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Why 'turn Texas blue' won’t be a rally cry for 2022: analysis

"Analysis: An election slogan you won't hear in Texas in 2022" 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.

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Democrats won't be rallying voters with claims they can flip control of the Texas Legislature in the general election a year from now.

The redistricting maps nearing approval in the current special legislative session make that a near impossibility.

Missing their last chance to win a majority in the Texas House in 2020 — remember that “Turn Texas Blue" battle cry? — was politically expensive for the state's Democrats. It meant the new political maps drawn to fit the new 2020 census would be tailored by Republicans, for Republicans, and that Democrats' wishes would end up in the dustbin or, at best, in the courts.

That's what's happening, and those are the maps that will be used in the 2022 elections. They're not quite law yet but will be soon, and they are markedly more Republican than this conservative state's recent voting history.

Because those maps almost guarantee Republican majorities in the state's congressional delegation, in the Texas House and Senate, and in the State Board of Education, the 2022 elections will really be about the executive branch. The odds there aren't great for the Democrats, either.

In the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump got 52.1% in Texas and Joe Biden got 46.5%. With that baseline, Republicans should have 78 seats in the House, 16 in the Senate, 20 in the congressional delegation and eight on the SBOE. In the new maps, voters in 85 of the House districts favored Trump, along with 19 Senate districts, 25 congressional districts and nine SBOE districts.

The proposed maps favor Republicans more than the state's voters do. But even if they were precisely representative of how Texans voted in the last statewide elections, the GOP would have an edge: They won all of those contests.

Whatever else you might say about that situation — whether it's “to the majority go the spoils" or “gerrymandering is undemocratic" — those are the maps that will be used in the 2022 elections. And if they aren't given wholesale makeovers, they strongly favor Republican candidates and are designed to keep Republican majorities in all four places.

Democratic candidates haven't won a statewide election in Texas since 1994. Midterm elections — those that fall between presidential elections — are typically hard on the party of whoever is in the White House. That's a Democrat right now, and Republicans running for office in Texas (and everywhere else in the country) will be campaigning against whichever Biden administration policy happens to be most unpopular with voters at the time.

To top it off, the Democrats do not yet have a standard-bearer, though it would be a surprise at this point if former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of El Paso did not enter the governor's race before the start of the holiday season. While there has been a lot of conversation about who else might run for this or that, that late-forming Democratic ticket shortens the time available to raise the money and build the public reputation and recognition needed to win a statewide election. It takes time to become a household name, even if only the political households in the state are in the audience.

Having missed their shot at real influence on the maps, Texas Democrats start the next decade trying to find ways to win on Republican turf. At the end of the last decade, their biggest advances came in legislative races, particularly in the Texas House.

The new maps will make that difficult, particularly in the next couple of election cycles. The current maps were drawn in 2010 by Republicans trying to bolster their majorities, then tinkered with by federal judges who found intentional racial discrimination by lawmakers and other problems in the designs of some districts. Over the next 10 years, the state's growth and changing politics eroded that advantage. That might happen again between now and 2030, but that won't help the Democrats in 2022.

Their best chances are at the top of the ballot, where Republican incumbents are known to voters and have money, organization and an undefeated winning record that stretches back more than a quarter of a century. Those chances aren't all that great; they're just better than the chances Democrats have for legislative majorities.

Judging by their governing record this year, the Republicans — starting with Gov. Greg Abbott — are most worried about competition from members of their own party in next year's primaries. They're defending their right flanks from conservatives, not their left flanks from liberals.

It's not hard to see why.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/10/18/texas-redistricting-democrats-2022/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Trump won this Texas county in a landslide. His supporters still forced the elections administrator to resign

Oct. 12, 2021

"Trump Won the County In a Landslide. His Supporters Still Hounded the Elections Administrator Until She Resigned." 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.

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An elections administrator in North Texas submitted her resignation Friday, following a monthslong effort by residents and officials loyal to former President Donald Trump to force her out of office.

Michele Carew, who had overseen scores of elections during her 14-year career, had found herself transformed into the public face of an electoral system that many in the heavily Republican Hood County had come to mistrust, which ProPublica and The Texas Tribune covered earlier this month.

Her critics sought to abolish her position and give her duties to an elected county clerk who has used social media to promote baseless allegations of widespread election fraud.

Carew, who was hired to run elections in Hood County two-and-a-half months before the contested presidential race, said in an interview that she worried that the forces that tried to drive her out will spread to other counties in the state.

“When I started out, election administrators were appreciated and highly respected," she said. “Now we are made out to be the bad guys."

Critics accused Carew of harboring a secret liberal agenda and of violating a decades-old elections law, despite assurances from the Texas secretary of state that she was complying with Texas election rules.

Carew said she is joining an Austin-based private company and will work to help local elections administrator offices across the country run more efficiently. She will oversee her final election in early November before leaving Nov. 12.

David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a nonprofit that seeks to increase voter participation and improve the efficiency of elections administration, said Carew's departure is the latest example of an ominous trend toward independent election administrators being forced out in favor of partisan officials.

“She is not the first and won't be the last professional election official to have to leave this profession because of the toll it is taking, the bullies and liars who are slandering these professionals," said Becker, a former Department of Justice lawyer who helped oversee voting rights enforcement under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “We are losing a generation of professional expertise. We are only beginning to feel the effects."

Though experts say it is difficult to determine how many elections officials have left their positions nationally, states like Pennsylvania and Ohio have seen numerous departures. According to the AP, about a third of Pennsylvania's county election officials have left in the last year and a half; in Ohio, one in four directors or deputy auditors of elections have left in the southwestern part of the state, according to The New York Times.

Hood County would seem an unlikely place for disputes over the last presidential election given that Trump won 81% of the vote there, one of his largest margins of victory in the state. Across the country, partisans' demands for audits have mostly focused on counties and states carried by President Joe Biden, particularly those that went for Trump four years earlier.

But Texas, despite going for Trump by 6 percentage points, has seen its fair share of blowback. Last month, the Texas secretary of state announced a “comprehensive forensic audit" of four of the state's largest counties hours after Trump issued a public letter demanding audits of the state's results.

Before that, in July, Texas passed sweeping voting legislation that critics say disenfranchises vulnerable voters and unfairly targets administrators and other elections officials. Among the law's provisions are new criminal penalties for election workers accused of interfering with expanded powers given to poll watchers.

On Saturday, after blasting the four-county audit plan as “weak," Trump threatened the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives with a primary challenge if the speaker didn't advance a bill that would allow audits in more counties.

In Hood County, the local GOP executive committee likewise issued warnings to Republican officials who defended Carew. In July, the committee threatened County Judge Ron Massingill with a social media campaign that would tell voters he was “incapable of providing them with free and fair elections" if he didn't convene the county's elections commission to discuss Carew's termination.

Massingill refused, arguing that no political party should be able to direct the activities of the independent elections administrator. Katie Lang, the county clerk and vice chair of the county's election commission, convened the meeting and moved to fire Carew. Carew survived the vote by a 3-2 margin, with Massingill and the county tax assessor, both Republicans, joining the Hood County Democratic chair.

Republican County Chair David Fischer called on county commissioners to dissolve the independent office of elections administrator and transfer election duties to Lang, which he said would make the election administration process more accountable to the county's Republican majority.

Counties in Texas can choose between hiring an independent elections administrator, who is meant to be insulated from political pressures, or letting a county official, often an elected county clerk, run elections. County clerks, who manage functions like property records and birth certificates, run elections in many of the state's smallest counties.

Fischer has declined to speak with ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.

On social media, Lang has shared “Stop the Steal" and “Impeach Biden" memes and videos. Lang made national headlines in 2015 after refusing to issue a marriage license to a gay couple following the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Lang did not respond to a request for comment on Monday, but she previously told the Hood County News she wished Carew “the best in her future endeavors."

