A COVID-19 safety sign last year in Austin.
A COVID-19 safety sign last year in Austin. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

By Duncan Agnew | The Texas Tribune

As small-business owners and managers across Texas went to work Wednesday morning, they faced yet another 2021 headache: deal with losing business from customers who don't want to wear face masks during the pandemic or from patrons who will only frequent places that require them.

The dilemma was abruptly thrust upon them after Gov. Greg Abbott announced yesterday afternoon that the state will lift its mask mandate and allow all businesses to operate at 100% capacity starting March 10.

Some businesses barely had an opportunity to reopen after last month's deadly winter storm and power outage crisis before hearing about this massive change to the state's COVID-19 safety protocols.

"I do feel that we'll probably lose guests based on whatever decision we do make, but I guess that's just part of the environment that we are in now," said Jessica Johnson, general manager of Sichuan House in San Antonio. "It's either you wear masks and piss a couple people off, or you don't wear masks and you piss a couple people off."

At least one business owner, Macy Moore of HopFusion Ale Works in Fort Worth, said Wednesday on CNN that he had not slept since Abbott's announcement because he's so worried about the health and safety of his staff. Others, like Anne Ng of Bakery Lorraine in San Antonio, have decided to keep mask requirements in place for staff and customers regardless of what Abbott and the state government say.

"By repealing the mandate, the government is putting everyone at risk, and foodservice workers are sadly at the front lines in facing potential hostility from folks who will refuse to respect our mask policy," Ng said. "We don't deserve that."

Meanwhile, Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, filed legislation last week that would prevent any business entities from being held liable for exposing people to pandemic illnesses. That provision in House Bill 3 is one of Abbott's top priorities for this year's legislative session. The governor was joined by Burrows in Lubbock on Tuesday when announcing plans to rescind many coronavirus restrictions against the advice of federal and local health officials.

Health experts are still urging Texans to keep wearing masks as new and more contagious variants of the virus emerge. Hospitalizations continue to decrease after January record highs, but the state is also still averaging more than 200 deaths a day.

Because the state's mask mandate will officially end next week, mask requirements around the state now largely come down to the decisions made by Texas businesses. Many took to social media to announce their intentions to continue requiring masks, while others have said they feel powerless to enforce a rule without the state's protection or support.

Christine Ha, a partner and co-executive chef at Xin Chao in Houston, sent out a notice to her whole staff Wednesday afternoon that the restaurant would continue requiring masks and operating at a reduced capacity. She expressed concern about enforcing those policies, though, because local agencies and law enforcement no longer have to support her restaurant's safety requirements.

"This leaves it up to my team to enforce these policies, and they are in the business of hospitality, not policing," Ha said.

Still, other business owners emphasized that all they can do right now is try to keep both themselves and their staff healthy and safe. In a pandemic world full of so many unknowns, many are choosing to focus on what they can control.

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Kristina Zhao, the owner of Sichuan House in San Antonio, said most of her customers have remained loyal and supportive over the last year, and deciding to maintain a mask mandate would not deter that encouragement.

"From my standpoint, I can't really worry about upsetting people because we're trying to make a decision that's best for our team and for the long-term sustainability of our business," Zhao said.

Zhao also questioned whether Abbott's announcement would actually change the current dynamic in Texas. Many grocery stores and other businesses around the state have already faced frequent confrontations with customers who refused to wear masks, and anyone who wants to dine indoors has already had the opportunity to do so, albeit with a mask when they're not seated and with reduced capacity.

Still, some businesses have already reported backlash from social media users over their decision to keep a mask requirement in place despite the governor's move yesterday. Jennifer Dobbertin, who runs a restaurant called Best Quality Daughter in San Antonio, said that an "anti-masker crowd" has already established itself in the restaurant's social media comments.

"If you don't want to wear a mask, fine, we can respect that," Dobbertin said. "Please don't come eat at our establishments, but don't come to the restaurant and try to fight us on it."

Some grocery stores have even made opposing decisions about the mask mandate. Tuesday, H-E-B announced that customers would no longer have to wear a mask starting March 10, in accordance with Abbott's order, though the chain is encouraging them to still do so. Kroger, however, will still require any employees and customers to wear masks until all grocery workers have access to the COVID-19 vaccine, according to corporate affairs manager April Martin.

Most low-wage workers in Texas, who are often people of color, have not had opportunities to work from home during the pandemic. Front-line workers in industries like health care, building and cleaning services, social services, public transit, grocery and delivery and warehouse work are predominantly women and people of color.

