farris Wilks. Rogers faces third-party candidate Scott Coleman in the fall.

In another Democratic runoff, Lorenzo Sanchez will go on to face incumbent Republican Jeff Leach in the general after defeating Tom Adair in the HD 67 Democratic primary. Green Party candidate Kashif Riaz will also be on the November ballot.

State Rep. Lorraine Birabil (D-Dallas) appears to have narrowly lost to challenger Jasmine Crockett by less than 100 votes in the HD 100 Democratic runoff. Birabil, who was endorsed by Texas Parent PAC, won a special runoff election in January to fill the seat previously held by Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson. Crockett moves forward unopposed in the general election, making her the presumptive winner of this seat.

Democrat Liz Campos defeated Jennifer Ramos in the HD 119 runoff. She will face Republican George B. Garza in the November election, along with Green Party candidate Antonio Padron and Libertarian Arthur Thomas, IV. The seat is currently held by state Rep. Roland Gutierrez, who is running run for the Texas Senate.

Democrat Akilah Bacy soundly beat Jenifer Rene Pool in HD 138 for another open seat. Bacy, who has been endorsed by Texas Parent PAC, will face Republican Lacey Hull in November to replace outgoing state Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston) who is not seeking re-election.

State Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) defeated his challenger Jerry Davis in the HD 142 Democratic primary, 52% to 48%. Dutton, the third longest serving member in the Texas House, will face Republican challenger Jason Rowe and an independent candidate Whitney Hatter in the fall.

In HD 148, Democratic challenger Penny Morales Shaw defeated another short-term incumbent, state Rep. Anna Eastman (D-Houston) by 200 votes, 54% to 46%. Eastman won a special runoff election in January to fill the seat vacated by former state Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston). Shaw will face Republican Luis LaRotta in the general election.

Texas Senate

There were two Texas State Senate runoffs in play yesterday. First, state Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) defeated Xochil Pena Rodriguez in the Democratic runoff for Senate District (SD) 19 to face Republican state Sen. Pete Flores (R-Pleasanton) in the general election. Libertarian candidate Jo-Anne Valdivia will also be on the ballot in November. Sen. Flores flipped this seat that was previously held by a Democrat in a surprising special election held in September 2018.

In SD 27, State Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) last night survived a primary challenge by Brownsville attorney Sara Stapleton-Barrera by a vote of 54% to 46%. Sen. Lucio, who has served as Vice Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, will face Republican Vanessa Tijerina in the general election; an independent candidate Javier Navarro also filed to run for this seat. Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick congratulated Lucio on his primary win.

Many Austin-area voters also participated in a special election Tuesday. Former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt appears headed to a runoff against state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) after finishing with 49.7% and 33.8% of the vote, respectively. The two Democrats were the top finishers in a special election to represent SD 14, after longtime state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) resigned earlier this year to accept a post with the University of Houston.

Voter Turnout

In general, the primary runoffs exposed some deeply troubling issues with voting during the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from problems with voting by mail, to staffing issues resulting from poll workers who refused to wear masks, to issues for voters who have tested positive for COVID-19.

A total of 660,184 Democrats and 420,960 Republicans voted early in the runoff elections for a combined turnout of 6.61%. Of those, 30% of Democrats and 24% of Republicans cast ballots by mail. Election Day turnout figures were not immediately available from the Texas Secretary of State, but 955,735 Democrats voted in the statewide runoff for U.S. Senate. There was not a statewide runoff on the Republican ballot, making comparisons difficult without official turnout numbers.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: July 10, 2020

ATPE closed out its first virtual Summit today, which featured several discussions about COVID-19 and school safety. Read more about what happened this week from our Governmental Relations team:


