Good or bad news for Dan Patrick?

According to the Quorum Report, Senator Dan Patrick it touting a new poll that shows David Dewhurst with 40% of the vote for Lt. Governor among likely Republican voters while 18% support Patrick. Patrick seems to feel that he is gaining on Dewhurst who had 43% in the previous poll. The Wickers Group, source of the poll, concludes that David Dewhurst’s  support  eroded over past summer and Dan Patrick “remains well-positioned to win this race.”

I guess you could say that.

On the other hand, most pollsters would immediately note that the shift is smaller than the margin of error of the poll (+/- 4.5%). In fact, I suspect that most pollsters would lead with that.

Further, it’s hard to believe that Dewhurst’s summer could have been much worse. First, he was portrayed as weak in his failure to shut down the filibuster and demonstrations that stalled the abortion bill during the special session. Then, he came across as weak as he tried to get a relative out of jail by trying to convince law enforcement that he was actually someone. It was too reminiscent of Will Farrell’s character trying to convince a woman he’s trying to impress that he was “kind of a big deal.”

My takeaway from the poll is that Dewhurst still has better than double the support of his nearest competitor and his rivals have a lot of work to do. The wind has been at Patrick’s back all summer and his gains have been statistically insignificant. Patrick has always had a strong base of support among conservative Republicans and it’s surprising that he hasn’t expanded beyond 18%.

The poor showing of Ag Commissioner Todd Staples  (4%) and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson (4%) may be the biggest news out of the poll. They’ll be battling to escape last place. They could surge if the fight between Dewhurst and Patrick turns nasty enough  to chase voters away from the frontrunners in large numbers. Short of that, it’s hard to see how they get into the race.

The Lt. Governor’s race is just starting and there is a lot of campaigning ahead. However, any suggestion that Patrick is doing better than expected is little more than wishful thinking.


Another perspective on Voter ID

There has been a lot of debate over the “voter ID” laws passed in Texas and other states. These laws mandate that anyone wanting to vote must show a government-issued photo identification card.  I wanted to highlight the view we usually hear the least of: the people in the middle.  It’s reflected pretty well in Matthew Cooper’s article in National Journal (Everyone’s a Hypocrite on Voter IDs“).

Advocates of voter ID laws worry about people voting illegally. That’s a worthwhile concern. We expect our elections to be as honest as possible. However, there’s been very little evidence of significant voter fraud based on identification. People talk about the possibility of lining up illegal immigrants or others to vote on election day. That overlooks one fundamental fact of American politics: most people don’t vote. Non-voters are one of the nation’s most abundant resources. If you want to pay people to vote, there’s no need to rely on ineligible voters. There are plenty of eligible citizens sitting at home on election day (and remember that Texas has one of the lowest turnout rates in the country).

I have to suspect  these laws are advocated by people who never went to college because it ignores one of the first things freshmen learn: Anyone can get a fake drivers license. If you can get a fake ID that will get you past the bouncer at your favorite bar you can get an ID that will get you past the 90-year-old volunteer manning the polling station. If there’s anything more abundant than non-voters it’s underage drinkers.

McLovin's drivers license

Opponents of voter ID laws fret about citizens not being able to vote. That’s  also a valid concern. However, these laws will impact only a few people who are likely to vote .  Many of those people need a valid ID for other reasons. It would help if we made ID cards easier to were more flexible about the form of ID accepted. Some of these laws do not recognize ID cards issued by colleges. That’s a very interesting choice.

Watching elected officials who were carried into office by large campaign contributions debating these laws while lobbyists scurry about the capitol distributing large quantities of free food and drink  leaves me doubting that the purity of representative democracy is so close to their heart.

I don’t like voter ID laws because we will create new, bigger problems in our rush to solve what is a very small problem. My prediction is that in about ten years we’ll see these laws repealed or diluted because some senior citizens had trouble voting. In the meantime, voters’ wishes will continue to be undermined by organized interests and other distortions of representation that our elected officials have become far too comfortable with.

A redistricting surprise?

Matt Mackowiak at Must Read Texas has raised an interesting sidelight that results from the fact that Texas state senators are elected to “staggered” four-year terms with about half being elected every two years. This means that in 2014 about half of our state senators should be up for reelection while the other half will not be up for reelection until 2016.

Because we redrew the maps for the senate and other offices back in 2011, all of these senators were elected to districts that were officially new since they were created in 2011. These districts may look largely like the old districts, but redistricting mean that these districts were born again and new and every senate seat was up for election in 2012.

So, how do we get to staggered senate elections with about half every two years? Back in January, Texas senators drew lots to determine whether their new term would be two or four years (“Senators Draw Lots to Determine Terms“). Sixteen senators won the right to serve the deluxe 4-year term with the rest got a two-year term and reelection in 2014.

This is important to senators for a couple of reasons.

First, elected officials prefer running for office as infrequently as possible. If you’re already in office an election is just a chance to get knocked out of office. Also, campaigns are very expensive and time-consuming. If you have won the privilege of serving a four-year term you’re not going to be very interested in drawing lots again and having to run for reelection in two years. On the other hand, those senators currently set to serve only two years this term are ready to toss the dice again.

