State of Texas: Court ruling puts vote by mail eligibility decision in hands of voters

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Confusion spread over who is eligible to vote by mail following a Texas Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday that a lack of COVID-19 immunity is not, on its own, a condition that would qualify as a disability in the state’s election code.

The justices advised voters to take their own health conditions into account when deciding whether to request a mail-in ballot.

“The voter is not instructed to declare the nature of the underlying disability,” the opinion read. “The elected officials have placed in the hands of the voter the determination of whether in-person voting will cause a likelihood of injury due to a physical condition.”

CLICK HERE to read the opinion on the Texas Supreme Court website.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir told KXAN that her office has received 17,000 requests for mail-in ballots for the July runoff election, approximately 16,000 more than a typical runoff election.

DeBeauvoir said the demand for mail-in ballots is clear that voters are concerned about the potential health impacts of voting in-person during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is now up to the voter and if they tell us on this application form that they have a disability that’s going to potentially injure their health they are absolutely eligible to vote ballot by mail,” DeBeauvoir said.

In order to qualify for a mail-in ballot, a voter must be 65 years or older, disabled, out of their home county on election day, or confined to jail but eligible to vote.

The court also clarified that it is not the responsibility of county clerks to investigate a disability claim on a mail-in ballot request form. It is the responsibility of county clerks to review that all necessary information is included in the request, nothing more.

“If a voter has a condition such as asthma, diabetes, any other kind of immunocompromised system, if the voter has comorbidities, all of those are going to be included in the voter’s judgment about asking for a ballot by mail,” DeBeauvoir said.

The Texas Supreme Court ruling was the conclusion of a Texas Democratic Party lawsuit which challenged the state over whether all Texans should qualify to vote by mail during the pandemic. A federal lawsuit is still being considered by the 5th District Court of Appeals.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has defended the state’s election code, still contends that a disability means a voter can’t physically get to a polling location.

“Not your fear that somehow by going to the polls you’ll get worse, that’s not even close to what we’re talking about,” Paxton said.

However, state election code says a sickness falls under the umbrella of disability.

The last day for a county clerk to receive a mail-in ballot application to participate in the July runoff election is July 2.

Funding aims to help families connect with loved ones in nursing homes

Brenda Blackshear wiped away tears, describing her aunt as kind and loving.

Her “auntie” is in a nursing home in Austin, but Blackshear said she hasn’t talked to her in weeks –since family were banned from from visiting senior living facilities in mid-March.

“It hurts, and I need to hear her voice,” she said. “I laid in bed for a whole week, not even wanting to get up, because I haven’t heard from my auntie.”

Brenda Blackshear said she’s struggled to get to talk to her aunt in an Austin nursing home. (KXAN Photo/Avery Travis)

She said when she calls, she’s transferred to someone who doesn’t pick up. Sometimes, she’s told her aunt is asleep or busy, and they’ll call her back.

Blackshear said she tried to call on Mother’s Day but wasn’t “ever able to get through.”

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), along with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, have guidelines that urge facilities to provide virtual visitations or phone “visits.”

“But there’s no requirement as to how often,” the Texas Long-Term Care Ombudsman Patty Ducayet said.

Her office has heard heard several reports of family members frustrated by the lack of access to their loved ones.

“Nursing facilities are required to have a resident phone available, but that’s a shared phone and in these days, that’s going to be a real challenge,” she said, expanding on the difficulty of scheduling times for calls and keeping that phone disinfected.

She said some residents have personal phones, even smart phones, but many don’t.

On Wednesday, Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission announced $3.6 million in funding for facilities to buy tablets, webcams and headphones, so nursing home residents can connect with their families during the pandemic.

“We want facilities to know this option can help connect residents to their loved ones virtually, while still protecting everyone’s health and safety,”  said David Kostroun, deputy executive commissioner for HHSC’s Regulatory Services Division.

Facilities have to apply through Health and Human Services, but they could get up to $3,000 dollars to purchase these devices.