Over the last year, Carew has come under fire for everything from her connection with the League of Women Voters, which critics say is anti-Trump, to her interest in a $29,000 grant, funded in part by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, that would have been used to pay for costs related to the pandemic.

She was also accused of harboring a hidden agenda after refusing to allow a reporter with the fervently pro-Trump One America News Network into a private training for election professionals in March when she headed the Texas Association of Elections Administrators.

The most sustained criticism of Carew came from critics who accused her of violating the law by not adhering to an obscure election law that requires ballots to be consecutively numbered.

But seven election experts and administrators told ProPublica and the Tribune that consecutively numbering ballots is out of step with best practices in election security and voter privacy, and that consecutive numbering is not required to conduct effective election audits.

Despite the toll the last year has taken on her, Carew on Monday remained defiant. “I'm leaving on my own accord," she said. “I'm the one who wins in the end."

Disclosure: Facebook, Texas Secretary of State and New York Times have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/10/12/hood-county-elections-administrator-trump/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Ted Cruz and John Cornyn opposed a debt-limit increase, but backed previous borrowing hikes

"Ted Cruz and John Cornyn opposed a debt-limit increase that will stave off economic catastrophe, but backed previous borrowing hikes" 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.

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas blasted his fellow Republicans this week for the role they played in allowing Democrats to temporarily increase the debt ceiling, keep the government from a first-ever financial default and avoid economic chaos.

“I wish Republicans hadn't blinked," Cruz said Thursday from the Senate floor just before the chamber voted to allow more borrowing until December. “We shouldn't have done that."

But his comments — and his party's lockstep opposition to extending the borrowing cap in the face of widespread financial calamity — belie the role Republicans have played in contributing to the country's $28 trillion deficit.

No Republican senator voted to raise the debt limit Thursday. But Cruz's fellow Texan, Republican Sen. John Cornyn joined 10 other members of the party to allow that debt ceiling vote to come to the floor. That move staved off a potential worldwide economic collapse — and allowed Republicans to avoid being blamed for such a calamity without having to actually vote in favor of the increase.

And while they voted against Thursday's increase, Cruz and Cornyn have routinely supported more government borrowing when Republicans held the White House.

Cornyn opposed the debt limit adopted by the Senate in 2013 but voted in favor of Congress raising the ceiling in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2011 and 2015.

Cruz routinely opposed increases throughout the Obama administration. As a freshman senator in 2014, he famously filibustered a debt-ceiling increase bill in exchange for deficit reductions. But a cloture vote ultimately allowed the bill to pass.

Yet both senators voted in favor of debt-ceiling increases throughout the Trump administration, including the 2017 tax cuts bill and the annual budget bill.

The debt ceiling functions like a credit card limit for the American government. Officeholders can — and regularly do — raise that limit in order to accommodate exploding deficits brought on by increased spending. That happened after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the creation of new entitlements and the passage of tax cuts, and as the nation weathered expensive crises like the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Failing to raise the current debt limit could set off a stock market crash, and economists project apocalyptic worldwide fallout.

Usually, Americans rarely notice when Congress raises the debt ceiling, given how routine it has become over the years. But when it becomes a point of contention like this week, it can overpower all other politics of the day.

The newest debate came as Democrats are proposing trillions of dollars in new spending over the next decade. Even before the Senate voted, both the White House and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced they would move quickly to make a debt-ceiling increase law. The GOP aim was to make Democrats raise the debt limit on their own, even though the current deficit includes debts from GOP-approved policies and bills.

Cornyn opposed increasing the debt limit this week because it's tied to a $3.5 trillion spending bill to fund Democratic priorities.

“Well I know it shocks everybody that politics is involved in anything that happens here in Washington D.C., but obviously the Democrats have an agenda that we don't agree with, and why would we facilitate that agenda by raising the debt ceiling for example as long as we know they can do it by themselves, which they can," Cornyn told Gray television news affiliates on Thursday.

Both parties have a history of politicizing such action. Democrats did it in 2006. Then, Democratic senators like future Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden voted against increasing the debt limit as a form of protest to the Bush-era Iraq War and tax cuts. Even so, the measure easily passed through the Republican-controlled chamber.

In 2011 and 2013-14, the Obama administration dealt with a series of debt-ceiling fights, later dubbed “the budget wars" when Republicans returned the favor after taking control of the U.S. House.

The government previously came so close to default that an analysis from Moody Analytics shows the 2011 and 2013 crises have cost the U.S. economy up to $180 billion and 1.2 million jobs. Following the crisis in 2011, the S&P stock index downgraded the U.S. in the exchange for the first time in history.

Democrats mostly backed off of the debt ceiling as a cudgel during the Trump administration and passed a debt-ceiling increase during the Trump era with comparatively little fanfare.

And while no Republicans supported the latest increase, Cornyn and some of his fellow Republicans directly helped get the bill through legislative hurdles required for the final vote to happen.

Cruz took to the floor just before the vote, decrying Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's leadership and blaming increased spending measures dating to the Bush administration.

“In the game of chicken, Chuck Schumer won," Cruz said of the Democratic Senate majority leader, adding that backing off was a “strategic mistake by our leadership."

He went on to blame both parties for the explosion of debt, and included some of his own votes for spending to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, he took care to excise the Republican-passed 2017 tax cuts from any culpability for the deficit, though such assertions contradict expert economic calculations.

Cruz told reporters Thursday that the 2017 tax cuts reduced what families, small businesses and farmers had to pay the government while helping to lower unemployment.

“And the very next year, federal tax revenues did not go down, they went up," he said. “And so the tax cuts did precisely what they were designed to do, which is get people back to work and help job creators create jobs."

But the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and the Brookings Institution think tank both issued reports in recent years stating otherwise, that the 2017 tax cuts reduced revenues, specifically among corporate taxes.

Initially, Republicans this week intended to force Democrats to use an obscure process called reconciliation to raise the debt ceiling without GOP support, but Democrats refused to have full ownership of the matter.

By Thursday, McConnell had backed off that hard line.

Instead, Republicans could have just avoided a filibuster — and the 60 votes needed to overcome one — and let the bill go to the floor and pass with only Democratic votes. The aim was still to avoid any Republican fingerprints on raising the debt ceiling, even as they backed off of the filibuster threats.

But on Thursday night, Cruz forced his Republican colleagues to go on the record over whether to allow a vote on the debt ceiling by calling for a recorded vote.

It was a move that brought a return to an old dynamic that had faded during the Trump presidency: McConnell, Cornyn and other leaders in the Senate backing a bill, only to have Cruz disrupt the plan by forcing Republicans to vote for something they may privately wish to pass but have no interest in publicly supporting.

In the world of congressional vote whipping, party leaders in both chambers often cast votes that may have private support among rank-and-file members but are unsavory in practice.

As for Cruz, he argued that Democratic efforts to spread responsibility for raising the debt ceiling likely worked.

“So why are we facing a crisis? If for 10 months, Democrats could have done this anytime they wanted, why didn't they?" Cruz said on the Senate floor. “Well, because there are at least some Democrats who realize drowning the nation in debt and spending in taxes is not popular back home. The voters don't like it."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/10/08/ted-cruz-john-cornyn-debt-ceiling/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Climate change is making Texas hotter — and threatening its water supply: state climatologist

Climate change is making Texas hotter, threatening public health, water supply and the state's infrastructure

"Climate change is making Texas hotter, threatening public health, water supply and the state's infrastructure" 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.

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Climate change has made the Texas heat worse, with less relief as nighttime temperatures warm, a report from the state's climatologist published Thursday found.

Climate data also show that the state is experiencing extreme rainfall — especially in eastern Texas — bigger storm surges as seas rise along the Gulf Coast and more flooding from hurricanes strengthened by a warming ocean, the report says.