There’s a second issue: seeking statewide office. In Texas you can not be on the ballot for two different offices (a special law was passed to allow LBJ to run for vice president and US Senator–but that’s a different level of the game). That means that any senator up for reelection in 2014 has to choose between running for statewide office or seeking reelection to their senate seat.  Senators who drew four-year terms back in January can run for statewide office in 2014 with the knowledge that they can keep their seat in the Senate while they campaign for another office. Currently, two Republican senators (Glenn Hegar, Katy and Tommy Williams, The Woodlands) are thinking about runs for statewide office. Those statewide campaigns might look very different for Hegar and Williams if Senate were to have to draw lots again and they drew two-year terms.

Of course, there’s the possibility that the Senate could exempt themselves from this process. Sixteen senators did “win” the right to a four-year term, but 15 “lost” that lottery and were left with the consolation prize of an initial two-year term. It adds an interesting dimension to the redistricting session.

Pockets of democracy

Despite the best efforts of political elites in the state, pockets of democracy still exist in the state of Texas. A very nice interactive feature on the Texas Tribune website (Interactive Map: The 2012 General Election Races) illustrates how hard it is to find competitive races in Texas.

Map of competitive House districts in Texas

You can look over the map or list of races for the U.S. House, Texas House, or Texas Senate.

The situation is the worst in the Texas House where 98 out of 150 districts have only one candidate from a major party (and many of these districts do not even have a Libertarian or Green Party candidate in the race). The problem is not just the weakness of the Democratic party in Texas because while there are 64 races without a Democratic candidate there are another 34 races where there is no Republican candidate.

I don’t discount the competition within the parties but the low turnout in our party primaries tell me that those contests are not doing a good job representing the citizens of the state.

I’m amazed that we have constructed a political system where the party that dominates statewide elections can not even field a candidate in 22% of the House races. I’m disappointed that our political leaders treat this as normal.

Some of the problem originates with citizens. A recent study by the Pew Center (“The Rise of Residential Segregation by Income“) demonstrates are increasingly living in economically segregated communities making it less and less likely that we’ll come face-to-face with the real lives of others. We compound this by letting social pressures and the desire to fit in lead us away from asking the tough questions that might lead us to change our minds and disagree with the people around us.

The fact that citizens make it easier is no excuse and the sorry state of democracy in Texas is an indictment of the political leaders of the state. Voters in two-thirds of the state’s House districts will not have a viable alternative in 2012 and we can only hope that more competition will be encouraged in the future.

Suffrage in 1876

Article VI, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution originally read:

The following classes of persons shall not be allowed to vote in this State, to wit:
First–Persons under twenty-one years of age. [Amended by US. Constitutional Amendment in 1971]
Second–Idiots and lunatics. [changed to “persons who have been determined mentally incompetent by a court”]
Third–All paupers supported by any county. [Deleted 1997]
Fourth–All persons convicted of any felony, subject to such exceptions as the Legislature may make.
Fifth–All soldiers, marines and seamen, employed in the service of the army or navy of the United States. [Removed: November 1954]

So, some of the ideas from 1876 were so good.

The Elusive Primary Winner

Check out this story from the Texas Observer (“Finding Marisa Perez: In Search of Texas’ Most Elusive Primary Winner“) about this little-known candidate for the State Board of Education. Most people are more public when then seek public office.

Too many secrets at the Commission on Judicial Conduct?

The Austin-American Statesman has an important article (“Texas judges’ misdeeds often kept secret by oversight commission“) for those of us concerned about judicial ethics. The Commission on Judicial Conduct (CJC) has made it harder for citizens to trust the judges they elect and it is impossible for the public to judge the fairness of the CJC’s decisions when little information is released. As the Statesman reports:

While some judges may receive a relatively harsh public sanction, with details of their cases made available for public consumption, most of the reprimands meted out by the commission in a given year… are kept private, with only the rough outlines of the case made public. No identifying information about the judge or his or her jurisdiction is released, and the penalty has no real impact beyond a notation in the commission’s records and the judge’s conscience.

The CJC defends it secrecy based on worries that judges could be subjected to political attacks based on false claims. However, we allow our governor and other elected officials to face such attacks. We need a pretty good reason to protect our elected judges from similar scrutiny.

There might be some point in protecting judges to protect the image of state courts from the ravages of politics. However, we turned our courts into political offices when we decided to elect them in partisan elections and protecting judges from political attacks also protects them from the kind of scrutiny needed to make elected officials accountable. Rules that say we can only get good news about elected officials are contrary to democracy.

The CJC’s fourteen employees hardly seem like enough staffing to investigate the 1,200 complaints they  receive every year. The  commission is headed by thirteen unpaid commissioners who serve six-year terms. Six commissioners are judges chosen by the Texas Supreme Court, two are lawyers appointed by the State Bar of Texas, while the remaining five are ordinary citizens appointed by the governor.

The limited staffing and the secrecy behind CJC investigations are fundamentally at odds with the very public and very political nature of our judicial elections. The laws of Texas and CJC rules seem more concerned about protecting the reputation of judges than serving  the needs of the judicial election system we rely on to choose them.