The ATPE House of Delegates (HOD) approved new COVID-19 resolutions Thursday. The resolutions urge the state and federal government to delay in-person instruction this fall, suspend STAAR and TELPAS testing, require districts to include educator input in COVID-19 planning, and allocate funding for substitute teachers in light of quarantine requirements for educators. The HOD is composed of ATPE members and meets annually to vote on the organization’s policies, direction, and leadership. ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes said, “All along, ATPE has said that Texas students, parents, and educators deserve to be safe and have a firm understanding of the steps being taken to provide a safe learning environment, and this vote by our members strongly reaffirms our stance.” Read more in this Teach the Vote blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier and on the ATPE blog.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released its latest public health guidance this week pertaining to the return to school that has unfortunately left many educators with even less certainty about their safety than when draft guidelines were released a couple weeks ago. While the new guidelines recognize Gov. Abbott’s mask order, provide three weeks of district flexibility at the start of the year, and provide some strengthened districts requirements, they do not require the involvement of educators and parents in developing COVID-19 protocols .

ATPE issued a statement on the release of the guidance emphasizing the rights of students, parents, and educators to understand the steps being take to ensure safety. We will continue to advocate for strengthened health and safety guidelines, as outlined in our comprehensive recommendations. In an interview this week with News 4 in San Antonio, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter suggested a potential solution to the return to school could be to pair students who have chosen a virtual learning option with teachers who are least comfortable returning to school. Read more about the final guidance in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier and listen to Exter’s comments on the guidance with KURV710 radio.

Many educators are starting to learn more about their districts’ plans for a return to school. Visit ATPE’s COVID-19 FAQ and Resources page for the latest news and answers to educators’ commonly asked questions during the pandemic.


ELECTION UPDATE: Early voting for the primary runoffs and the Texas Senate District 14 special election ends today. Election day is Tuesday, July 14, but we highly recommend you early vote today in order to avoid crowds and lines if you can.

To date, turnout has been 3.25% in the Democratic runoffs and 2.13% in the Republican runoffs for a combined 5.38% turnout statewide. This number is incredibly small, yet still higher than in previous years. Voters had an extra week to vote early during this runoff election after Gov. Greg Abbott extended the early voting period in order to spread out crowds at polling locations where COVID-19 may be spread.

The latest campaign finance reports paint a picture of some very deep pockets getting involved in runoff races. Meanwhile, candidates continue to participate in virtual public forums and face off in online debates. Get the full scoop on this week’s election news in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

The recent uptick in Texas officials from both parties calling for a suspension of STAAR testing in the 2020-21 school year is a testament to the link between increasing voter engagement, politics, and the education profession. It’s become clear that the power of educator votes is recognized. Find a list of polling places here, and be sure to check out recent polling closures in Travis and Bexar counties. Review candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote and then create a personalized ballot here. Stay safe, Texas voters!


FEDERAL UPDATE: The education community buzzed over the past several days as federal officials tried to light a fire under states to reopen schools this fall. Earlier in the week, President Donald Trump tweeted that he disagreed with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines to reopen schools, saying they were impractical and expensive. New CDC guidance is expected next week. Throughout the week, the president tweeted that schools must open in the fall, even suggesting that the federal government may cut off funding to schools that don’t reopen. On Tuesday, the White House hosted a summit on “Safely Reopening America’s Schools” that emphasized the American Academy of Pediatrics’ push for an in-person return to school this fall, much as TEA Commissioner Mike Morath has done.

Though U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on Tuesday corroborated on Fox News the president’s sentiment to withhold funding, she has since appeared to change her messaging. On Thursday, DeVos conveyed to Fox News host Tucker Carlson that the federal government is not suggesting withholding funds, but instead wants to allow “families to take that money and figure out where their kids can get educated if their schools are going to refuse to open,” echoing her previous support for private school vouchers as a solution to the fears around schooling during the pandemic.

In a Wednesday Coronavirus Task Force briefing held at the Department of Education, Vice President Mike Pence said the White House will be, “looking for ways to give states a strong incentive and an encouragement to get kids back to school.” Congressional work on a spending bill that includes education is still pending, but is expected to advance this month.