Those trends are expected to accelerate in the next 15 years, according to the report, which analyzes extreme weather risks for the state and was last updated in 2019. The report was funded in part by Texas 2036, a nonpartisan economic policy nonprofit group named for the state's upcoming bicentennial.

The average annual temperature in Texas is expected to be 3 degrees warmer by 2036 than the average of the 1950s, the report found. The number of 100-degree days is expected to nearly double compared with 2000-2018, especially in urban areas.

“From here on out, it's going to be very unusual that we ever have a year as mild as a typical year during the 20th century," said John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist who authored the report. “Just about all of them are going to be warmer."

A hotter Texas will threaten public health, squeeze the state's water supply, strain the electric grid and push more species toward extinction, experts told The Texas Tribune.

Nielsen-Gammon said that weather data showed minimum temperatures across the state have rapidly risen in recent years. The entire baseline of temperatures in the state has shifted upward — a trend that is likely to continue to cause problems for the state's aging infrastructure, experts said.

“I was surprised at how strong the upward trend was in the coldest temperatures of the summer," Nielsen-Gammon said. While global temperature analysis had already shown that trend, he said, it is now very clearly happening on the local level in Texas.

Even this year, which was considered a mild year because Texas didn't see temperatures above 100 degrees in much of the state, Nielsen-Gammon said nighttime temperatures stayed warm enough to put 2021 in the top 20% of years with the hottest summer nights on record.

Persistently higher temperatures cause a host of issues for public health. Heat stroke becomes more common, and the number of days and hours each year when it's safe to work outdoors is reduced. In the last decade, 53 workers in Texas have died from a heat stroke, nearly double the number of workers that died in the decade prior, according to an NPR investigation.

Droughts are enhanced, which places even more pressure on the state's rivers and lakes, already strained by a growing population. And pathogens can more easily grow and infiltrate public water systems.

“If you have situations where more parts of the state are pulling from lower reservoirs, rivers that are flowing less and warmer water temperatures, there's a real concern about what pathogens end up in [the water] system," said Gabriel Collins, a Baker Botts fellow in energy and environmental affairs at Rice University.

In Lake Jackson in 2020, a brain-eating amoeba was found in the water supply, which caused the death of a 6-year-old child. Warmer water temperatures caused by climate change could increase the prevalence of such water-borne amoebas, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The combination of higher heat and heavier precipitation in the eastern half of Texas also damages underground water pipes by causing the ground around them to expand and contract more, Collins said. It's likely that Texans will continue to see more frequent interruptions in their water supply as the state warms, he said.

And the state's power grid can be strained during extreme heat when Texans turn up the air conditioning to stay cool. At the same time, higher temperatures make it more difficult for power plants to run as efficiently as they do during normal conditions, decreasing the power supply — and increasing the risk of blackouts.

“We will see more risk of outages due to increased demand," said Juliana Felkner, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Texas whose research focused on sustainable development and design. “Power plants need water to run, so if there is a lack of water, this makes them less efficient and they generate less electricity."

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state's grid operator, included extreme calculations for heat and drought in its assessment of potential power supply conditions this summer, seeking to “broaden the debate" on making the grid more resilient. After a February winter storm knocked out power to millions of Texans for days, Texas Public Utility commissioners, who oversee the grid, questioned whether the grid could withstand more extreme weather as they looked to improve the grid's operations.

The environment, too, is damaged by persistently higher temperatures. Shaye Wolf, the climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said more species' extinctions can be expected. Many species of lizards, for example, are going extinct in the U.S. and globally because when it gets too hot, they retreat to the shade and can't hunt for food. Each species plays an important role in the local ecosystem, Wolf said, which is important for the safety of humans, not just plants and animals.

“When you destroy the web of life, it not only makes for a lonelier planet, but a more dangerous planet," Wolf said.

Local extinctions, or the disappearance of a species to a specific area but not the globe, are already widespread due to climate change, a 2016 study by University of Arizona researchers found. Among almost 1,000 species surveyed, nearly half of them were locally extinct.

Texans can expect every aspect of public infrastructure to be damaged by the heat brought by climate change, said infrastructure expert Mikhail Chester, associate professor of engineering and the director of the Metis Center for Infrastructure and Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University. While each individual effect may seem small — a boil water notice here, a broken pipe there — the total effect is a massive public challenge, he said.

“Climate change is slightly shifting everything: It's slightly breaking infrastructure, and it's pushing us beyond what we design things for," Chester said. “When you add all of that up, it's monumental."

Disclosure: Rice University, Texas 2036 and the University of Arizona have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Correction, Oct. 7, 2021: A previous version of the map in this story incorrectly labeled the temperature change in Texas counties between 1975 and 2020. It represents the average increase each decade, not the increase over the entire 45 year period.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/10/07/texas-climate-change-heat-water/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas has raised $54 million in private donations for its border wall plan. Almost all of it came from this one billionaire

"Texas has raised $54 million in private donations for its border wall plan. Almost all of it came from this one billionaire." 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.

An out-of-state billionaire who has previously bankrolled attempts to defend controversial immigration laws is responsible for nearly all the donations to Gov. Greg Abbott's $54 million border wall fund.

A member of one of America's richest family dynasties, Timothy Mellon, contributed nearly 98% of the fund's total donations when he donated $53.1 million in stock to the state in August, according to public records. Mellon is the 79-year-old Wyoming-based grandson of banking tycoon and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon.

Before Mellon's donations, Abbott's private fundraising campaign had stalled at about $1.25 million around mid-August, two months after its launch — a drop in the bucket for a project with a price tag estimated in the billions of dollars. But on Aug. 27, a state website that tracks donations to the crowdfunding effort said the fund had jumped to nearly $19 million. By the end of the month, it had topped $54 million.

The donations have since stalled again.

Mellon did not respond to multiple requests for comment made to his company, New Hampshire-based Pan Am Systems, and a marketing firm that handled publicity for his 2015 autobiography.

Abbott declined to comment.

Mellon does not appear to have close ties to Texas. But he was a top donor to the reelection campaign of former President Donald Trump, who made building a border wall a top priority, and has previously donated money to defend legislation targeting immigrants.

In 2010, he gave an unsolicited $1.5 million to the legal defense of an Arizona law that required police to determine the immigration status of people suspected of being in the country illegally, according to The Washington Post. Critics said the law would lead to racial profiling. The law was challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down parts of it but left intact the section allowing officers to ask about immigration status.

Last year, Mellon gave $20 million to America First Action, the main super PAC supporting Trump's reelection. Since 2018, he's donated $30 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund, the House GOP super PAC, and he gave $30 million to the Senate Leadership Fund, which tries to elect Republicans to the U.S. Senate, in 2020.

Mellon has not donated to Abbott, but he gave $2,500 to Republican gubernatorial challenger Allen West when West ran for Congress in Florida in 2012. Mellon ramped up his political donations in 2018.

While he overwhelmingly supports conservative campaigns and Republicans, Mellon also gave to two Democrats: U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York in 2018 and former U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii for her bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Ocasio-Cortez's campaign later said it did not solicit the donation and would return it.

Mellon has taken heat for using offensive stereotypes to describe Black Americans in his self-published autobiography.

In the 2015 book, Mellon wrote that after the Great Society programs of the 1960s, which were intended to tackle poverty and racial injustice, Black people “became even more belligerent and unwilling to pitch in to improve their own situations," according to The Washington Post.

He also called social safety net programs “slavery redux."

Mellon is the chair of Pan Am Systems, a privately held transportation and freight holding company. In the 1980s, he founded a rail company called Guilford Transportation Industries. In the 1990s, he rebranded the company after buying the brand of bankrupt Pan Am Airways.

