Texas pushes to overhaul its elections.

Plus, an important story about Joe Biden's health care agenda.
Isaac Saul Jun 1, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 11 minutes.

We’re covering the latest Texas election law, we’ve got a new (and very interesting) podcast, plus an important “story that matters” about Joe Biden’s health care agenda.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who is hoping to pass S.B.7, a sweeping overhaul of elections in Texas. Photo: World Travel & Tourism Council

A message…

Last week, Russ from Louisville, Kentucky, won the Tangle raffle for a $50 gift card. He generously decided to donate his winnings to Heavenly HARVST, a food bank here in New York City and one of my favorite charities. Russ also wrote in with some kind words about Tangle, which I got permission to share:

I read Tangle because you take great pains to pull in a variety of opinions from both sides and then offer your opinion. Many other news sources do it the other way around, forming an opinion and then presenting views and details that fit their preferred version of the truth. You also change your mind from time to time, and you do it in public. Those two things build trust. And like I said in my tweet, I pay very few people for the content they produce, and in every case it’s because I trust that they are honestly trying hard to do the right thing, even if they sometimes get it wrong. Keep writing, Isaac!

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New podcast.

Last week, I sat down with author and Washington Post reporter Josh Rogin. For the last year, Rogin has been one of the loudest and most consistent voices calling for investigations into the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and one of the few mainstream reporters who has said there is significant circumstantial evidence that COVID-19 leaked from a laboratory.

In this episode, Josh explains why the media got it so wrong, why he continues to think an investigation is needed, and what the evidence for the lab leak theory is. Rogin is careful not to say he “believes” coronavirus leaked from a lab, only that there is enough smoke to investigate whether there’s a fire. This was one of the most fascinating interviews I’ve ever done. You can listen to it by clicking here.


Quick hits.

  1. U.S. Senate Republicans used the legislative filibuster to block an effort to form a bipartisan commission that would investigate the January 6 riots at the Capitol (Fox News)
  2. The Paycheck Protection Program, which allowed businesses to apply for loans from the federal government during the pandemic, is officially closed to new applications. The PPP cost $961 billion, helping millions of businesses stay afloat, but was also dogged by fraud. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)
  3. In a federal court hearing on Friday, an attorney for Washington D.C. police admitted for the first time that the department used tear gas on protesters in Lafayette Park in June of 2020. The clearing of protesters for President Trump’s photo op was a major controversy, and law enforcement had previously denied tear gas was used. (WUSA9)
  4. President Biden is considering a return to expedited deportations for undocumented immigrants, a deterrence practice that was embraced by former President Trump and abandoned early on by the Biden administration. (Axios)
  5. Countries across the globe are scrambling to get in line for more than 80 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine that the U.S. is planning to donate by the end of June. (Axios)

What D.C. is talking about.

Texas. On Sunday night, Texas Democrats successfully stymied an effort by state Republicans to pass a sweeping overhaul of state election laws when members of the legislature staged a “dramatic, late-night walkout”, depriving Republicans of the necessary 100-person quorum to hold a vote on S.B. 7, the new bill addressing voting laws.

If passed, S.B. 7 would have banned 24-hour early voting, drive-thru voting and proactive distribution of applications to vote by mail. Each of those methods of voting became popular in Harris County, which encompasses Houston, during the 2020 election. The bill also would have required voters to provide their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number, if they had one, on applications for mail-in ballots. Voters would have also had to include matching information on envelopes used to return ballots in order for their votes to count. S.B. 7 also limited early voting on Sundays to 1 to 9 p.m.

Along with changing parts of the voting process, the bill would have increased penalties for voter fraud, making it a state felony to send mail-in ballot applications to voters who did not request them, as well as a felony offense to provide applications to third party groups that get out the vote. Finally, the bill expanded the freedom of partisan poll watchers inside polling places, granting them “free movement” except when a voter is filling out a ballot, and changed the legal standard for proving fraud from “clear and convincing evidence” to “a preponderance of the evidence.”

By executing the walk-out, Democrats also missed a chance to vote on other legislation like police reform and bail reform. This session of the Texas legislature ended on Monday, but Republican Gov. Greg Abbott vowed to bring S.B. 7 back up for a vote in a special session as early as this week, and also threatened to cut off pay for the legislative branch.

Below, we’ll take a look at some commentary from the right and left on this latest fight over election law.


What the left is saying.