According to HHS, “Devices should be shared among residents, with a ratio of one device per seven-to-10 residents. Applications or requests for exceptions will be considered in certain circumstances, such as in a facility with a high number of residents. Facilities will not be permitted to purchase personal devices for any resident. Devices also should not be shared between COVID-19 positive (or suspected) and other residents (COVID-19 negative or observation status). Additionally, devices must be cleaned and disinfected between every use by a resident.”

“These devices aren’t that sophisticated, and you don’t need one for every resident to make it work,” said Amanda Frederickson with AARP Texas.

She’s heard of facilities investing in one tablet and scheduling time for each resident to have a video call. Then, a designated employee would help the residents make those calls, disinfecting between each use.

AARP has been advocating for more alternatives for in-person visits, like this, as well as updated guidelines from CMS. They also urged the federal agency to assign staff members as specific contacts for families.

Frederickson emphasized the importance of video calls for patients in memory care.

“If you think about the high proportion of the nursing home population that has some degree of dementia — a phone call may not really connect with them in the same way as seeing the person they are talking too,” she said.

She added that isolation and depression can have a direct impact on a resident’s diet, health and overall immune system.

“It may feel like it is above and beyond for the facilities, but it can be really crucial for the health and well-being of those residents,” Frederickson said.

The team at Buckner Villas designated an employee to help schedule and facilitate these “virtual visits” in their community.

“Having visits with family and friends was the thing they missed the most,” Buckner Villas Director of Marketing and Sales Paul Clark.

Buckner Retirement Services surveyed their 140 residents, finding that most of them still utilized phone calls to stay connected. Texting and emails are also favorites.

Their survey found 55% of residents had not used video calling technology before the pandemic, but 52% said they’d continue using video calls, even after the homes are reopened.

“I think it will make the lines of communication more varied for residents and their families, to jump on a quick call,” Clark said. “Those lines of communication will make it easier for everyone involved.”

He said that after a bit of help from staff getting set up, many of their residents are utilizing technology like FaceTime, Skype and Zoom on their own.

For Brenda Blackshear, who’s aunt lives in a different facility, she said any type of contact would help.

“It’d mean the world, to hear her voice today,” she said.

Parole delays amid the pandemic

As widespread COVID-19 testing continues in prisons across Texas, results are coming in and the number of positive cases have spiked dramatically.

On Tuesday, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported about 2,500 prisoners had tested positive since March. On Wednesday, the number reported jumped to 3,900. In a 24-hour period, the number of staff members who have tested positive also increased from about 800 to nearly 850.

The agency reports the Middleton Unit in Abilene has one of the highest numbers of prisoners who have tested positive at 236, and at this moment there are 239 inmates sick and contagious who are in medical isolation.

Meanwhile, over the Memorial Day weekend, frustrated and concerned families of Texas prisoners gathered outside Gov. Greg Abbott’s mansion with megaphones and signs calling on him to reduce the prison population during the COVID-19 pandemic — by releasing prisoners who have been approved for parole.

Two weeks ago, the state launched mass testing of staff and inmates who were not showing signs and symptoms of the coronavirus to get a better handle on the outbreak in Texas prisons that has killed at least 35 offenders and seven employees.

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a non-profit that has always advocated for lowering the prison population, has called on the governor and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to expedite the release of Texas prisoners it says have already been approved for parole, but have not yet completed the requirements for release.

TCJC senior policy analyst Doug Smith, who has been incarcerated himself, said some of the programs required for re-entry are on hold, and therefore, some inmates are unable to be released. Smith said some programs designed for group settings are being administered solo.

“Our understanding is that some of the programs are being done inside people’s cells through modules,” Smith said, “Meaning they’re just doing paper and pencil types of learning exercises.”

The organization would like the board to re-think the release process. For example, placing parole-approved inmates in a recovery home or with peer support outside the prison walls — separate from where COVID-19 cases are still spreading.

“Those programs must be completed in the system of incarceration, and then the release will happen as scheduled,” said Rep. James White, R-Woodville, chairman of the House Corrections Committee.

White believes some of the parole programming has been delayed during the pandemic, but is sticking to his guns on allowing the process to play out according to state law.