Forbes estimated Mellon was worth almost $1 billion in 2014, and last year the magazine estimated the Mellon family was worth $11.5 billion.

Abbott's crowdsourced wall

Abbott, a two-term Republican, has made border security his top priority this year as he seeks reelection next year and is fighting off challenges from his right. Abbott has blamed the Biden administration for an increase in migrants at the border.

In March, Abbott deployed state military and police resources to the border to help federal authorities enforce immigration law. In June, he announced a state of disaster in 34 counties that were seeing large increases in migrant crossings and he unveiled his plan to build a state-funded border wall, picking up where Trump left off.

The Texas Legislature has approved nearly $3 billion over the next two-year budget cycle toward border security, with about $1 billion going to the governor's office for grants, including $750 million dedicated to construction of a border wall.

Texas is already paying $25 million for a nearly 2-mile concrete barrier along State Loop 480 in Eagle Pass. Portions of the federal border wall started by the Trump administration, and put on hold by the Biden administration, ranged from $6 million per mile to $34 million per mile for construction. Abbott's office said it has identified 733 miles of border that may need some type of barrier.

While the state displays the aggregate of private donations to the border wall on its website, it does not readily provide the names of individual donors, despite a commitment from Abbott early on that the crowdfunding effort would have “transparency and accountability."

Outside of Mellon, the fund received more than 12,100 individual donations as of Sept. 14, totaling about $1.3 million. The median donation was $50.

That level of fundraising is more in line with a similar crowdfunding attempt by Arizona lawmakers 10 years ago to raise private money for constructing a fence on the Mexican border. That effort received about $270,000 in three years, according to The Arizona Republic.

During the Trump administration, a nonprofit called We Build The Wall, which included his former political adviser Steve Bannon as a board member, raised $25 million for a border wall. Bannon and Brian Kolfage, the group's leader, were accused by the federal government in August 2020 of looting the charity for personal gain. Bannon was later pardoned by Trump.

Tax benefit

Tax experts say Mellon's decision to donate stock instead of cash could yield a tax benefit for the billionaire.

Normally, a person has to pay taxes on profits made on their investments when they are sold. But investors who donate stock to charity avoid paying a tax on the earnings on their investment and get a tax deduction for the full amount of stock.

“It's common to give stock that's increased in value because they can get rid of the gains and they can deduct the donations," said Lloyd Mayer, a professor at Notre Dame Law School.

Such donations are usually made to nonprofit organizations. But under the tax code, a charitable contribution to a state would likely be tax-deductible if it is “made exclusively for public purposes." Some people, for example, get tax deductions for donating money to cut the federal debt.

The only hurdle is ensuring the money is only used for public purposes.

“In the case of [a] border wall, presumably built upon public land, I think it'd be hard to argue there are private purposes," said Lisa De Simone, an accounting professor at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.

But Mayer said such donations raise questions about undue influence by wealthy donors on governmental policymaking.

In June, Tennessee billionaire Willis Johnson offered South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem $1 million to help pay for a state National Guard's deployment to the border to aid Texas' efforts to catch people crossing illegally. The state's soldiers were then sent to the Texas border.

“The thing that's controversial about these kinds of donations is whether they're distorting government priorities. If government collects money in taxes and the government — Legislature and governor — decide how to spend it, they're setting their priorities based on the political environment," Mayer said. “But if you open it up to donations, you're handing what the government should spend their money on to wealthy donors."

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/10/06/timothy-mellon-texas-border-wall/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas Supreme Court refuses to resume a Planned Parenthood lawsuit challenging new state abortion law

"Texas Supreme Court refuses to resume a Planned Parenthood lawsuit challenging new state abortion law" 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.

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The Texas Supreme Court denied a request Monday from Planned Parenthood to resume its lawsuit, filed in a state district court, that challenges the state's near-total abortion ban.

Planned Parenthood asked the all-Republican court last week to overturn the Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel's decision to indefinitely pause its suit alongside 13 other lawsuits filed in Travis County district court. The panel of five judges stopped the cases from continuing at the request of Texas Right to Life, a prominent anti-abortion organization that helped draft Texas' abortion restrictions.

The suit filed by Planned Parenthood asked the court to declare the abortion law, which bans the procedure as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, unconstitutional. A hearing was scheduled for this month, the organization said, before the panel of judges paused proceedings. In that case, the court temporarily blocked Texas Right to Life from being able to sue Planned Parenthood for potential violations of the abortion law.

“The Texas Supreme Court's decision to allow the stay to remain in effect is extremely disappointing and will likely deprive Planned Parenthood of its day in court, once again," Helene Krasnoff, Planned Parenthood's vice president for public policy litigation and law, said in a statement.

Elizabeth Myers, a Dallas-based attorney who represents plaintiffs for the other 13 lawsuits blocked, said Monday's ruling was disappointing, but she called the stay a temporary setback.

“We'll present our arguments and the defendants will ultimately have to attempt to defend SB8 on the merits," Myers said. “That is something the defendants are obviously scared and unwilling to do, so it's not surprising that they continue to try to delay it. At some point, their delay tactics will no longer work and our clients look forward to that day."

These lawsuits are not the only legal challenges to the state's abortion law, commonly known as Senate Bill 8.

Abortion providers, doctors, women's rights groups and even the U.S. government are battling to overturn the law in federal courts. A federal appeals court is set to hold a hearing in December in one lawsuit aimed at overturning the restrictions. A federal judge is also expected to issue an order soon on whether to temporarily block enforcement of Texas' abortion law as part of a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit filed after the Biden administration vowed to challenge the statute.

Also on Monday, the Biden administration reversed a 2018 decision by former President Donald Trump that disallows family planning clinics from receiving federal funding if they provide abortion referrals.

Texas' near-total abortion ban has been in effect for more than a month, even as abortion providers, doctors, women's rights groups and the U.S. government have sought to block its enforcement. The statute bars abortions after approximately six weeks of pregnancy, before many know they're pregnant. Meanwhile, most abortions in the state — experts estimate more than 85% — have ceased, and some abortion clinics have stopped offering the procedure altogether.

The law's unique structure makes it difficult to block in court. Although abortion remains a constitutional right under Supreme Court precedent, Texas was able to skirt precedent by offloading the enforcement of the statute from government and law enforcement officials to private citizens.

Texas Right to Life applauded the Texas Supreme Court's decision.

“We are thankful that Planned Parenthood's attempt to shortcut the normal process of litigation was again denied," Kimberlyn Schwartz, the organization's media and communication director, said in a statement.

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/10/04/texas-supreme-court-abortion-lawsuit/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Historically red Tarrant County diversified in the last decade. Now Republicans are trying to divide up its voters of color

By James Barragán, The Texas Tribune

Oct. 4, 2021

"Historically red Tarrant County diversified in the last decade. Now Republicans are trying to divide up its voters of color." 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.

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Over the last 10 years, the voters of color in a steadily diversifying Tarrant County have seen their political clout grow.

In 2014, Ramon Romero was elected the county's first Latino state representative. Last December, Mansfield voters elected Michael Evans as the first Black mayor in the city's 130-year history. And in November, Tarrant voters went for Joe Biden over Donald Trump, cementing a major political shift that started when the district chose Beto O'Rourke over Ted Cruz two years earlier.

In Texas Senate District 10, which is nestled entirely inside of Tarrant and makes up about half of the county population, the district's growing Asian, Black and Hispanic populations regularly band together to pick Democratic candidates, including former state Sen. Wendy Davis in 2012 and the current incumbent, Sen. Beverly Powell, in 2018.

But as lawmakers charge ahead with redrawing district lines, those voters of color could see their voting strength diluted in the Texas Capitol. The proposed Senate map, drafted by Republicans, took aim at the district — splitting it up and pairing its voters with those in counties to the south and west that made the district much whiter, more rural and more likely to vote for the GOP.