Texans of color have been disproportionately killed by the virus and impacted by its accompanying recession during the last year. Advocates have reported that these communities have also fallen behind in the vaccination efforts. And Black and Hispanic Texans are far more worried about the coronavirus compared to white Texans, according to a Texas Tribune-University of Texas poll released this week.

Ha, from Houston's Xin Chao, said maintaining the safest and healthiest practices certainly remains worth the small price of rubbing some customers the wrong way.

"There are plenty of people who prefer restaurants continue to follow COVID safety protocols, and these folks will be more likely to frequent and support restaurants like ours," Ha said. "So we lose some, we'll win others. That's fine by me."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at www.texastribune.org/2021/03/03/texas-businesses-mask-mandate/.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE

By Juan Pablo Garnham and Mandi Cai, The Texas Tribune

Covid-19 has been disproportionately deadly for communities of color in Texas. And advocates for those communities are worried that they will have more trouble accessing vaccinations than the white population because of where vaccination sites are located.

“We already saw huge disparities in death rates and people getting (coronavirus) infections, and there wasn't availability of resources like health care for brown and Black communities suffering tremendously,” said Kazique Prince, interim executive director for the Central Texas Collective for Racial Equity, a nonprofit association based in Austin. “I'm very nervous and anxious that this (vaccination effort) is not going to work out for us.”

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services data, more than half of the fatalities in Texas due to Covid-19 have been Hispanic individuals and almost 10% have been Black people. Yet the state’s designated vaccination sites—mostly hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and pharmacies—are concentrated in more affluent areas where those facilities tend to be located.

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In Travis County, for example, 88 sites have been designated to administer vaccines, and roughly three quarters are in majority non-Hispanic white census tracts. And in Dallas, the southern part of the city—where people of color predominate—has fewer distribution centers than the north, which tends to be more white and affluent. Out of 140 distribution sites in Dallas County only 10 are located in majority Black census tracts while 37 are in majority Hispanic census tracts.

People in underserved communities often don’t have vehicles and must rely on public transportation. During the pandemic, many urban transit agencies have reduced their service or limited the number of passengers to provide for social distancing.

“This vaccine distribution has a big transportation component,” said Jill Ramírez, CEO of the Latino Health Forum, which works to promote good health care practices among the Hispanic community in Austin.

For advocates, this feels like déjà vu. Omar Gomez, an engineer based in Austin, started volunteering to help the Hispanic community when the pandemic started. He noticed that in East Austin neighborhoods it was more difficult to find masks and hand sanitizer than in the rest of the city, and started working to get those to people in his community.

Now as he tries to get his 93-year-old grandmother vaccinated, he sees the same problem.

“Whatever happened with PPE is happening with the vaccine: disparities, inequalities. It’s not a balanced approach,” Gomez said.

For example, Gomez pointed out that while the state has given priority to nursing home residents for vaccination, many Hispanic families care for elderly relatives at home.

“Our abuelitos live with our families, not in nursing homes,” he said. “And they forget about that.”

On Wednesday, lawmakers voiced similar concerns in a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, written by state Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, and co-signed by 37 other Democratic House members.

“A cursory glance at my local map of vaccination locations suggests that providers are much less concentrated in areas that have a higher percentage of minority residents,” Goodwin wrote. “I ask that you take special care to distribute opportunities for vaccination widely and with an eye toward making them equally available to all Texans regardless of racial or ethnic background.”

DSHS has announced that it will be sending vaccine shipments to large vaccination hubs next week. Spokesperson Chris Van Deusen said the focus during the first weeks of the vaccine effort was on health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities, but in the upcoming phases of distribution they will diversify the type of providers for the vaccine.

“We’re also going to be in a position to allocate more vaccine to providers like local health departments and community clinics that often serve diverse populations,” he said in an email.

Dennis Andrulis, a professor at the UTHealth School of Public Health in Austin, said health officials should actively search for places like churches or community centers, which have been used as coronavirus testing sites, as vaccine distribution sites in underserved communities.

“Recognizing the historic absence of science or health care services in these areas is paramount,” Andrulis said. “You may have to establish venues in a trusted place that people know to go to.”

Ramírez said health authorities also will have to work hard to gain the trust of communities of color. Although many are eager to get the vaccine, advocates said they do hear of people hesitant to get it, either because of a general distrust of government institutions or because of misinformation. Among Hispanics, anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies have contributed to these concerns, Ramírez said.