The left says S.B. 7 and bills like it are an effort to suppress the vote, especially in counties that are majority Black, Hispanic and Democratic.

In The New Republic, Osita Nwanevu said the S.B. 7 was clearly aimed “at repealing rules that helped bring working-class Black and Hispanic voters to the polls in large, Democratic counties like Harris and Bexar in 2020.”

“These and the bill’s other proposed changes have been justified, of course, as steps the state needs to combat voter fraud,” he wrote. “As ought to be well known by now, claims of mass voter fraud are specious always and everywhere. According to The Texas Tribune, the state attorney general’s office closed cases on 150 defendants for election offenses like fraud between 2004 and November 2020—not even a speck’s worth of the nearly 90 million ballots cast in Texas over that time.

“But that hasn’t stopped Texas Republicans from crafting a dizzying and desperate set of proposed changes to the state’s voting laws in 49 bills this session,” he wrote. “Requiring voter registrations to be filled out by hand on paper, limiting get-out-the vote efforts by volunteers, penalizing officials for insufficiently thorough voter roll purges, making those claiming disability in mail vote applications gather proof, in possible violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act—all are in keeping with a directive from Governor Greg Abbott, in the throes of a pandemic that had killed nearly 50,000 Texans by April of this year and ravaged the state’s economy, for the state legislature to prioritize voting restrictions in 2021. And, as is well known, Republican state legislators are heeding similar calls nationwide—from Georgia to Arizona, from Wisconsin to Florida, posing the greatest threat to democratic rights the country has seen since the Jim Crow era.”

The Houston Chronicle editorial board said the urgency of S.B. 7 was “based on the lie of widespread voter fraud” and called on the Texas Senate to adopt the House compromise version of the bill.

“Make no mistake, SB7 continues to be a series of mostly unneeded measures that deserve to die on the floor,” they wrote. “Any unnecessary obstacle to voting, no matter how minor, is too much. A fair election system encourages participation; it doesn’t impede it. That said, the House version is at least something Texans — and democracy — can live with. It no longer includes provisions that would ban drive-thru and late night voting, allow partisan poll watchers to video record voters they find suspicious, or streamline voter purges, which are ripe for errors and abuse.

“The bill even includes a few helpful things, such as requiring that voting applications be distributed to high schools twice a year and mandating that people with felony convictions be warned about temporary limitations on their voting rights… There’s no sense in adding back thinly veiled attacks on Harris County’s expansion of voting methods last year in response to safety concerns during the pandemic. Drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting, especially popular with minority voters who may face extra obstacles getting to the polls, are safe options and should remain in the toolbox for local election officials — Republicans or Democrats — to deploy as needed.”

The Washington Post editorial board said Texas Republicans should abandon the effort.

“The legislation would make it a felony for an election official to offer a voter an unsolicited absentee ballot application,” the board wrote. “It would further restrict which people qualify to vote absentee, even though Texas already has irrationally restrictive standards. It would eliminate safeguards meant to prevent election officials from mistakenly tossing absentee ballots based on dubious signature-matching issues. It would crimp Sunday voting in a way that would make it difficult for Black churches to run ‘Souls to the Polls’ events. It would crack down on anyone transporting more than two non-relatives to a polling place. It would ban drive-through voting, temporary voting sites and 24-hour early voting. It would make it dangerously easy for state judges to overturn election results. And it would empower partisan poll watchers, encouraging them to hassle election officials and voters.

“It is obvious at whom these provisions are aimed: Houston’s Harris County, a populous, diverse metropolis trending increasingly Democratic,” the board said. “Harris last year used many of the turnout-encouraging strategies that the bill would ban.”


What the right is saying.

The right says the bill is being overblown as an attack on democracy when it’s really standardizing, and updating, pandemic-era voting changes.

In Red State, the blogger Bonchie said Democrats were “throwing a hissy fit” in response to voting security law that isn’t even objectionable.

“Its main factors include things like standardizing mail-in and drive-through voting procedures that were adopted during the pandemic. Democrats oppose doing that because they apparently believe living in a perpetual state of emergency when it comes to voting measures benefits them electorally. This is another in a line of voting reform laws in Republican-held states that have drawn the irrational ire of the left. Georgia has been the most talked-about even though the law was relatively mundane and actually expanded voting opportunities compared to pre-pandemic measures. Other states like Florida and Mississippi also passed measures.