In addition to the final public health guidance released by TEA this week, the agency updated its resources on the Coronavirus Support Page and sent out new correspondence regarding principal training on remote instruction and optional beginning-of-year (BOY) assessments.

TEA has released new instructional continuity information on additional school days and a district planning guidebook for fall and various academic resources (on-campus course recommendations, graduation guidance, Texas virtual school FAQ). The optional BOY assessments for the 2020-2021 school year use released STAAR questions to measure understanding of TEKS from the previous school year and will not be used for accountability purposes, according to TEA. The agency also released several flyers and resources to help with district outreach to increase the number of families participating in the P-EBT program.

TEA also updated several resources on waivers, finance, and grants this week, including a revised attendance and enrollment FAQ stating that districts, “must offer sufficient on-campus instruction in every grade so that every parent has an on-campus attendance option every day for their student.” Therefore, no district can be 100% virtual and must offer in-person options five days a week. TEA also posted a revised equitable services FAQ, following the U.S. Department of Education’s officially published interim rule last week, along with revised documents on federal funding and waivers.

 


What can you do to spread the word about the 2020 U.S. Census? In this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier, read about key considerations for educators and community stakeholders when planning census outreach. Chevalier provides helpful tools and resources for messaging, recognizing hard-to-count communities, and knowing all of the facts as you get out the count. Happy census-ing!

Texas election roundup: Last chance to vote in the runoffs!

Friday, July 10, is the last day to early vote before the July 14 runoff elections across Texas, and campaigns are in the final sprint to the finish line.

With the pandemic ramping up across much of the state, heading to a polling location can seem like a frightening prospect at the moment. Check out a few ways to reduce your risk while voting in a pandemic, as well as this post on ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier’s experience voting.

Through Wednesday, 316,664 people cast votes in the Republican runoffs, 30% of whom voted by mail. Another 482,020 voted in the Democratic runoffs, 38% of whom voted by mail. Turnout was 1.94% for Republicans and 2.95% for Democrats, for a combined turnout of 4.89%.

Even though the turnout number is still extremely low, it marks a substantial increase from the 2.13% combined turnout by mid-week of early voting in the 2018 runoffs and 1.45% in the 2016 runoffs. Unlike previous runoff elections, Gov. Greg Abbott added an extra week of early voting during this year’s runoffs with the aim of spreading out voters to reduce crowding at polling locations.

The latest campaign finance reports show incumbents with the usual fundraising advantage. However there were some notable findings in the reports. Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign spent at least $125,000 after jumping into the runoffs to thrash Empower Texans, after the anti-public education organization mocked the governor’s disability. Speaking of which, Empower Texans bankroller Farris Wilks gave $425,000 to son-in-law Jon Francis in House District 60, where he faces Texas Parent PAC endorsed candidate Glenn Rogers in the Republican runoff.

Campaigns have continued to find creative ways to deal with the pandemic even as infection rates soar. Futuro RGV hosted an online debate in Senate District 27, where state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) faces challenger Sara Stapleton Barrera. You can watch a video of their debate here.

Raise Your Hand Texas, which is funded by HEB owner Charles Butt to advocate for public education, hosted a pair of virtual panels this week featuring runoff races. Tuesday’s panel included state Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) and attorney Xochil Pena Rodriguez, both of whom are running for the Democratic nomination to face Republican state Sen. Pete Flores (R-Pleasanton) in Senate District 19. The seat was previously held by state Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio), before flipping Republican in a special election in 2018. You can view their discussion here.

Thursday’s panel featured Democrat Dr. Suleman Lalani and Republicans Jacey Jetton and Matt Morgan sparring for an open seat in House District 26. Lalani is in a runoff with Sarah DeMerchant, who did not participate in the panel. During the discussion, both Jetton and Morgan announced support for vouchers. You can view their conversation here.

Our friends at the Texas Educators Vote coalition remind you to vote safely and make your voice heard! This begins with reviewing voting histories and candidate profiles right here at TeachTheVote.org under the candidates tab. Happy voting!