“Latinos have been really a big target for a lot of things, a lot of discrimination. And so now we're telling people, 'But now you can trust us and now we're going to give you a vaccine'?” Ramírez said. “We will have to dispel a lot of myths. We have to let people feel comfortable that they need to take the vaccine, because that's the only hope.”

There’s a similar mistrust within the Black community, where the collective memory of the Tuskegee experiment—in which Black Alabama residents with syphilis were left untreated and instead monitored to track the fatal path of the disease—contributes to a general distrust of institutions.

“There's still a distrust,” Prince said, who added that health and governmental institutions often "are not meeting the needs of Black and brown communities."

For Andrulis, these challenges have been overlooked during the rush to get vaccines to the public as soon as possible. He praised Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership started by the federal government to produce vaccines as fast as possible, but said that was just the first step in vaccinating people who are the most at risk of being hospitalized or dying from the virus.

“Texas needs to come up with a cohesive strategy to promote information, in a way where communities will accept that information, so that it is through trusted sources” such as religious and community leaders, Andrulis said.

Some Texas cities have announced plans to address the uneven distribution of vaccination sites. Dallas County is preparing a “mega Covid-19 vaccination site” in Fair Park to serve the southern part of the city.

In Harris County, where Houston is located, the county has only received 6,000 vaccine doses so far, while 224,000 doses have gone directly to providers like hospitals and nursing homes. Rafael Lemaitre, spokesperson for the county, said that they are working on a “multi-language media campaign” and are partnering with community leaders to limit the barriers for people of color, including undocumented people.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Stephanie Hayden, director of Austin Public Health, said they are trying to learn from previous experiences and are looking at vaccine distribution “with an equity lens.”

But experts and advocates aren’t convinced that those efforts will be enough to bridge gaps needed to serve communities of color.

"Covid-19 and the issues around access to care and the distribution of vaccines is something that is historically embedded in inequity," Andrulis said. "With the way that has played out in the past, is there any reason to think that the patterns of inequities and access to treatments and access to care will change? So far I think the jury is out."

In the meantime, Omar Gomez will keep trying to find the vaccine for his grandmother, but he knows that he and his community might have to wait even longer.

“People need to be patient and keep being safe. Vaccines are coming and they will be better for us,” he said. “We need to keep believing in science and in facts.”

This article is republished with permission from The Texas Tribune. Read the original post here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans—and engages with them—about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

FOLO MEDIA FILE PHOTO

By Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune

The Texas Supreme Court has extended its emergency eviction relief program for tenants behind on rent through at least March 15, postponing the program’s expiration date by a month and a half.

The move comes after Congress passed a stimulus bill Monday extending the federal moratorium on evictions through the end of January. The moratorium order was set to expire at the end of the year.

The state created the Texas Eviction Diversion Program earlier this fall with the help of $171 million in CARES Act funding, the vast majority designated for rental assistance. Around $4 million was designated to fund legal services. The program tries to reduce the number of evictions during the pandemic by allowing a landlord and tenant to reach a resolution when a tenant is unable to cover the rent.

If both the landlord and an eligible tenant agree, the state pauses an eviction proceeding for 60 days. A landlord can decide to resume eviction proceedings during that 60-day period. If not, the program would cover past-due rent and dismiss the eviction case, including five months of past-due rent and up to six months of additional assistance. The landlord receives the money, and the tenant can remain in the home. Court records are also sealed, preventing future landlords from viewing them.

The program started in 19 counties, including Bexar, Harris and El Paso, and this extension will immediately go into effect for those counties. According to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, it will be expanded to 30 communities in mid-January and statewide in late spring. It’s unclear when this extension goes into effect for the rest of the state. As of Dec. 12, four million Texans have filed for unemployment since mid-March.

But some housing advocates said the extension doesn’t go far enough to address the large number of struggling renters, even as the federal government extended its eviction moratorium.

“There could be tens of thousands of evictions on the horizon in Texas later this winter,” said Michael Depland, spokesperson for the advocacy group Texas Housers. “State officials must make sure that we are prepared to address a housing crisis unlike anything we’ve seen. The Texas Supreme Court and the governor must halt all evictions until there is robust rental assistance that is accessible to Texans who need it and the Eviction Diversion Program is ready to meet the widespread need experts are predicting.”

The federal moratorium doesn’t prevent all evictions. Some local authorities across the state have been more aggressive in limiting evictions than others. In Travis County, which is not participating in the program, officials stopped eviction hearings. Meanwhile, Harris County landlords have filed more than 5,500 evictions since Oct. 1. Early in the pandemic, the county halted evictions, but it resumed them in August.