Powell said Republicans in charge are clearly trying to deny voters of color their voice in elections in an effort to bolster conservative representation.

“The proposed map intentionally, unnecessarily and illegally destroys the voting strength of District 10's minority citizens," she said.

Since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Texas has not made it through a single decade without a federal court admonishing it for violating federal protections for voters of color. Ten years ago, a federal court ruled that a similar attempt to redraw District 10 was intentionally discriminatory.

The chamber's chief map-drawer this time around, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, has said the maps were drawn “race-blind."

In hearings following the release of the Senate's proposed map, Tarrant County elected officials and residents implored lawmakers to leave the district unchanged. But an amended proposal headed for a vote in the full Senate now has the remaining Tarrant County sections of the district tied in with eight rural counties in the new Senate District 10 — six more than the original proposal.

Powell said urban voters of color who remain in the district would be drowned out by white, rural voters in Cleburne and Mineral Wells with different needs. She has pleaded with her colleagues not to break apart the existing district.

“This is personal to the people of Tarrant County," she said. “They want to preserve their ability to have their voices heard in their elections."

But on Monday, longtime state Rep. Phil King, a Republican who lives in Parker County, one of the new counties in the proposed district, announced he would run for the seat if lawmakers approved it. Twenty minutes later, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, endorsed King for the seat.

On Tuesday, the Senate Redistricting Committee approved the map by a vote of 12-2.

Huffman has said she consulted with the attorney general's office to ensure the maps she drafted comply with the Voting Rights Act, which protects racial minorities from discrimination. But she has refused to say what specific parameters she considered in her work.

Huffman's office did not respond to a request for comment.

The proposed changes to Senate District 10's racial makeup are stark.

Under its current configuration, District 10 has an eligible voter population that is 54% white, 20% Hispanic, 21% Black and 3% Asian. Under the proposed changes, the district's voting age population would be 62% white, 17% Hispanic, 17% Black and 2% Asian.

Each of the eight counties newly drawn into the district has a population that is 70% white or higher, and none has a Hispanic population larger than 25% or a Black population larger than 5%.

But more precisely, Powell said the proposed map draws a “jagged gash" from east to west Tarrant County that splits up traditionally Hispanic neighborhoods in north and south Fort Worth. Those in the south remain in the district, while those in the north are placed in a newly drawn Senate District 9 represented by Republican Sen. Kelly Hancock.

In total, Powell said, 133,000 people — more than 70% of them people of color — are moved out of Senate District 10 and into Senate District 9, whose eligible voting age population under its new boundaries would be majority white.

Tristeza Ordex, a Latina political activist who helped campaign for Powell in 2018, said moving Hispanics into a majority-white district would harm their ability to elect candidates who push for issues important to them.

“The Republican Party is doing everything they can to try to break some of the voters in that district," Ordex said. “That's going to affect us."

Tristeza Ordex is an activist in Tarrant County, voicing her concern over the proposed redistricting of Senate District 10, with the new version reaching into more conservative Parker and Johnson counties. “The map is being drawn to remove black and brown communities from that district to make it a Republican stronghold.

Tristeza Ordex is an activist in Tarrant County, voicing her concern over the proposed redistricting of Senate District 10, with the new version reaching into more conservative Parker and Johnson counties. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

She noted that before Powell, Senate District 10 was represented by Konni Burton, a staunchly conservative GOP senator and strong proponent of the “sanctuary cities" ban passed in 2017.

“That hurt so many people," Ordex said, noting that Burton's views were at odds with many of the district's residents. Burton lost her reelection to Powell.

In recent years, Tarrant's Latino community has organized around issues like putting an end to a county program that allows the sheriff's office to hold immigrants living in the country illegally for federal immigration authorities, Ordex said. Community activists have sent dozens of people to commissioners court meetings to pressure officials to end the contract, showing the growing influence of voters of color in the county.

If those voters are shifted into safely Republican Senate districts, Ordex fears their concerns would be brushed aside. Ordex, who has worked as a staffer for state lawmakers, said the district could get a senator who supports ending the Texas Dream Act, which guarantees in-state tuition to immigrants in the country without legal permission.

“They dilute our vote, and what are they going to do?" she said. “They're going to make decisions for us."

Sergio De Leon, a Tarrant County justice of the peace, said the issues of a major urban area like Tarrant are not aligned with the largely rural counties that the Senate's proposal would add to the district.

“Inner-city Fort Worth Hispanics do not tend to cattle, they don't cut hay or gather at the feed store," he told lawmakers. “We work two or three jobs, meet up at the Fiesta supermarket and taquerias."

In the eastern section of the district, Powell said, the map “shoves a crooked billy club" north from Senate District 22, represented by Republican Brian Birdwell, that splits the city of Mansfield, a rapidly growing district with a growing and diverse population, into two Senate districts.

Evans, the city's mayor, told lawmakers that more than 41,000 of the city's 72,000 residents were placed in Senate District 22, which runs as far south as Waco.

“The remaining 30,056 Mansfield residents are packed into new SD-10 but submerged in a district dominated by Anglo voters in Johnson, Parker and now other rural counties of record, of which our city shares no interest," he said.

Evans said his city deals with urban issues like mass-transportation infrastructure, housing and equity in local public schools and would have “no influence in agrarian and rural communities."

Sixty-five percent of the city's Black population is drawn into District 22 while the remaining 35% goes into District 10, even though the city has been entirely contained in District 10 for the last two decades.

“It is discriminatory, it is illegal," he said.

Asked by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, how he would change the map, Evans responded:

“I would leave it just as it is, and watch it continue to grow, so that the community can come together and vote for and elect the candidate of their choice."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/10/04/texas-redistricting-tarrant-county/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

'God’s will is being thwarted': Hard-liners seek more partisan control of elections — even in solid Republican counties

by Jeremy Schwartz, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

HOOD COUNTY, Texas — Michele Carew would seem an unlikely target of Donald Trump loyalists who have fixated their fury on the notion that the 2020 election was stolen from the former president.

The nonpartisan elections administrator in the staunchly Republican Hood County, just an hour southwest of Fort Worth, oversaw an election in which Trump got some 81% of the vote. It was among the former president's larger margins of victory in Texas, which also went for him.

Yet over the past 10 months, Carew's work has come under persistent attack from hard-line Republicans. They allege disloyalty and liberal bias at the root of her actions, from the time she denied a reporter with the fervently pro-Trump network One America News entrance to a training that was not open to the public to accusations, disputed by the Texas secretary of state's office, that she is violating state law by using electronic machines that randomly number ballots.

Viewing her decisions as a litmus test of her loyalty to the Republican Party, they have demanded that Carew be fired or her position abolished and her duties transferred to an elected county clerk who has used social media to promote baseless allegations of widespread election fraud.

Republican politicians and conspiracy theorists continue to cast doubt on the election process across the country, particularly in areas where President Joe Biden won. They have demanded audits in states like Arizona, where the results of a Republican-led review in Maricopa County confirmed Biden's victory. They have also moved to restrict voting in multiple states, including Texas, which passed sweeping legislation that has already drawn lawsuits alleging the disenfranchisement of vulnerable voters.

Last week, Trump issued a public letter demanding an audit in Texas. Hours later, the Texas secretary of state's office announced that it had begun a “comprehensive forensic audit" in four of the state's largest counties: Dallas, Harris, Tarrant and Collin. Biden won three of the four.

But Hood County stands out nationally and within Texas because it offers a rare view into the virulent distrust and unyielding political pressure facing elections administrators even in communities that Trump safely won. The county also represents the escalation of a wider push to replace independent administrators with more actively partisan election officials, said David Kimball, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“Going back to the 2020 election, by and large, we saw election officials at the state and local level stand up to and resist efforts by Trump supporters to overturn the results," said Kimball, who is also a ballot design and voting equipment expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Election Lab. “And now this seems to me like part of the next move: Remove officials and put in somebody else who's more to their liking."