Voting in a pandemic: One ATPE lobbyist’s experience

Today is the first day of early voting for the Texas primary runoff elections. Last week, I checked to see if my normal early voting polling location here in Central Texas was still open, since I knew some locations had been forced to close due to the pandemic. It was indeed still open with hours of 8 am to 5 pm, so I made a plan to vote on the first day of early voting, trying to avoid crowds and lines as much as possible.

Preparing to vote this morning was different from my experience in previous elections. I gathered a face mask, hand sanitizer, a stylus, a pencil with eraser, my driver’s license, and my voter registration card. I wanted to have a couple different stylus options for the touch-screen voting machines, just in case. I didn’t end up needing the registration card or the pencil, but they were good to have.

There weren’t any more cars than normal when I arrived at my polling place, and there wasn’t a line or anyone appearing to use curbside voting. This felt typical, especially since I tend to go in the early hours of the first day of early voting. There were new signs posted outside the polling location showing suggestions such as wearing a mask, keeping distance between you and others, bringing a stylus, and using curbside voting if you had COVID-19 symptoms.

The inside of my polling location looked mostly the same, although I think there were fewer voting machines since they were more spaced out. There were also Plexiglas protectors at the check-in area and all poll workers were wearing masks. I provided my driver’s license to the poll worker under a small opening in the glass partition. When I said the wrong street address, I realized I was a little nervous and the poll worker reassured me that everything was very clean and that they had been trained extensively on how to protect themselves and voters.

I highly recommend that you early vote. I was the only voter in the room the entire time and was in-and-out in under five minutes. Early voting for the primary runoffs and the SD 14 special election if you live in the Austin area runs from June 29 to July 10. Election day is July 14. Remember, everyone can participate in the runoffs, even if you didn’t vote in March.

  • If you didn’t vote in the primaries in March, you can vote in either party’s primary for the runoff.
  • If you voted in the Democratic primary in March, you must vote in the Democratic primary runoff.
  • If you voted in the Republican primary in March, you must vote in the Republican primary runoff.
  • If you live in Texas Senate District (SD) 14, you have a special election to vote in as well!

Create your personalized ballot here.

Find your polling locations and hours here.

Learn more about candidates’ views on education issues here on Teach the Vote.

Texas election roundup: Early voting begins Monday, June 29

Early voting begins Monday, June 29, 2020, for the July 14 primary runoff elections across the state of Texas, as well as for a special election to fill an open Texas Senate seat in Central Texas.

Gov. Greg Abbott postponed the runoff elections three months ago from their original May 26 election date over concerns about the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus. Infections today are even higher than they were back then, which highlights the importance of making a plan to vote safely.

As we previously reported here on Teach the Vote, the Texas Secretary of State last month released a list of “minimum recommended health protocols” for voting, which instructs voters to consider maintaining six feet of separation, self-screen, bring their own stylus or pencil with eraser, bring hand sanitizer, and wear a mask when they head to the polls. For those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, voters are encouraged to consider utilizing curbside voting if they meet the eligibility requirements. Curbside voting is typically reserved for voters with disabilities who are not physically able to enter polling locations without assistance or who may be likely to injure their health by doing so.

Texas polling places must offer curbside voting for certain individuals who are unable to enter a polling location due to a disability. The Secretary of State’s website explains, “If a voter is physically unable to enter the polling place, he or she may ask that an election officer bring a ballot to the entrance of the polling place or to a car at parked at the curbside. After the voter marks the ballot, they will give it to the election officer, who will put it in the ballot box. Or, at the voter’s request, a companion may hand the voter a ballot and deposit it for him or her.” The Secretary of State’s office suggests checking your county’s voting website and calling ahead to the polling location before voting curbside. You can read more about curbside voting in this post by Disability Rights Texas.