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This article is republished with permission from The Texas Tribune. Read the original post here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Contact the Heron at hello@saheron.com | @sanantonioheron on Twitter | Facebook

Voters wait in line at a polling site at Austin Oaks Church during early voting.
Voters wait in line at a polling site at Austin Oaks Church during early voting. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

By Jeremy Schwartz, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica and Mandi Cai, The Texas Tribune

After the conclusion of three weeks of early voting, 9.7 million Texans have cast ballots, crushing previous early voting totals in the state and setting Texas on a course for record turnout in this Tuesday's general election.

At least 9,709,376 voters cast early ballots, according to preliminary final numbers released by the Texas Secretary of State and the counties on Saturday morning. That is 57.3% percent of registered voters, just shy of the overall turnout of 59.4% in 2016 by 2 percentage points.

Of those early votes, 8,738,363 were cast in person; 971,013 were cast by mail.

Early voting, which Gov. Abbott extended by six days this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, has already eclipsed total votes during the 2016 general election, when 8,969,226 Texans voted.

Texas has added 1.8 million registered voters since the 2016 election. But the state has not surpassed 60% turnout of registered voters since the early 1990s.

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said he expects Election Day totals to push the state’s final vote count further into record breaking territory - as high as 12 or 12.5 million. Such a grand total would bring the Texas turnout percentage beyond 70%, a new high in the modern era.

Jones said the state’s 2020 turnout percentage will “probably take us out of the doldrums, where Texas has been regularly and to at least into the middle of the pack nationally.”

That would continue a more recent trend. Voter turnout as a percentage of voting-eligible population in the 2018 Texas midterm elections increased by 18 percentage points compared with the previous midterms, the country's sixth-highest increase. In Texas, 46.3 percent voted in 2018. Nationwide, turnout was 50.1 percent.

One driver of increased turnout has been the high numbers in the state’s most populous counties, such as Harris County, where more than 1.4 million people have already voted, compared to 1.34 million including Election Day in 2016.

County officials there have worked to increase early voting participation, providing 24-hour polling centers on the last night of early voting, as well as an option for drive-through voting, which more than 117,000 county residents took advantage of. Republicans have challenged the legality of the drive-thru ballots. After initially rejecting a challenge last week, the Texas Supreme Court on Friday asked the county to respond to a subsequent petition seeking to invalidate the drive-through votes.

A Texas Tribune analysis has found that the counties that are home to Texas’ four biggest cities — Houston’s Harris County, San Antonio’s Bexar County, Dallas County and Austin’s Travis County — saw an increase of 630,796 registered voters since 2016, according to data collected by the Texas secretary of state.

Those cities tend to provide Democrat majorities, and high early voting totals mean that Biden could enjoy an initial lead when early voting results are announced Tuesday night, Jones said. Depending on how high the lead is, Republicans may need “exceptionally high” Election Day turnout to win, he added.

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The Tribune’s analysis shows that counties in reliably red territory outside of major metro and suburban counties have gained 522,972 registered voters since 2016.

But while some of those traditionally Republican counties also saw high early turnout, many are behind the statewide turnout. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll in October found that Republicans were more likely than Democrats to vote in-person on Election Day.

Democratic officials struck a tone of guarded optimism on Saturday. “Texas Democrats feel confident where we’re at but know that we still have a lot of work left to be done,” said Manny Garcia, the executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, in a statement. “Texans are demanding change.”

The Texas GOP did not respond to a request for comment Saturday.

High turnout this year also reflects the increasingly competitive nature of Texas politics, where a Democrat has not won a statewide race in more than two decades.

In addition to the tightly contested presidential election, Texas’s senate race is a close battle between Republican incumbent John Cornyn and Democratic challenger MJ Hegar, and the state also features dozens of close legislative and congressional races. Democrats are hoping to flip the Texas House, and as many as 12 congressional seats are being seriously contested.

“All of which makes for much greater voter mobilization,” Jones said.

This article is republished with permission from The Texas Tribune. Read the original post here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the Sunland Park Mall in El Paso on the first day of early voting.
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the Sunland Park Mall in El Paso on the first day of early voting. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune IVAN PIERRE AGUIRRE |

By Alex Samuels and Mandi Cai, The Texas Tribune

The unusually large voter turnout in Texas has persisted through the first 10 days of the early voting period, leading experts to predict that the state could reach overall turnout levels unseen so far this century.