“We must start with the idea that parole is not a means to shorten sentences,” White said. “It’s not a means to undermine the decisions of thoughtful juries in counties of convictions.”

According to White, parole releases have continued in Texas prisons. He said the prison population has dropped from 140,000 to about 133,000 since the pandemic started for two reasons: parole releases and the current freeze on state prisons taking inmates from county jails.

When KXAN asked the Board of Pardons and Paroles how many Texas prisoners have been released since March, it referred us to the TDCJ for that number.

The board declined KXAN’s request for an interview, but public information officer Raymond Estrada said in an email there were about 11,000 offenders, as of April, who had been approved for parole, which was contingent upon completing a rehabilitation program.

According to White, about 540 of them have completed programming, but have not been released because they don’t have a home plan. He said at least two-thirds were convicted of a sexual offense, which makes it more challenging.

“We don’t want to release anyone into homelessness,” said White. “Obviously, that doesn’t help anybody and especially during this challenging period of COVID-19.”

Estrada said COVID-19 has not stopped the parole review process, which is mostly happening through virtual meetings, and there have been no changes to how the board renders parole decisions.

If a parole-approved offender is required to complete a program as part of their set conditions, the release date would depend on the program length. Estrada said the timeline varies from three to 18 months, but did not indicate if or how those programs have been affected by dozens of unit lockdowns during the pandemic.

Each year the board considers approximately 100,000 cases for parole or discretionary mandatory supervision, according to Estrada, and averages about 7,700 each month.

On March 27, the board said in a press release:

“There have been no changes to the manner in which the Board of Pardons and Paroles (Board) renders parole decisions. When rendering parole decisions the Board considers the totality of information available, including but not limited to: Current Offense(s), Criminal History, Age, Past Periods of Supervision, Drug/Alcohol Use/Abuse, Support Information, Victim Information, Institutional Adjustment and Program Participation. The statute sets initial parole eligibility, not the Board. Additionally, if parole is denied the set-off before the next review is also in accordance with statute. The Board of Pardons and Paroles, established by the Texas Constitution, decides which eligible offenders to release on parole, the conditions for parole and whether to revoke parole if conditions are not met, as well as recommendation of resolution of clemency matters to the Governor. For more information, please visit: http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/bpp/index.htm

Senate candidates count down to runoff debate

A hard-fought U.S. Senate primary led to a runoff for the Democratic nomination. But COVID-19 put the brakes on campaigning for both MJ Hegar and State Sen. Royce West.

But on June 6, both candidates in the runoff will meet in a debate. Saturday’s debate will be broadcast live on KXAN and other participating Nexstar stations. It will be the first debate for the candidates since the pandemic.

“I had to put the campaign on the back burner,” West said. He added that it was mid-April before he began to engage more into the runoff campaign.

Both candidates stopped campaigning in person, but they’ve each been active online.

“Before the pandemic, my top priority was traveling tens of thousands of miles and talking to as many Texans as I could about the challenges that they’re facing,” Hegar said. “We’re just continuing to do that virtually now.”

West said there are benefits to virtual campaigning.

“This just gives you an opportunity to reach out to people across the state of Texas, have conversations with, that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise, if you didn’t have this type of virtual format,” West said.

But it’s not just the virus affecting the campaign. News of recent killings of African-American men and women have led to protests around the country. West is emphasizing a message of racial justice.

“I saw several men cry, African American men crying this morning,” West said, pausing for several seconds before continuing. “I want your audience to feel the pain. Just because a person happens to the African American. They’re treated differently by police. That’s a fact. That’s not somebody said, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ No, it’s a fact.”

West said leaders need to work to find solutions. “If we don’t have credibility in our justice system, are we on the verge of anarchy in this country? I suggest that most reasonable people of this world want to make certain that we don’t end up in that type of situation,” he said.

“I think that most Texans understand that there are disparities,” Hegar said. “In healthcare in you know, racially there’s disparities in our criminal justice system, both racially and socioeconomic status with people who are economically disadvantaged, not having the same criminal justice system as as the rich and powerful.”