The Secretary of State’s office offered additional info on curbside voting and voting by mail in a webinar hosted earlier this month by the Texas League of Women Voters. State officials emphasized that if a voter has voted by mail in the past and their qualifying circumstances have not changed, they can still vote by mail.

With the possibility of a greater number of voters choosing to vote curbside and fewer election volunteers working at polling places due to the coronavirus pandemic, early voting and allowing ample time to cast your vote is extra important for this runoff. The Texas League of Women Voters recommends voting early during non-peak hours in order to encounter the fewest people possible. The Secretary of State’s office also recently reiterated the importance of voting early and following the health and safety protocols, stating, “It is essential to our democracy that Texans are able to safely and confidently cast their vote.”

Multiple lawsuits have been filed aimed at expanding the ability of Texans to vote by mail, as some voters feel they must make a choice this year between exercising their civic duty by voting and protecting their health and that of their families. The fact remains that voting is the single most powerful way to ensure elected officials prioritize public education, listen to educators, and put children first. The decision of whether to cast your vote is yours alone, and we recognize the courage it takes to participate in democracy at this unprecedented moment in history. We urge you to follow all of the safety precautions to protect yourself while you exercise this most critical constitutional right.

As a reminder, early voting runs June 29 – July 10, 2020. Check out ATPE’s profiles of candidates for the Texas Legislature and State Board of Education here on Teach the Vote.

Texas election roundup: Registration deadline approaching!

It’s hard to imagine, but we are quickly approaching another important election in Texas! The primary runoff elections that were postponed to July 14 from their original May 26 date are almost upon us. In fact, Monday, June 15, 2020, is the last day to register to vote before this election.

Not sure if you are registered to vote? Check your status online using this handy resource provided by the Texas Secretary of State. It’s a great habit to get into to take two minutes to make sure your voter address and registration status are correct and up-to-date. If you need to register or make corrections to your registration, click here.

While the following saying may or may not be attributable to founding father Thomas Jefferson, it is nonetheless true:

“We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.”

This is why ATPE continues to emphasize the importance of voting, and why your vote in a runoff election may be the most influential vote you cast throughout the entire election cycle. That’s because turnout is typically so low in a runoff election that the outcome of each race may be decided by just a handful of voters.

This is a critical time for our state. The candidates voters choose to represent them will have tremendous influence over school funding, state assessments, teacher pay, school safety, and countless other issues that will be even more important in light of the pandemic and the resulting economic recession. To put an even finer point on the matter, candidates elected this year to the Texas Legislature could make the difference in next year’s state budget decisions that will have a direct impact on school district staffing.

Remember also that in many cases here in Texas, the winners of the July 14 runoffs will become the ultimate winners of the final election in November, since so many races in Texas are decided by the primaries and not the general election. If you are eligible to vote in the upcoming runoff, as many of you are, we encourage you to learn about the candidates ahead of the election, and make sure your family and friends turn out to vote, as well.

Find out who is running in your district by checking out the Candidates section of our Teach the Vote website. Read their responses to the ATPE Candidate Survey, check out the incumbent legislators’ voting records on education issues, and arm yourself with the information necessary to make an informed choice in support of public education.

Make your voice heard. Early voting in the runoff elections begins June 29, 2020.

Texas election roundup: Another court decision on mail-in voting

For weeks there has been a back-and-forth battle being waged over Texas voting laws, but that fight may be drawing closer to an end. Today, June 4, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals became the latest in a litany of federal and state courts to weigh in on a debate at the intersection of elections and the coronavirus pandemic: whether to expand eligibility for mail-in voting.

As previously reported here on Teach the Vote, the Texas Supreme Court and a federal district court were the last to weigh in on this issue prior to today’s ruling. A federal district judge previously issued an order to allow all registered voters in Texas to apply for mail-in ballots, based on finding our state’s current restrictions to be unconstitutional. The federal appellate court ruling issued today blocks that district court’s order from taking effect.