“This law will eventually be put on Abbott’s desk, and he will sign it. It’s just a matter of the timing at this point. There is no reason for it not to proceed, especially when Republicans have firm control of the legislatures. There’s also a lot of irony in the left-wing response to this. The same people decrying the ‘tyranny of the minority’ and demanding the filibuster be blown up at the federal level are suddenly really happy to see a minority party grind the legislative process to a halt in Texas… After 2020’s cluster of a voting system, pieced together via emergency orders, last-minute changes, and even some arguably illegal moves, Republicans are not going to sit idly by and let this be the new normal in their states.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said Democrats’ extraordinary move undermined the legislative process for an overblown threat.

“The reality is more prosaic,” it wrote. “To start with the controversial, the 67-page bill would roll back Covid-19 innovations like Harris County’s drive-through voting and 24-hour voting. Those options were used disproportionately last year by black and Hispanic residents. But when did emergency procedures amid a 100-year pandemic suddenly become the new baseline? It’s hardly crazy to think polling-place shenanigans might be more likely at 3 a.m.

“Under the bill, Texas would still offer some two weeks of early voting,” it added. “Mr. Biden’s beloved Delaware won’t have any early voting until 2022, when it will get 10 days. The Texas bill would also raise minimum hours. In the final week, counties with 100,000 people must currently open their ‘main’ polling place 12 hours on weekdays and five hours on Sunday. That population threshold would drop to 30,000, and six hours would be mandated on Sunday. Mail ballots and applications would ask for a state ID number or the last four digits of a Social Security number. Georgia and Florida have passed similar measures, and the goal is to verify identity without having to do subjective signature analysis. In Georgia’s 2018 elections, black voters accounted for 54% of the ballots rejected for signature or oath issues. The Texas bill says if ID numbers match, the voter’s signature would be ‘presumed’ valid.”

Finally, the board noted, “The bill would change the legal standard for proving fraud to ‘a preponderance of the evidence’ from ‘clear and convincing evidence.’ If the number of illegal votes matched the margin, courts could throw out a race, without showing that fraud changed the result. Critics say this is a pander to Donald Trump, but Mr. Trump lost in 2020 under either standard.”

In Townhall, Spencer Brown said “Democrats' willful co-conspirators in the media are more than happy to deliver breathless coverage of what they assert are ‘voting restrictions’ created by a law that is actually less restrictive than many other Democrat-run states… More than eight-in-ten Texas voters back requiring photo ID to vote, showing support for election safeguards. Bringing the same security through identity verification to absentee voting just makes sense. Further helping Texas voters have more confidence in their votes, a new online system will allow individual voters to track their absentee ballot applications and know when their vote is counted.”


My take.

It’s remarkable how similar the outlines of this story are to what happened in Georgia.

For starters, and much as I did for the Georgia bill, I’d like to reiterate (for the millionth time) the fact that S.B. 7 appears to be solving a problem that only exists in the minds of many Texas voters. I’m not going to concede any ground on this point.

Texas’s Republican Secretary of State, whose term ended with the legislative session, has said repeatedly that “Texas had an election that was smooth and secure” in 2020. Along with a Republican secretary of state, Texas has a Republican-dominated legislature, as well as a Republican attorney general. Despite some Texas lawmakers repeatedly referring to “400 open voter fraud cases,” the Republican attorney general’s office says there are 43 pending voter fraud charges in Texas.

43.

And only one of those 43 pending fraud cases stems from the 2020 election. Last year, the state spent 22,000 hours investigating fraud, and closed 16 cases where Harris County residents used a false address to vote. The 386 “open voter fraud cases,” as of April 5, are actually “pending investigation” for which we have no details and no charges. They also come in a state where 11 million Texans voted in 2020. Not only that, but Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick offered a $1 million reward for any evidence of election fraud in 2020. So far? It’s been nothing but the usual shenanigans.

Even if every single “ongoing investigation” turned into actual charges that turned into actual convictions, we’d be talking about fewer than 400 cases of voter fraud in a state where 11 million votes were cast.

So, again, much like the Georgia bill, the obvious question is “why are Republicans doing this if there isn’t actually widespread voter and election fraud to solve for?” And the answer appears to be twofold: 1) They have to satisfy their constituents, many of whom believe the 2020 election was stolen thanks to Republican politicians falling in line with former President Trump’s absurd claims that he didn’t actually lose. 2) It’s an opportunity to limit voting options in areas where Republicans perform worse than Democrats, like Harris County, which updated its laws during the pandemic to make voting more accessible.