Hegar said it’s important for voters to make sure their leaders are accountable.

“I think that there’s issues out there that Texans are talking about and that we are talking about around our kitchen table and the watercooler but that our representatives, because of our low voter turnout in the past, are not talking about it or not legislating solutions to,” Hegar said.

Both Hegar and West believe Texas needs new leadership in the U.S. Senate.

“You know, we can’t get our government to really do much for us, because they’re so you know, busy bickering with each other and playing politics with our lives and pandering to their corporate donors,” Hegar said.

She said her background in the military prepared her to lead.

“I was a combat rescue helicopter pilot, and we didn’t always agree on this, the strategy or the tactics we were going to use going into a combat zone, but we would get on the same page and we would put a plan together and execute the mission,” Hegar said. “I think people are looking for that right now.”

West says his years representing the Dallas area in the Texas Senate earned him the experience needed to lead in Washington.

“My readiness for the position is pretty clear,” West said. “What do I mean by that is that you begin to look at the wealth of experience I’ve been able to accumulate in the Texas Legislature working with Democrats and Republicans in order to get things done.”

The debate between Hegar and West will take part during the state convention for the Texas Democratic Party.

The convention starts Monday and will feature some of party’s biggest names. Joe Biden will be one of the featured speakers. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris are also on the lineup.

But they won’t be coming to Texas to give their speeches. Because of COVID-19, the convention will be virtual. Speakers, delegates, and the people attending will take part online.

Organizers worked to build out online meeting spaces to handle hundreds of events. “People can still meet and talk to each other… and have that same in-person experience, but in the virtual setting,” explained Brittany Switzer, senior brand director for the Texas Democratic Party.

Switzer said the convention could create a blueprint for other conventions to follow amid the pandemic.

“We kind of looked at all the tools that were available to us and how we could make it as easy as possible for our delegates to participate,” Switzer said. “I’m really proud of the work we’ve done to do that.”

The Republican Party of Texas is planning to hold its convention in July. The party is preparing to meet in person. Party Chairman James Dickey said an in-person convention is a way the party can lead by example to encourage Texas businesses to reopen.

Music venues look for government help to survive shutdown

As Texas continues the process of reopening more businesses, the music scene that has earned Austin the title of “Live Music Capital of the World” still faces major hurdles.

With restaurants and bars closed until recently, and with continued concerns about the safety of gathering in person to listen to music, advocates say that Austin’s musicians and music venues have been particularly hard-hit.

Both federal and local leaders have taken recent actions in an effort to get more emergency dollars into the hands of Austin’s music community.

Austin City Council passed three items last week which target different areas of the music industry.

The first of these items gets the ball rolling on an Austin Music Disaster Relief Fund, a $1.5 million fund that will provide $1,000 grants to “Austin’s most vulnerable musicians for their immediate emergency needs.” The program will contract through the MusiCares Foundation, Inc, to disburse emergency dollars to musicians in Austin who have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic or the cancellation of SXSW.

The city told KXAN Wednesday that the Austin Music Disaster Relief Fund application will be live and accepting eligible submissions through the MusiCares Foundation on a first-come first-served basis starting on Monday, June 8th, 10am CST.

The second item directs Austin’s city manager to start looking into how to sustain Austin’s creative culture and to create an economic development corporation, which would grow Austin’s commercial music sector.

The third item directs Austin’s city manager to start directing federal relief dollars toward music venues, and to take action so that the Red River Cultural District can receive a state historical designation.

Nakia Reynoso, musician and president of local musician advocacy nonprofit Austin Texas Musicians, said that his organization, “commends our city leaders on these historic decisions, as this massive effort to bring aid and growth to the music industry is unprecedented throughout the U.S.”

Rick Carney, the chair of Austin’s Music Commision, explained that the disaster relief fund through MusiCares will only be available to musicians because limited resources forced the city to narrow its scope of funding.

“One of the big pieces of the puzzle is getting venues help, we have the live music fund as well that was established that’s to build a future, but in order to have a future we have to make sure we can sustain as many venues as possible now,” Carney said.