Kimball said such efforts can be dangerous given the power of elections administrators to control the number and location of polling places, the use of mail-in ballots and compliance with state and federal laws. In Mesa County, Colorado, for example, elected County Clerk Tina Peters, who has fueled the false narrative that Trump's victory was stolen, allowed an unauthorized individual to copy the hard drives of voting machines, according to a lawsuit against Peters filed by the Colorado secretary of state's office. Sensitive security information, including passwords, later appeared on far-right media sites and on social media, the lawsuit states. Peters' attorney has denied that she did anything wrong.

Carew's case is particularly troublesome because it “smells of political bullying" and reflects a wider rift in Texas among different factions of the GOP that has grown more pronounced since the election, said Carlos Cascos, a Republican who served as secretary of state for two years under Gov. Greg Abbott before leaving in 2017.

“They're in power, they get somewhat cocky and they start eating their own. That's what I'm seeing happening with the Texas GOP," said Cascos, who this year helped form the Texas Republican Initiative, a group that was created to combat intraparty attacks led by former GOP Chairman Allen West, who is now running for governor.

Similar fissures have cropped up in Hood County, where far-right conservatives who preach allegiance to Trump have split with more establishment-aligned Republicans in demanding that Carew's duties be placed under elected County Clerk Katie Lang, who has espoused Trump's stolen-election theory. Lang made national headlines in 2015 after refusing to issue a marriage license to a gay couple following the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

She frequently shares “Stop the Steal" and “Impeach Biden" memes and videos, including those produced by Blue Shark Media, a popular local far-right Facebook and YouTube show that has claimed the presidential election was stolen, vigorously opposed mask mandates and repeatedly called for Carew's ouster. The show's founder is Mike Lang, her husband, who as a former state representative chaired the hard-right House Freedom Caucus.

Aside from saying that she would abide by the Constitution, Katie Lang declined to talk with ProPublica and The Texas Tribune about how she would approach elections management if given the role. Mike Lang did not respond to a request for comment.

The attacks have confounded Carew, 47, whose job is nonpartisan, but who has voted in Republican primaries for the past 11 years, according to public records.

Stress now invades her sleep, waking her up at night as her mind replays the barrage of accusations against her, she said in a recent interview.

“I had no idea what I was getting into."

“God's Will Is Being Thwarted"

The heart of the argument against Carew is as basic as the way she numbers voter ballots.

Hood County represents a growing number of areas that have begun shifting from electronic-only machines to more secure hybrid models, which provide paper ballots and are intended to help guard against fraud. A new state law requires all counties to move to voting systems that produce paper ballots by 2026. Like many elections officials in the state's largest counties, including nearby Tarrant and Dallas, Carew uses the machines to randomly number ballots in accordance with guidance from the Texas secretary of state.

But critics such as Laura Pressley, a self-proclaimed elections expert and favorite of hard-line Republicans in the county, accuse Carew of purposefully ignoring an obscure provision of state law that calls for paper ballots to be consecutively numbered starting with one. Pressley argues that ballots cannot be audited without such numbering, enabling the possibility of election fraud. She has stopped short of claiming any wrongdoing in Carew's handling of the 2020 election.

“Our elections are the representation of free will, and if we can't trust that our free will is being represented legally and accurately, then God's will is being thwarted," Pressley, a failed Austin City Council candidate turned critic of electronic voting machines, told county commissioners in April. Dave Eagle, a county commissioner and critic of Carew's, invited Pressley to speak at the meeting.

The push for consecutive numbering has become so potent in Hood County that commissioners in May asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to weigh in on the dispute.

The pending decision could put Paxton, a Trump supporter who unsuccessfully sued to overturn presidential election results in battleground states, at odds with the Republican-led secretary of state's office. The office has defended Carew, arguing in a July letter to Paxton that electronic voting systems must number ballots randomly so as not to violate privacy rights. It also has said that the consecutive numbering provision was intended for paper ballots, not electronic voting machines.

As state and local officials battle over how to number ballots in Hood County, experts worry that Texas' constitutional numbering requirement is outdated and doesn't reflect a broader shift toward protecting voter privacy.

J. Alex Halderman, an election security expert at the University of Michigan, said that over the years states have outlawed the numbering of ballots, adding that “Texas' policy is at the other extreme."

Colorado law explicitly states that paper ballots cannot be marked in any way that allows for voter identification. Numbering of Election Day ballots is not allowed in Illinois or North Carolina, and election laws in states including Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi and New York don't call for the numbering of ballots.

“Where I really worry is for voters who feel socially vulnerable for one reason or another, because they are themselves members of minority groups or are in the political minority," Halderman said. “They are going to be the ones most worried that, 'Oh gosh, the people running the election can figure out how I voted,' and that can deter people from voting at all or being less likely to cast a dissenting vote."

The law dates back to a time when legislators believed that numbering ballots and voter lists would allow for easy identification and help to catch fraud. Over the years, the law was challenged by candidates who worried that it could dissuade voters from participating in elections; by 1947, the League of Women Voters was pushing for a secret ballot in Texas.

“The Texas system originally was devised so that, in case of an election contest, any voter's ballot could be identified and the court could determine whether it had been changed," stated a 1947 McAllen Monitor editorial supporting the shift toward more privacy at the ballot box. “But this precaution is so little needed in contrast to the far more prevalent danger of checking up on timid voters that the cure has done more harm than the original malady."

Since then, historians have pointed to the numbering system as a facilitator of election fraud. Douglas Clouatre wrote in his book “Presidential Upsets: Dark Horses, Underdogs, and Corrupt Bargains" that George Parr, a longtime political boss in South Texas, used numbered ballots, in combination with poll lists, to identify and bribe voters to choose Democratic candidates and reject Republican ballots. Parr's scheme is credited with helping John F. Kennedy win Texas in 1960.

Seven election experts and administrators told ProPublica and the Tribune that consecutively numbering ballots is out of step with best practices in election security and is not required to conduct effective election audits.

“In an audit you're counting the ballots in a particular precinct to see if they match the totals that you've already got, and so the order of the ballots doesn't matter as long as you are counting all of them," said Kimball, the ballot design expert.

“Injecting Chaos"

A 14-year veteran of county elections administration, Carew left a job in Aransas County on the Gulf Coast to be closer to her ailing parents, children and growing grandchildren in north Texas.

Having grown up in Weatherford, just 25 miles away, Carew said she was proud to be running elections in Hood County. She had garnered nothing but praise from Republican leaders in Aransas County who tapped her in 2015 to be their first elections administrator.

“I can't imagine anyone not giving anything but A-plus as a grade. She's that good," Ric Young, the Aransas County Republican Party chair, said in an interview. “People have to realize her credentials are impeccable and she knows what she is doing."

More than four decades ago, Texas lawmakers passed a measure allowing counties to create an independent administrator position. Aimed at insulating elections administrators from political pressures, the law calls for them to be appointed by a bipartisan elections commission rather than by county commissioners. Elected officials are prohibited from directing the activities of administrators.

In proposing the legislation, lawmakers said the move was a step toward professionalizing elections, but they made such a switch voluntary. Of the state's 254 counties, about half — which make up roughly 80% of registered voters — have appointed an independent elections administrator. The others are run by elected local officials, usually county clerks, who are also expected to avoid partisanship.

“There has been a consistent trend in Texas to move toward the fairer, less politicized administration of elections," said Jeremi Suri, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “In the last year, we are starting to see people try to reverse that in ways that are discouraging."