While the Fifth Circuit’s ruling today is merely a stay of the lower court’s order, the language used by two members of the three-judge panel demonstrates the appellate court’s dubious view on the merits of using litigation to expand mail-in voting eligibility. We will have to wait to hear a more final word from the appeals court, but it does not appear likely that more people will be permitted to avoid visiting the polls in person while still exercising their right to vote.

Regardless of the final outcome at the Fifth Circuit, the losing side is likely to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which may or may not choose to hear the case. Most cases appealed to the highest court in the nation do not get heard, which means a ruling by the circuit court often becomes the last word on federal judicial matters. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates.

Texas election roundup: Voter safety and a court ruling

The on-again, off-again saga of whether or not all Texas voters can vote by mail continued this week with a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court yesterday. The state’s highest court agreed with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that a lack of immunity to the novel coronavirus does not constitute a disability that would enable a voter to be eligible to vote by mail.

The issue remains clear as mud, though, as the court left much to voter discretion, saying, “…a voter can take into consideration aspects of his health and his health history that are physical conditions in deciding whether, under the circumstances, to apply to vote by mail because of disability.” Furthermore, in a rejection of Paxton’s request, the court ruled that local officials can’t reject voters who cite an unspecified disability on their application for a ballot by mail.

As we have been reporting here on Teach the Vote, the debate over mail-in voting is also being heard in the federal court system. Through an administrative stay, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has temporarily blocked a lower court’s ruling to expand vote-by-mail options last week. The fight is likely headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Also this week, Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughes issued a new, recommended minimum health protocol for voters and election workers. Formatted as a checklist, the protocol instructs voters heading to the polls to consider maintaining six feet of separation, self-screening, bringing their own stylus or pencil with eraser, bringing hand sanitizer, and wearing a mask. For those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, voters are encouraged to consider utilizing curbside voting, if they meet the eligibility requirements. Curbside voting is typically reserved for voters with disabilities who are not able physically able to enter polling locations without assistance or who may be likely to injure their health by doing so. The checklist also includes training and safety measures for poll workers and poll watchers, as well as overall sanitation guidelines for the polling place.

As a reminder, be sure to find what’s on your ballot here and mark the following election dates on your calendar:

  • June 15: Last day to register to vote in July 14 elections
  • June 29 – July 10: Early voting for July 14 elections
  • July 2: Last day to apply for a ballot by mail for the July 14 election. Applications must be received by the election administrator by this date (not merely postmarked).
  • July 14: Election day – Primary runoff elections and special election for Texas Senate District 14 (formerly held by Senator Kirk Watson, D-Austin). Last day for county election administrators to receive ballots by mail.

Find additional nonpartisan election information and reminders at the websites of Texas Educators Vote and the Texas League of Women Voters. Lastly, be sure to check out the candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote to see how your candidates answered the ATPE Candidate Survey and view voting records of incumbent legislators.

Texas election roundup: The mail voting seesaw

The back and forth over calls to expand mail-in voting peaked this week with a flurry of court orders, further confusing what has become a dramatic, partisan fight. One side of the debate believes voters should not be forced to risk their health and the health of their families in order to exercise their fundamental right to vote, while the other side argues there is too much risk of voter fraud to allow the expansion of mail-in balloting.

To bring you back up to speed, Texas faces several lawsuits by individual voters and interested organizations seeking to expand voting by mail. Because Texas law restricts mail-in voting to individuals who meet a narrow set of eligibility criteria, one of which is having a disability, many of the plaintiffs’ arguments call for treating voters’ health-related fears of exposure to the coronavirus as a disability. Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton are leading the fight against opening up voting by mail to those voters who fear contracting COVID-19 but may not otherwise qualify for a mail-in ballot. Many states, with Republican and Democratic governors alike, have already decided to expand voting by mail in light of the pandemic-related concerns.