Does that mean the bill is The New Jim Crow or a once-in-a-lifetime assault on democracy? No. But does it have to be for us to strongly object? That it’s not is hardly a defense. As many conservative commentators have noted, a lot of what’s in the bill puts the law somewhere between pre-pandemic and post-pandemic rules. Prohibitions on drive-thru voting or limiting 24-hour early voting are both addressing options that did not exist before 2020 in Texas. That’s in part because Texas was already one of the hardest states to vote in anywhere in America.

Worse than just the contents of the bill, though, is how it was passed. Republicans negotiated the final bill behind closed doors, out of public view, and then released the final legislation with less than 48 hours before the session was to conclude. They doubled the bill’s length overnight and added voting law changes in the final hours that weren’t previously debated when the bill worked its way through the legislature. Then Republicans suspended the chamber’s own rules to narrow the amount of time lawmakers had to review the bill. To call it shady would be an understatement; those are not the actions of lawmakers who believe in the work they are doing — or believe it would hold up to public scrutiny. It’s not democracy. It’s not how legislating is supposed to work in America, or in Texas.

And, in another parallel to the Georgia law, one of the biggest concerns in this Texas bill wasn’t how it changed the process for voting, but how it changed the process for challenging elections. As the Wall Street Journal editorial board conceded, S.B. 7 lowered the legal standard for proving fraud and made it easier for entire elections to be thrown out by partisan actors (in Georgia, the legislation made it easier for Republicans to take over entire election boards and disqualify ballots). That Trump would have still lost the 2020 race under the new Texas standard is nothing even close to a comfort.

In summary, Texas Republicans just ran a successful election in 2020 with only the usual smattering of rare voter fraud. They had record turnout and even made gains with crucial voting blocs like Hispanics. They dominated in the state legislature, stayed red in the presidential race, and defended their Senate seats. And they responded by… doing this?

It makes no sense. The initial version of this bill was more radical than the final version of S.B. 7 bill, thanks largely to proposals made by Democratic lawmakers in the Texas House. As The Houston Chronicle pointed out, S.B. 7 actually contained some useful compromises reached between Republicans and Democrats, but the Texas Senate simply ignored most of those agreements, then added to the bill and tried to shove it through in an overnight process. Democrats responded with their own political tricks by walking out on the vote, and now we’re back to where we started — with no evidence of widespread election fraud, a more fractured state legislature, and millions of Texans whose election security, access to democracy and lives have not been improved in any measurable way.


A story that matters.

In its latest budget proposal, the Biden administration has left out key health care promises made during the campaign. “The White House jettisoned months of planning from agency staff as their initial plan could fuel criticisms that the administration is pushing new spending programs too aggressively,” The Washington Post reported. “The budget will not include President Biden’s campaign pledge to enact a public option to create a government-run health insurance program, or his pledge to cut prescription drug costs, the people said.” In the 2020 race, health care was often the top priority for voters in the Democratic base, and the lack of movement on a slate of policies promised on the campaign trail could cause fractures among congressional Democrats. (The Washington Post, subscription)


Numbers.

  • 90. The number of members of Congress that have served in the military.
  • 3,551,045. The total number of global deaths from coronavirus, according to a Washington Post count.
  • $57 million. The four-day holiday weekend gross for A Quiet Place II across North America, a successful opening weekend that indicates people are returning to movie theaters.
  • $506.50. The cost of a ticket to attend “For God & Country Patriot Roundup 2021,” a conference that included prominent speakers from the QAnon conspiracy group.
  • Five. The number of states in the southwest that accounted for 30 percent of all U.S. job growth in manufacturing over the last three years.

Question.

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Have a nice day.

Over the weekend, NASA released a new picture of the Milky Way’s “downtown.” The photo is a composite image of 370 observations over the last two decades by an orbiting observatory, which depicts billions of stars and countless black holes in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Astronomer Daniel Wang spent a year putting the image together while working from home during the pandemic. “What we see in the picture is a violent or energetic ecosystem in our galaxy’s downtown,” Wang said in an email. “There are a lot of supernova remnants, black holes, and neutron stars there. Each X-ray dot or feature represents an energetic source, most of which are in the center.” (Associated Press)

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT)

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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