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Redistricting Spitball, Texas style

November 1st, 2020, 3:30pm by Sam Wang


Update, 11/3: The federal judge dismissed the case. The votes will be counted! For Election Day, the Harris County clerk has left one drive-through voting center open, at the Toyota Center.

We created Redistricting Moneyball to identify places where votes are exceptionally valuable in their potential to affect Congressional redistricting. The idea was to enhance your activism by showing you where to get out the vote. Texas Republicans have taken the concept in the opposite direction: they are looking to invalidate 127,000 votes cast in Harris County, where some of the most influential voters in the nation live.

It’s a radical gambit. The suppression of votes is not Moneyball, but more like a spitball – against the spirit and rules of democracy. However, there is one advantage. It’s so focused that you may be able to mitigate possible effects by turning out the vote in a very small number of legislative districts.

Texas Republicans asked the Texas Supreme Court to throw out 127,000 ballots in Harris County cast through drive-through voting. (This is exactly like early voting on foot, except you get to stay in your car.) Today the Texas Supreme Court, despite being nearly all Republicans, said no to the litigants. Litigants are also pursuing the case in federal court. They have drawn Judge Andrew Hanen, a judge known for his strong partisan allegiance. A hearing is scheduled for Monday.

One plaintiff is a candidate for county judge, and another is a candidate for state legislature. They are asking for memory cards to not be loaded, thus excluding votes for both federal and state/local offices. To get the state/local office votes tossed, they rely on an equal protection claim that goes far beyond what any existing legal principle would support. But Judge Hanen could conceivably go along with it.

Throwing out 127,000 Harris County votes that have already been cast would have serious downticket consequences. Democrats need a net gain of nine seats to take control, and Harris County encompasses six close legislative races. This would give Democrats a share of control over redistricting of an estimated 39 Congressional seats. So from a Redistricting Moneyball perspective, Harris County votes are among the most valuable in the nation.

As a benchmark, the ten closest legislative races in Texas were all decided by margins of less than 3,500 votes. The hypothetical 100,000 discarded votes dwarfs this number, and would be about 4% of Harris County’s 2.4 million registered voters. And in 2016, the final Presidential margin in that county was a Clinton win by 160,000. If successful, this attempt to suppress votes would be potentially decisive.

How much money is this worth? Consider that about one-third of a state’s Congressional seats can be swung by creative partisan redistricting. Texas is expected to have 39 Congressional seats in 2021. One-third of that is 13. The difference between a partisan map and a neutral map would then be about 6 or 7 seats.

If you figure that running competitive Congressional races takes $3 million these days, the value of those seats for a decade is at least $100 million. That doesn’t take into account the fact that uncompetitive seats can’t be won by the disadvantaged party at any cost.

Harris County voters can do a few things. If you are one of the people who cast a drive-through ballot, you might be able to try again on Election Day. However, this would be a provisional ballot. You can also help canvass and get out the vote among people who haven’t voted yet. Organizations like Harris County Democrats and Harris County Republicans can do that. (However, I’ve heard that there are few voters left to turn out. It’s been compared to “scraping the last cookie batter out of the bowl.”)

Tags: 2020 Election · Moneyball · Redistricting

7 Comments so far ↓

  • Andrew C.

    Sam, off-topic but nowhere else to put this… Have you seen any reliable “exit” polling that is running counter to polling of people that haven’t voted yet?

    • Sam Wang

      Exit polling is not usable the way you suggest. It is adjusted to reflect the projected outcome. It is mainly used (a) to help with extreme D or R states, and (b) to learn about specific demographics, i.e. noncollege whites, or what-have-you.

      There is a lot of surveying of in-person and mail voters out there already.

  • paras

    The Texas situation is quite amazing. If Judge Hanen goes along with it, is there an appeal possible? A stay while waiting for the appeal?

  • Ed Francell, Jr

    (Slightly off topic). I really, really like this website. I was just wondering if you could update (in more detail) when national election results will be available by state. I know you wrote something about this a few weeks ago, but I think a lot of people are hungry (myself included) for an updated “guide”. Thank you!

  • Pechmerle

    CAUTION to Houston & Harris County voters: The drive-through voting centers will Not be open on Election Day, except one – at the Toyota Center.

    The federal judge upheld the validity of the drive-through centers under the Texas Election Code for Early Voting. But he indicated that the result should be different for Election Day voting.

    Wisely, the director of elections for Harris County has taken this indication of vulnerability to heart, and will not open the drive-through centers except the Toyota Center on Election Day.

    The Republicans already took their appeal on an emergency basis to the Fifth Circuit, which has already denied it. The next step could be the Supreme Court. I don’t think that they would step in to invalidate 127,000 already-cast votes at the drive-through centers. They will feel better about this decision because of the closure of the drive-through centers on Election Day: no continuing violation that needs to be policed.

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