Across the country, elections officials are increasingly feeling pressure to prioritize partisan interests over a fair democratic elections process, according to a June study issued by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice and the Bipartisan Policy Center. The study, which interviewed more than three dozen elections administrators, found that 78% believe misinformation and disinformation spread on social media has made their jobs harder, with more than half saying the position has become more dangerous.

In a September news release announcing a lawsuit challenging Texas' new elections law, the Brennan Center pointed to the negative effects it would have on elections administrators. In direct opposition to measures that made voting easier in Houston, the state's largest city, legislators banned drive-thru polling places and 24-hour voting across the state. They also banned the unsolicited distribution of applications for mail-in ballots to eligible voters, such as the elderly, and created new criminal penalties for election workers accused of interfering with expanded powers given to poll watchers.

“These new penalties are one example of a troubling new trend of state laws that target election officials and poll workers," the statement said. “Laws like these rub salt in the wounds of election workers, many of whom faced unprecedented threats and intimidation last year for simply doing their jobs."

Texas' new voting restrictions, a recent push by GOP activists to seize control of local party precincts and efforts to delegitimize the elections process in places like Hood County could have a greater chilling effect that drives out a generation of independent elections administrators, said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a nonprofit that seeks to increase voter participation and improve the efficiency of elections administration.

“This is an incredible delegitimization of American democracy when it comes right down to it," said Becker, a former Department of Justice lawyer who helped oversee voting rights enforcement under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “It is a security threat that is injecting chaos and partisanship and doubt into our election system."

Carew entered Hood County in the summer of 2020, when Trump was already raising the specter of election fraud. Deep-seated divisions among the local Republican Party had already started to form with the selection of the next elections administrator.

A five-person commission that hires and fires elections administrators in the county was split between Carew and another candidate, Zach Maxwell, who had previously served as chief of staff to Mike Lang. According to his resume, Maxwell had never been employed by a county election office, but Katie Lang, who sits on the commission, said she believed he was committed to elections and praised his work ethic.

Republican County Judge Ron Massingill argued that the county needed someone with experience to deal with an expected “turbulent" presidential election. He eventually sided with the Hood County Democratic chair and the Republican county tax assessor in a 3-2 vote to hire Carew in August 2020, making him a target of hard-line party leaders who have framed the decision as a betrayal.

In one of her first presentations to the commissioners court a month before the election, Carew asked them to approve a $29,000 grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life for items that included election supplies, voter education material and mail-in voting support. She told them that the grant gave elections officials discretion when using the money.

Eagle, an artisanal cheesemaker and former Tea Party leader, questioned the more than $350 million the nonprofit organization had received from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, saying the social media company had stifled conservative voices on its platform.

“This is just one more assault, in my opinion, by the progressive left to completely destroy this election cycle," Eagle said during the meeting. He argued that by giving to nonprofits, private donors were attempting to sway local elections in favor of Democrats, and pointed to a lawsuit seeking to prevent counties from accepting such grants. The suit was later dismissed after a U.S. district judge refused to issue a temporary restraining order blocking the grants.

Hood County commissioners voted against the grant, which was accepted by 101 other Texas counties, including 85 that voted for Trump. Texas Republican lawmakers have since passed legislation that would require written consent from the secretary of state's office for private grants exceeding $1,000 to election departments, arguing that they seek to tilt the balance of elections in favor of Democrats.

Days after the November election, Blue Shark Media alleged voter fraud in the national election and said voters should not accept the results. Mike Lang, the former state representative, and his co-hosts praised local elected officials, including Eagle, Katie Lang and Constable John Shirley, a former high-ranking member of the far-right paramilitary Oath Keepers, for attending a “Stop the Steal" rally in front of the county courthouse.

“Those are your GOP Republicans that they're for Trump, they want Trump in there. They're not part of the establishment that are like, 'Oh, no, Trump's not going to win,'" Lang said during a show posted on Nov. 8.

He did not raise concerns about the management of the local election. But since then, the show has repeatedly attacked Carew, even resurfacing her failed request for the nonprofit grant and calling it nothing more than an attempt to draw unsolicited mail-in ballots.

“We need to not only look at who we elect, but we need to look at who our elected officials hire," Lang said during a show that month.

Calls for Carew's Ouster

The demands for Carew's ouster have grown so vigorous that critics have threatened political action against Massingill, the county judge, for his support of the elections administrator.

Massingill, who is quick to point out that he is a recipient of Trump's Order of Merit for loyalty and service to the Republican Party, said the attacks on Carew from his own party are unwarranted.

“I don't think it is fair. I really don't. She is following the law," Massingill said in an interview. “We want somebody in that office that is neutral and unbiased. We can't have the Democratic Party or the Green Party or the Republican Party telling her how to run the election."

Days before an April commissioners court meeting, Blue Shark Media aired an episode calling for Carew's removal. The show had spent months criticizing Carew for a host of perceived slights, including her connection to the League of Women Voters, which honored Hood County and 53 others for their “outstanding" election website. Critics in the county have argued that the voter education and advocacy group is biased because it called for Trump's removal from office after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

In another example that Carew was not ideologically pure, the show's hosts pointed to a report that she had denied Christina Bobb, a former Trump administration official who works for One America News, access to a private training held at a conference of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators. Dominion Voting Systems, one of the country's largest election system vendors, filed a defamation lawsuit against the network and Bobb in August, alleging “false and manufactured stories about election fraud." The lawsuit stated that Bobb crossed “journalism ethical lines" by raising money through a nonprofit to fund a partisan review of its voting machines in Arizona's Maricopa County. Bobb and OAN did not respond to requests for comment.

In a two-and-a-half minute report that aired in March, Bobb said that she was able to attend the first day of the conference after identifying herself as a member of the public.

On the second day, Carew, then the president of the state association, barred Bobb, saying she attempted to attend an elections certification training that was not open to the public or to members of the media. Carew said Bobb failed to inform organizers that she was a reporter. She said the Katy-based National Association of Election Officials, which puts on the training that costs several hundred dollars to attend, asked her not to allow Bobb inside.

“She was dishonest with us as to who she was with," Carew said.

But for Mike Lang, the incident was further evidence of Carew's bias.

“The fact is that Michele Carew, the president of the association, kicked her out, and is that election integrity and transparency? Not a bit," he said during a Blue Shark show in April.

Two months later, Blue Shark obtained an application that Carew submitted for a position in Travis County. The application, they said, suggested that Carew was committing fraud because she stated that she was still working for Aransas County.

“How can you have any type of integrity or honesty when you can't fill out an employment application?" Mike Lang asked on a June 21 show as he displayed portions of the application.

Carew, who said she applied for the job after months of attacks in Hood County, told ProPublica and the Tribune that she mistakenly submitted an older version of her standardized employment application. She said she was shocked to learn that critics had gone as far as to track down the application.

“Let's have a commission meeting and let's find another elections administrator," Lang said during the June show in which he demanded that Massingill take action against Carew.

Despite concerns from some Republican precinct chairs about a lack of evidence, the Hood County Republican Party Executive Committee in July passed a resolution threatening a social media campaign against Massingill if he didn't convene the county's elections commission to discuss Carew's termination.

“The resolution makes several big claims, but only uses hearsay to back them up," Mark Shackelford, a precinct chair, wrote in internal Hood County GOP emails obtained by ProPublica and the Tribune. Shackelford later told ProPublica and the Tribune that he believed that without more robust evidence the resolution would be perceived as sour grapes within the county. “And it was," he told ProPublica and the Texas Tribune in an email.

When Massingill refused, Katie Lang, the vice chair of the elections commission, stepped in and called a meeting. Aside from opponents, the meeting drew poll workers, election judges and former officials in Aransas County who defended Carew.

In the end, the elections commission voted 3-2 not to terminate Carew, marking the same split as when it hired her to be the elections administrator. David Fischer, Hood County's GOP chairman who along with Lang voted to fire Carew, said the vote had not ended the effort against her.

