The 2020 Covid-19 (coronavirus) saga: The last-minute Texas election ballot-shock edition

Image credit: Bill Bradford/flickr, CC BY 2.0)

“The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.”

– The United States Constitution – Article 1, Section 4.

So here we are, in month eight of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the last week of September 2019. The big news, of course, is that America is heading into a storm of an election that is to be held on November 3rd, 2020 – only five weeks away.

Suddenly from out of nowhere, a bolt comes flashing from out of the sky. U.S. Southern District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo has handed down a ruling ordering officials to reinstate straight ticket voting all the way across the vast state of Texas. Judge Marmolejo, who reversed her own ruling made just three months ago, in one fell swoop just threw the entire election into chaos.

I’m a libertarian-leaning Republican. I’ve volunteered to work in two elections, one in 2018, and another in 2019. One of the things my experience as an election worker taught me is how large of an undertaking conducting elections really is, particularly for large urban populations like the Houston metropolitan area. The Houston Chronicle just posted this story describing Harris County’s massive plan to have an army of more than 10,000 election workers ready to go to work the election. The $27 million plan includes a tripling of early voting sites and an increase in the number of places to vote on Election day. Throw in the precautions that are going to be taken because of COVID-19, and you have a major administrative effort to deal with all of the headaches on your hands. Election administrators have been working to deal with the COVID-19 issue for months now, and any argument by the plaintiffs that voting will be suppressed or they’ll be endangered because of COVID-19 simply doesn’t fly. If voters are going to be endangered by COVID-19, then why hold an election at all?

My own experience as an election worker taught me that handling most voters is not a difficult task. If you happen to have your Texas Drivers License (TDL), or other valid recognized identification, then all you have to do is merely swipe the TDL or ID card through an electronic reader, and Presto! The voter is identified as valid and registered, and from there the voter is ready to go vote. Of course, the devil is always in the details, and there are situations that crop up where a voter may have recently moved, and some other issue might have flared up. Usually, what we did was have such voters vote provisionally to accommodate them.

However, there are still lots of headaches still involved in conducting an election before the election and at a voting location. You have to have hordes of printed ballots ready to go for people who want to vote by mail; you have to calibrate the voting machines with the candidates’ names; you have to train the election workers; You have to set up all of the equipment, you have to know how many people you can count on to work the election, you have to follow (and enforce) lots of rules along the way, and at the end of the day the equipment has to be broken down and the ballot boxes secured and turned in. For all you officeholders, would be officeholders, candidates, political activists, and other hot-headed maniacs out there who are perpetually outraged about everything and ever ready to blow a gasket over something, I have something to say to you: You have no idea how much of a pain administering an election really is.

However, what Judge Marmolejo just did was toss any concerns about all of this out the window, all because of COVID-19. Now suddenly, all those printed mail ballots have to be called back (if they have been sent out), or reprinted. The voting machines all across Texas will need to be recalibrated, and revised (and reprinted) provisional ballots will need to be made available at all voting locations. Then, all of the election workers will need to be rebriefed on the last-minute rule change. Never mind that straight-ticket voting has been well on the way out across America for the past 30 years, and that only six states even have it anymore. Straight-ticket voting is really for lazy voters who don’t want to be bothered with nuances or having to do the hard work of researching candidates to see if there is something wrong with them. As the IVN story notes, there was the story of the Texas 1994 election, where a guy named Steve Mansfield ran as a Republican for the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court. What many did not know is that Mr. Mansfield had a long and dubious background, not to mention that he had only been practicing law for two years and had mostly done civil cases. None of that mattered – the only thing that did matter was that Mr. Mansfield was running as an R, and that was it.

Recently, Professor John Cochrane, aka the “Grumpy Professor”, wrote a strongly worded post on his blog about the upcoming storm of this 2020 election. One of the things he noted about elections and republics (or democracies) was that there was one goal in mind with elections that mattered over everything else: the peaceful transition of political power. Professor Cochrane noted that America has had more than 200 years to get elections straight, but even after 200-plus years of holding elections, we’re still at each other’s throats over how to conduct and administer them. What this ruling by Judge Marmolejo did was highlight the issue, outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court holding of what is known as the Purcell Principle, where courts are to refrain from making last-minute judgments or rulings over elections on the grounds that doing so is going to disrupt elections.

One of the things that fundamentally needs to happen, going forward, is that there needs to be an agreed time horizon window, where no new election laws are passed at the last minute, and that all election-related court appeals or rulings are put on hold until the day after the election is completed. Then the hot-headed arguing and fighting can restart all over again. It could be agreed to that this time horizon should be perhaps 30 days to 6 weeks before early voting starts, but all the same – once that time-horizon window opens, then any and all changes are put on hold until after election administrators are finished with counting the votes.

Now, that isn’t so hard. Or is it?

Last minute addendum: The news just came across the wires that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxson has appealed Judge Marmolejo’s ruling. The very fact that there is a such a legal battle being waged over a judicial ruling of a state law with only 17 days to go before early voting starts proves the very point I’m trying to make here. We need to cut this crap out and agree to resolve these problems as much as possible beforehand going forward into the future.

Last minute addendum #2: If Judge Marmolejo’s ruling is “the right ruling” for this issue, then why should this ruling on straight ticket voting apply only to the state of Texas? Why not apply it to the other 44 states in this American Republic that have done away with straight-ticket voting? Secondly, Judge Marmolejo’s ruling was made on the grounds that straight-ticket voting has to be implemented because of concerns over COVID-19. But you know what? One day, this COVID-19 event is going to be over! Will this ruling still be allowed to stick even after we’ve found a vaccine or achieved herd immunity to COVID-19? Or is this ruling meant to be a permanent overturn of current voting law in the state of Texas?

Those are two reasons alone why this ruling should be overturned.