According to the latest data from the Texas secretary of state, 6.4 million Texans — 37.6% of registered voters — had already cast their ballots through Thursday. Nearly 90% of those have been cast in person. With a full week left, that’s surpassing the total percentage turnout for early voting in 2012, though still a couple of percentage points short of 2016’s early voting turnout. Early voting in 2012 and 2016 had about one less week.

As of Friday morning, more than half of Texas’ counties have already seen a third or more of their registered voters participate. Out of Texas’ largest counties, suburban counties like Collin, Denton, and Williamson are reporting some of the highest turnout rates, surpassing 45%.

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At Gov. Greg Abbott’s order, Texas voters have an extra six days of early voting in hopes that the polls will be less crowded during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The added time, coupled with a push from leaders in both parties for Texans to cast their ballots early, could be a reason for a boost in turnout so far, experts say.

“It’s a very different election this year because of Covid, concerns with vote-by-mail and other potential shenanigans,” said Michael Li, senior counsel at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. “I think a lot of people are being encouraged to vote early, so it remains to be seen whether we’re just moving some votes from Election Day to the early voting period or whether it’s a huge overall turnout increase.”

Texans’ voting habits have been evolving over time. Since the 2008 election, more Texans have voted early than on Election Day.

In 2016, 59.2% of registered Texans cast a ballot. Since 1992, when 72.9% of Texans voted, the state hasn’t seen turnout above 60%. In 1992, there were only 8.4 million registered voters, and today there are 16.9 million.

Decision Desk HQ, a company that processes election and early voting results and the provider of The Texas Tribune’s election results data, estimated turnout this year will be anywhere from 10 million to 12 million — the latter of which would be “record breaking” for Texas, according to a spokesperson for the group.

Li, meanwhile, predicted between 11.4 and 11.5 million Texans would cast their ballots by the end of Election Day — about 67% of registered voters. And Derek Ryan, a Republican voter data expert, predicted this week that the number will surpass 12 million.

The turnout appears to be strong among supporters of both political parties. In his popular daily recap of early vote totals Thursday, Ryan reported that voters who in the past have voted in Republican primaries but not Democratic primaries make up 31.3% of the early vote, compared with 26.1% for Democratic primary voters. But because 39% of early voters have no primary voting history, it’s impossible to tell which party is leading in early vote turnout. Texans don’t have the option to align with a particular party when they register to vote.

Still, Democrats have been hailing the numbers as an optimistic sign for their party.

“Texans are casting their ballots and having their voice heard,” said Manny Garcia, the executive director for the Texas Democratic Party. “If every eligible Texan votes, we will win this election.”

But in counties that supported President Donald Trump by more than 20 percentage points in 2016, at least 37% of people already cast their ballots. In counties that went for Democrat Hillary Clinton by similar margins, meanwhile, at least 36% of people already voted as of Friday afternoon.

“This is pretty unprecedented,” Li said. “The real winner, of course, is Texas democracy. Texas has always been a nonvoting state. So regardless of who the winners of these races are, the real winner is Texas itself.”

Early voting runs through Oct. 30. Election Day is Nov. 3.

"Texas’ massive early voting numbers have persisted, leading to predictions of overall turnout unseen in years" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Texas mail-in ballots require voters to sign the outer envelope.
Texas mail-in ballots require voters to sign the outer envelope. Photo by Charlie Pearce for The Texas Tribune

By Karen Brooks Harper, The Texas Tribune

If they decide the signature on the ballot can't be verified, Texas election officials may continue rejecting mail-in ballots without notifying voters until after the election that their ballot wasn't counted, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday.

The appeals court halted a lower court’s injunction, which had not gone into effect, that would have required the Texas secretary of state to either advise local election officials that mail-in ballots may not be rejected using the existing signature-comparison process, or require them to set up a notification system giving voters a chance to challenge a rejection while their vote still counts.

Requiring such a process would compromise the integrity of the mail-in ballots “as Texas officials are preparing for a dramatic increase of mail-in voting, driven by a global pandemic,” reads the Monday opinion issued by Judge Jerry E. Smith.

“Texas’s strong interest in safeguarding the integrity of its elections from voter fraud far outweighs any burden the state’s voting procedures place on the right to vote,” Smith wrote.

Before mail-in ballots are counted, a committee of local election officials reviews them to ensure that a voter’s endorsement on the flap of a ballot envelope matches the signature that voter used on their application to vote by mail. They can also compare it to signatures on file with the county clerk or voter registrar that were made within the last six years.

The state election code does not establish any standards for signature review, which is conducted by local election officials who seldom have training in signature verification.