The seesaw through the courts began with a state district court ordering, first, that all Texans who are concerned about contracting COVID-19 should be allowed to vote by mail. Last week, a state appellate court upheld that order. Appealing the ruling on behalf of the state, Abbott and Paxton echoed President Donald Trump’s claim that expanding voting by mail would increase voter fraud, which many election experts say is “extremely rare” and preventable. The all-Republican Texas Supreme Court announced Friday the expansion of mail-in voting would be put on hold temporarily while it considers the case.

Health care professionals and institutions from around the state have since filed a brief to the Texas Supreme Court arguing that COVID-19 would almost certainly be spread at polling locations, even with protocols such as sanitizing voting machines and requiring PPE for in-person voting. According to the brief, “When the risk for injury to registered voters is so severe—potentially deadly—there is little to no benefit for in-person voting when a viable mail-in alternative is already available by statute.”

The Texas Supreme Court heard arguments from both sides on Wednesday, May 20, and Paxton has asked the state’s highest court to quickly issue a ruling.

Meanwhile, the dispute over mail-in ballots is simultaneously playing out in the federal courts, too. On Tuesday, May 19, a federal judge ruled on a similar lawsuit filed in U.S. district court, finding that the state’s current restrictions on voting by mail violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and ruling that all registered voters in Texas could apply to vote by mail. Judge Fred Biery wrote in his decision, “The Court finds the Grim Reaper’s scepter of pandemic disease and death is far more serious than an unsupported fear of voter fraud in this sui generis experience.”

Paxton immediately appealed the federal judge’s ruling to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upon Paxton’s request agreed on Wednesday, May 20, to temporarily stay Judge Biery’s ruling while it decides whether to permanently overturn the decision.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on the frequently changing status of this debate.

Texas election roundup: Senate special election

Wednesday, May 13, 2020, marked the deadline for candidates to file for the legislative seat recently vacated by former state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin).

The Democrats vying for the reliably blue Senate District (14) seat based in Austin include state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. The two Republicans who have filed are activist and former Austin city council member Don Zimmerman and attorney Waller Burns II, who does not appear to have a campaign website or social media presence. Libertarian Pat Dixon and physician Jeff Ridgeway, running as an independent candidate, have also filed for the seat.

The special election for the SD 14 seat is scheduled for July 14, which is the same day as the primary runoff elections. Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas) announced this week that early voting in these elections will be extended to June 29 from July 6. Voters are normally given only one week to vote early in the runoffs, but Abbott’s order will extend that period to two weeks. The governor’s stated reasoning is to enable greater social distancing for in-person voting.

Whether to vote in person or by mail has become a politicized and polarizing issue, unfortunately, with numerous local and state officials along with President Donald Trump weighing in on different sides of the debate. Voters who go to the polls in person may still be exposed to the risk of communicating the deadly COVID-19 infection, the number of confirmed cases of which have continued to increase in Texas at ever higher rates. While several other states, including states such as Kentucky and Alabama with Republican leadership, have expanded voting by mail options in order to protect their voters’ safety, Gov. Abbott and state Attorney General Ken Paxton continue to resist efforts to expand voting by mail in Texas.

A state appeals court ruled Thursday that the state and counties must follow a district judge’s order allowing all Texas voters to vote by mail if they are concerned about contracting COVID-19. Paxton has fought the order and this week asked the Texas Supreme Court to consider the case. Meanwhile, Paxton faces a new criminal complaint alleging he committed election fraud by sending a letter in which he warned counties to ignore the judge’s order.

A coalition of voters and civil rights organizations filed another lawsuit in federal court this week seeking to loosen the restrictions on voting by mail. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) joined a separate federal lawsuit filed last month to expand voting by mail in Texas, arguing that the current laws discriminate against Hispanic voters.

While the political debate over voting by mail continues, polling suggests the overwhelming majority of citizens support expanding access to voting by mail. A Dallas Morning News/University of Texas poll last month found 58% of Texans support allowing any registered voter to mail in a ballot without need for an excuse, compared to 22% who opposed. A 56% majority support extending this ability to all future elections. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 67% of Americans support mail-in ballots for the November elections.