The next step, Fischer said during the meeting, should be for the commissioners court to schedule a vote to dissolve the office and place elections under Lang. The move would make the office more accountable to the county's majority Republican voters, said Fischer, who declined an interview request.

Commissioners have not said whether they plan to abolish the position.

In the meantime, Eagle and Pressley have continued their claims that Carew is flouting the law. In August, the pair addressed City Council members in Granbury, the largest city in Hood County, where Eagle advised them against contracting with Carew for its November 2021 election.

Instead, Eagle told officials, the city should hire a private company to run its election.

“I Felt Alone"

Carew has struggled to withstand the personal attacks and the accusations that she violated the law. She worries she has grown less trusting and more cynical.

“I felt alone to tell you the truth," she said in an interview. “The worst part was being dragged through the mud over something they don't know what they're talking about."

Carew said she has tried to find solace in discussions with other elections administrators, the only people who really know what she has been going through.

She feels as if she's somehow let them down. That her experience in Hood County has overshadowed more than a decade of service as an elections manager. And she worries that she will only be known for the claims lodged at her by those trying to remove her from the role.

But Carew is sure of one thing. She has already told her husband that Hood County will be her last elections administrator position.

“I don't feel like I am the same person I was a year ago," Carew said. “This county has ruined me."

Texas schools have reported more coronavirus cases in two months than they did in the entire 2020-21 school year

By Kalley Huang, Mandi Cai and Brian Lopez, The Texas Tribune

Sept. 17, 2021

"Texas schools have reported more coronavirus cases in two months than they did in the entire 2020-21 school year" 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.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Students in Texas public schools are facing another year upturned by COVID-19 as the highly contagious delta variant spreads, mask mandates are inconsistent and children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated against the virus.

Two months into this school year, the number of reported coronavirus cases among students has surpassed the total from the entire 2020-21 school year. Schools are prohibited from taking precautions such as requiring masks, though some are fighting the governor's order banning mask mandates. Far more students are on campus, since most districts do not have a remote learning option.

Every Friday, the Texas Education Agency releases COVID-19 case counts for students and staff, as reported by the state's school districts. Here is the latest situation for the week ending Sunday, Sept. 26:

State data on school cases is incomplete and likely an undercount. TEA suppresses some districts' case counts to protect student privacy, and not all districts report student and staff cases to the state, despite agency guidance requiring otherwise. The agency also retroactively updates its data from previous weeks as more districts report cases.

Some large districts, such as Houston and Dallas, have not consistently reported cases to the state since TEA started tracking COVID-19 data on Aug. 2 for this school year. Many districts publish a COVID-19 dashboard that shows cases, and TEA recommends families check for the latest data there.

Entire districts, including Angleton and Lumberton, have closed temporarily without reporting cases to the state. These districts don't necessarily report their closures, either, since they are not required to do so. TEA informally tracks closures based on media and district reports, said Frank Ward, an agency spokesperson.

Here are the 10 districts reporting the most cases for the week ending Sept. 26:

Going into the school year, districts had fewer options to slow the spread of the virus and keep students and staff safe.

Last year, school districts were permitted to require masks. This year, Gov. Greg Abbott has tried to prohibit mask mandates in schools. After remaining silent on the issue for weeks, TEA quietly updated its guidance last week to say school districts can't require masks, which has drawn a federal investigation for possibly violating the rights of students with disabilities. Still, some districts have continued to contest or ignore the ban.

Before the school year began, the state did not fund online options. Instead, school districts either used federal relief dollars or dug deep into their budgets to provide remote programming for families.

But now, some families and districts may find relief, as Abbott recently signed into law Senate Bill 15, which expands and funds virtual learning. While advocates for the law say it is a step in the right direction, it excludes students who failed the STAAR test.

In the last school year, almost 40% of students did not pass their math assessment, and nearly a third didn't pass reading. Those who failed were disproportionately Black and Hispanic.

If you appreciate reporting like this, you need to be at the all-virtual 2021 Texas Tribune Festival happening now through Sept. 25. Join as big names from politics, public policy and the media share what's next for Texas and beyond. Explore live and on-demand programming, including dozens of free events, at tribfest.org.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/09/17/texas-schools-covid-19-cases/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

DOJ argues Texas ban on school mask mandates violates disabled students’ rights

By Brian Lopez, The Texas Tribune

Oct. 1, 2021

"Justice Department argues Texas ban on school mask mandates violates disabled students' rights" 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.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Texas families of children with disabilities who have filed a lawsuit challenging Gov. Greg Abbott's ban on mask mandates in schools now have the federal government in their corner.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a formal statement in support of the federal lawsuit filed in August by the advocacy group Disability Rights Texas. In the statement, federal attorneys argue that banning public schools from requiring masks for students keeps disabled children from accessing in-person classes during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The statement points out that Abbott's executive order this summer, which bans mask mandates, “has the effect of denying them an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from the in-person instruction offered by their public schools."

Even if school districts offer a virtual learning option, the federal agency insists the governor's order still violates the Americans with Disabilities Act because all students need to be afforded every option available. The pandemic does not authorize officials to ignore the ADA; if anything, states need to be more sensitive to public health needs, the department said.

The department noted that following the ADA superseded any order.

Renae Eze, a spokesperson for Abbott, said in a statement that the federal government misunderstands the executive order as it doesn't prohibit anyone in schools from wearing masks, it only prohibits the mandating of masks.

"Any Texan from any background has the right and ability to wear a mask if they choose – and parents are the best decision-makers for their children," Eze said.

Disability Rights Texas, an advocacy group, filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of several Texan families in late August against Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath.

Dustin Rynders, supervising attorney at Disability Rights Texas, said in a statement that the organization is pleased the federal government is rallying behind the case.

“Just like forbidding ramps at school entrances would be form of discrimination, forbidding masking requirements can also discriminate against those who need others to wear a mask so they can attend school," Rynders said.

The group argues that the governor's order and the TEA's enforcement of it deny children with disabilities access to public education as they are at high risk of illness and death from the virus.

Because of this, Disability Rights Texas' lawsuit states Texas is violating the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which forbids organizations and employers from excluding or denying individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to receive program benefits and services. A trial is set to take place before U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel in Austin on Wednesday.

Neither Morath nor the TEA responded to a request for comment.

The TEA had largely stepped away from enforcing the governor's order as lawsuits swarmed from across the state and courts were going back and forth on decisions. But on Sept. 17, the agency quietly updated its guidance, saying that school districts can't require face coverings because the courts were not blocking Abbott's executive order prohibiting local mask mandates.

The TEA's latest guidance amplifies an ongoing war over coronavirus precautions that has left school officials and parents with whiplash about what requirements are — or aren't — in place.

But as the new school year approached, a surge of coronavirus infections and hospitalizations prompted some local officials to buck Abbott's prohibition in order to protect teachers and schoolchildren. Coronavirus vaccines still aren't approved for children younger than 12.

And about two months into the school year, Texas schools have reported more coronavirus cases than they did in the entire 2020-21 school year.

While the TEA is being sued in federal court, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights is also investigating the agency after deeming that its guidance prohibiting mask mandates in schools may be “preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the needs of students with disabilities."

The federal civil rights office has also launched similar investigations in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah. It had not done so in Texas because the TEA was previously not enforcing the governor's order while there was ongoing litigation.

In a letter to the TEA commissioner, federal officials said the investigation will focus on whether students with disabilities who are at greater risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are prevented from safely returning to in-person education, which would violate federal law, wrote Suzanne B. Goldberg, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights.

Goldberg stated that her office is worried that Texas' mask policy does not allow for “an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/10/01/texas-schools-mask-mandates-justice-department/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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