Voters must be notified within 10 days after the election that their ballot was rejected, but state election law does not require affording them an opportunity to challenge the rejection, the appeals court ruling noted.

In August 2019, two voters, George Richardson of Brazos County and Rosalie Weisfeld of McAllen, filed suit after their mail-in ballots were rejected by local officials who decided the signatures on the envelopes in which their ballots were returned were not theirs.

The voters — joined by groups representing Texans with disabilities, veterans and young voters — argued the state law allowing local election officials to reject mail-in ballots based on perceived mismatching signatures violates the 14th Amendment.

The lawsuit claims at least 1,873 mail-in ballots were rejected on the basis of mismatched signatures during the 2018 general election; at least 1,567 were rejected in 2016.

On Sept. 8, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled that the state’s process for matching signatures “plainly violates certain voters’ constitutional rights,” and ordered the state to either abandon the practice or come up with some mechanism that lets voters get their ballots counted.

The injunction has been under an administrative stay by the 5th Circuit since Sept. 11, three days after it was issued, and will now remain on hold while the state challenges the underpinnings of Garcia's decision.

Plaintiffs said they will now push counties to voluntarily give early notice to voters whose ballots are rejected for signature-match issues, allowing them a chance to rectify the situation and let their vote count.

“It will affect this 2020 election, so voters will not be notified in time, and so I think the main thing we’re trying to do now is notify counties that ballot boards are not required to give pre-election day notice, but they can,” said H. Drew Galloway, executive director of MOVE Texas, a plaintiff. “We encourage them to follow the original intent of the lower courts here so folks (whose ballots were rejected) can go vote in person, or contest that decision.”

Texas offers voting by mail to people with disabilities, Texans who are 65 and older, voters who will be outside of the county during an election, and those in jail during an election.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at texastribune.org/2020/10/19/texas-mail-in-ballots-signatures/.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Voters waited in line Wednesday at a polling site at Bee Cave City Hall.
Voters waited in line Wednesday at a polling site at Bee Cave City Hall. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

Texas has reached almost 17 million registered voters for the November election, according to the secretary of state's office.

The office said Friday evening that its final registration total for the Nov. 3 election is 16,955,519. That represents 1.9 million more voters than Texas had for the 2016 presidential election.

The deadline to register to vote was Oct. 5, and election officials have spent the time since then processing applications. On Monday, the day before early voting started, the secretary of state's office said the registration total was 16,901,784.

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The precise increase from the 2016 election is 1,854,432. Of that increase, 1.2 million came after the 2018 midterm election.

This article is republished with permission from The Texas Tribune. Read the original post here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

From left: Catherine Harvey, Connie Ford and Jean Anthony attend a training lab at the Collin County Elections Department.
From left: Catherine Harvey, Connie Ford and Jean Anthony attend a training lab at the Collin County Elections Department. Photo by Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

By Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune

Confused about voting? Voting clerks in parts of Texas are confused, too. All the political chatter about problems with the U.S. Postal Service and voting by mail has some election officials telling their voters to cast absentee ballots by bringing them to the main office instead of dropping them in the mail. They’re also telling voters to bring approved voter identification if they vote that way — just as if they were voting in person — and not to bring anyone else’s ballot, sealed or not.

Anne Morris, a retired Milam County voter, said county officials told her to bring her absentee ballot to the county seat if she wanted to put it in their hands. And they told her that if she wanted to mail her absentee ballot, she should put it in a manila envelope so thieves wouldn’t recognize it and steal it from the mail before it reached the county offices. Milam County Clerk Jodi Morgan says her office is telling voters that dropping mail in a manila envelope is permissible if a voter doesn't want the Post Office to know it's a ballot, but they can also mail it in the envelope provided. And there's a special slot in the county's parking lot where voters can bring their absentee ballots in, with photo ID, if they want to skip the mail altogether.

Here’s an idea: Keep calm and vote on. Don’t let political figures talking about elections freak you out. Instead, ask why they want you to freak out and deal with that. Don’t confine your imagination to the worst crimes and hijinks that might take place in this election. They might not. And the worst thing that can happen is that voters are spooked out of picking the people who represent them; that’s a way to get a government that doesn’t reflect the population.

When political people — and a fair number of pundits, too — are trying to stir voters up, those voters have a choice between anxiety and serenity. And serenity doesn’t mean shutting it all out, plugging their ears and ignoring what’s going on. It’s more about what they do with the information they’re getting.

A lot of that talk is about fraud and corruption — relatively rare election crimes that seem, in this particular election season, to be the only things some politicians want to discuss.

Remember when electronic voting machines and hanging chads were all we were worried about? This year’s conversation makes that seem like the good old days.

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President Donald Trump has been harping on the dangers of voting by mail, even though the country has a long history of such balloting and that it’s popular with older voters, including the president himself. Some of Trump’s Texas choristers have joined in. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said a few months ago that Democrats promoting absentee voting were trying to steal the election. Attorney General Ken Paxton landed a vote-harvesting indictment and arrests in Gregg County this week. The timing was interesting: The charges aren’t about the election that starts here, with early voting, in less than three weeks — they’re about an election two years ago.

Democrats have been unsuccessful in their attempts to allow more Texans to vote by mail, running into both political and legal opposition. The Texas Supreme Court ruled that worries about infection weren’t enough to qualify someone as disabled. But the court also noted that there is nothing on the absentee ballot application that requires someone to list their disability, and no authority at election offices to verify someone’s claim to that exemption for voting by mail. And federal courts tossed out a challenge to provisions that allow voters who are 65 years old or older to vote by mail while denying that privilege to younger voters.

Gov. Greg Abbott made one concession to fears of voting during a pandemic, extending early voting by six days. That spreads voting over a greater number of days and, by extension, increases a chance to vote in a socially distanced way. But this week, Abbott got sued over that extension.

All the talk and litigation works like a fog machine, making voting and elections seem a lot more complicated and confusing and full of traps for unwary voters than they are.

Voters have to calculate the value of their vote, as they listen to government officials and politicians talk about elections and voting the way they talk about other dishonest and unsavory activities.

Why would you want people to distrust an election you thought you might win? Stirring anxieties now betrays a lack of confidence. It sets the table for challenges of the results. It raises everyone’s distrust, too, no matter who wins on Nov. 3.

The real corruption is in the attacks on the system we’ve relied on for more than 200 years.

It’s not as confusing as it might seem. Hear the politicians out. Think about their motives. And get out and vote, with confidence, for the ones you like and against the ones you don’t. Easy.

This article is republished with permission from The Texas Tribune. Read the original post here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

An apartment complex near downtown Waco. Gov. Greg Abbott announced Friday that he was dedicating $171 million in federal coronavirus relief money to helping renters avoid evictions.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced Friday that he was dedicating $171 million in federal coronavirus relief money to helping renters avoid evictions. Photo by Emree Weaver/The Texas Tribune

By Juan Pablo Garnham, The Texas Tribune

Texas is using $171 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to provide financial and legal aid to renters facing eviction, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Friday.

The vast majority of that money — $167 million — will go toward rental assistance. Another $4.2 million will be used to fund legal services for Texans.

Abbott's office also said in a press release that the state is creating the Texas Eviction Diversion Program, which will coordinate state agencies, local governments and nonprofits to help renters avoid evictions and catch up with missed rent payments.

It wasn't immediately clear how the money would be divvied up, but Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs spokesperson Kristina Tirloni explained that cities, counties and nonprofits will manage the application process. Although the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development needs to approve the funding, the state estimates that the money will be available by the winter holidays in communities with existing rental assistance programs, and by the start of 2021 in the rest of Texas.

"The Texas Eviction Diversion Program is crucial to our state's response to COVID-19, and it will help many families recover from the impact of the pandemic without the looming threat of eviction," Abbott said in the release. "This innovative partnership, coupled with the renters assistance provided through CARES Act funding, will strengthen our economic recovery efforts and provide a lifeline to renters and property owners alike."

Since the pandemic began in March, more than 3.5 million Texans have filed for unemployment, and staying current on rent has become a main concern of Texans who have lost their jobs or had their hours cut. According to a survey done in late August by the U.S. Census Bureau, 36.8% of Texans said they were somewhat or very likely to face eviction or foreclosure in the next two months. Data from the Princeton-based research center The Eviction Lab shows that eviction filings have increased in some of Texas' largest cities since a statewide moratorium ended in mid-May.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a new nationwide eviction moratorium earlier this month that will last until Dec. 31.

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Since then, the Texas Supreme Court ordered every eviction citation to include information about the moratorium, as well as the form that tenants are required to fill to seek protection from being evicted.

Christina Rosales, deputy director of the advocacy organization Texas Housers, said that Abbott's new program was "unprecedented" and a "good start," but more needs to be done to avoid an increase in evictions in January, when the CDC moratorium expires.

"In Texas, tenants can be evicted because of nonpayment of rent. The thing that will keep them housed is rent assistance," Rosales said. "Legal assistance, right to counsel and eviction diversion will help manage the crisis, but if we want to steer our way out of the crisis, we will need more rental relief."

Texas' most populated cities and counties have created similar rent-assistance programs, mostly using CARES Act funding, too. These have experienced high levels of demand. San Antonio offered residents $50.3 million for rent and legal assistance, which city officials expected to be tapped by the end of this month. Since then, the city has added $24.1 million to the program, which is expected to last until mid-December. In Houston, the first round of a $15 million rental assistance program was drained in 90 minutes. Since then, the city announced a new $19 million program.

This article is republished with permission from The Texas Tribune. Read the original post here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Forty-one states have passed laws allowing online voter registration; Texas is not one of them.
Forty-one states have passed laws allowing online voter registration; Texas is not one of them. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune JORDAN VONDERHAAR | FOR THE TEXAS TRIBUNE

By Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff | The Texas Tribune

When Jarrod Stringer updated his driver’s license address in 2014, the Texas Department of Public Safety website asked if he wanted to register to vote. He clicked yes and thought he was registered. That fall, when he went to vote in San Antonio, he was denied. According to the system, he had never registered. It was past the registration deadline, so he couldn’t vote.

That kicked off a six-year legal battle that included two lawsuits for the right for Texans to register to vote online while updating their licenses.

“It’s traumatic when you can’t vote,” Stringer said. “It’s implicitly saying, ‘You don’t have a voice. You can’t participate in change.’”

On Wednesday, Stringer won that “mind-boggling” fight with the state of Texas two weeks before the deadline to register to vote in 2020. Acting on a federal judge’s orders, the state updated its online systems to allow people to add their names to the voter rolls when they update their licenses.

While it’s a limited step — the online option is still only available to people updating their licenses — the change marks the first time Texans have been able to register to vote online, which advocates say could significantly increase turnout both this year and for future elections.

Mimi Marziani, the president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which brought forward the lawsuits, said the change specifically helps marginalized Texans, who most often move.

“This is absolutely a victory for voting rights for all Texans,” Marziani said. “It’s a particular victory for younger Texans, poorer Texans and Texans of color.”

The National Voter Registration Act, known as the motor voter law, requires states to let residents complete their voter registration applications when they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses. Marziani said she took up the case because Stringer had been denied that right.

Previously, Texans like Stringer who tried to register while using the state’s online license portal were directed to a blank registration form they had to fill out, print and send to their county registrar. The state was forced to change that system after U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled last month that DPS is “legally obligated” to allow voters to simultaneously register to vote with every license renewal or change-of-address application. Garcia had ordered the state to set up a “fully operable” online system by Wednesday.

“The Secretary of State and Texas Department of Public Safety are in compliance with the court’s order,” said Kayleigh Date, a spokesperson for the Office of the Attorney General, in a statement.

According to Marziani, 1.9 million Texans use the Department of Public Safety’s online portal to update their driving information each year, and 96% of eligible Texans have their driver’s licenses. Texas drivers can renew their licenses online if they renewed them in person the previous time, they are older than 18 but younger than 79, and their licenses expire within two years or have been expired for less than two years, among other restrictions. Texas has more than 16.6 million registered voters.

The coronavirus has brought widespread concern about how people can vote safely in Texas this November, especially as the state’s elected leaders have resisted the idea of broadening who is eligible to vote by mail. Campaigns and advocates from both parties have found that registering new voters has been a challenge without online voting. Forty-one states have passed legislation to allow residents to register to vote online; Texas is not one of them.

Marziani said Wednesday’s move shows the state has the infrastructure in place to expand online voting beyond DPS and renewing driver’s licenses.

“The system they use is the exact same system that they would implement for a broader online voter registration,” Marziani said. “This is a flashing green light for the Legislature to finally bring Texas in line with states across the country and pass online voter registration.”

Date did not answer questions about whether this would be possible or whether the state expected to expand online voter registration.

While some state leaders have staunchly opposed any form of online registration, Garcia’s ruling last month said online registration would actually bolster security and election integrity.

“Uncontested expert testimony shows that a compliant DPS system would very likely lead to great efficiency, less human error, a massive saving in costs, and increased voter registration,” Garcia wrote.

For Stringer, who moved again in August and waited to update his license until Wednesday, the action by the state was a relief.

“The representation of the people in the state of Texas is more fair today than it was two weeks ago,” he said. “Part of what it means to be a citizen is to vote without duress. It’s a huge deal.”

This article is republished with permission from The Texas Tribune. Read the original post here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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