That Live Music Fund is generated through Austin’s hotel occupancy tax, and Carney said for the time being, that fund is more suited for long term needs rather than immediate financial relief.

“Once we can sustain the venues, get the local musicians a little bit of help, we can look long term at how we can use that live music fund in order to rebuild our music ecosystem,” Carney added.

On May 14, U.S. Congressman Roger Williams (R-Texas) wrote a letter to Congressional leaders, calling for financial assistance during the pandemic to live music venues in Austin and around the country. The bipartisan letter was co-written by U.S. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, II (D-Mo.) and 91 other members of Congress signed on in support.

Among other things, the letter says, “we support providing government funding, tax relief measures, and assistance to mitigate the continued financial impacts on mom and pop venues across the country.”

In an interview with KXAN, Rep. Williams explained, “I think we all know Austin is the music capital of the world, and this industry is one of the first to be devastated with crowd control and separation and all of the things that we had to do.”

He also noted that the music industry brings “a ton” of dollars and tourism into Texas each year. Beyond the financial benefits of the music industry, Williams believes there are other reasons this additional funding for venues is important right now.

“The thing about the music industry is it’s more than a job for a lot of people, its relaxation, it’s quality of life, it’s a part of our lifestyle here and we’ve got to bring it back and we’ve got to protect it,” he said.

Williams said he plans on talking with congressional leaders about how current federal loans and relief programs could be tweaked to be more suited to those working into the music industry who may not be able to get back to work quickly.

“I don’t see a lot of push-back, frankly we just need to be able to explain the needs and talk about the needs,” Williams said.

A release about this congressional effort included quotes of support from several Austin-area music venues.

Austin venue Barracuda was quoted as saying, “we provide stages for personal expression, employ folks from all economic backgrounds and create an atmosphere in absolute congruence with tourism and building a home for locals that’s rich with creativity. Our independent venues must be protected or else we botch the whole recipe of our economy.”

Those who work in Austin’s music industry already faced significant personal and financial stressors prior to the pandemic. Each venue and musician has to make the calculation: is it worth it for their physical and financial health to begin performances again now that venues are reopening?

In Austin, Donn’s Depot, for example, hasn’t opened yet and still plans to “watch the trends and see how things roll” according to a Facebook message from the venue. But honky-tonk Broken Spoke opted to open at 25% capacity on May 22 when the state allowed bars to reopen.

Austin musicians Guy Forsyth and Jeska Bailey (who are married and have been quarantining together) typically play in crowded live venues, but during the pandemic they’ve turned their efforts into learning how to broadcast live concerts from their home via Facebook.

“We’ve asked for donations through Venmo and PayPal and that certainly helps,” Forsyth said of these live stream concerts. “It doesn’t replace the income that we were making beforehand.”

To be clear, Forsyth notes, he and his wife are grateful to have a roof over their heads. But the financial strain is still impacting them and causing them to lean on support from community members until they feel it is safe to perform live in front of a crowd again.

After a “World Tour” of concerts on Facebook Live from every room of their house, the couple has now taken to broadcasting from the stages of empty venues that have been closed due to COVID-19, like Donn’s Depot. For venues that have already re-opened, the two opt to play from their home in a temporary “takeover” of the venue’s Facebook page for a few hours.

Bailey said they are starting to consider the possibility of playing at live, outdoor venues again. But there are lots of questions are associated with that: do venues have enough money to pay musicians? If multiple artists perform in one night, can you ensure the venue is sanitized properly between acts?

“We want to help the venues that are reaching out to us to play but financially we don’t think it makes sense, ethically we don’t think it makes sense and we want to be a good example,” Bailey said.

So far, the two said that the amount of money venues have been offering them to play as businesses re-open has been around 80% lower than what they would typically ask for.

The two said they welcome the prospect of federal or city financial aid in the months to come.

“I am scared if all the musicians don’t stand together, this could be such a  failure,” Bailey said. “Now we have an opportunity to stop, pay attention to whats going on, regroup, and maybe move forward with something stronger and better.”

Joe Ables, the owner of Austin venue Saxon Pub, told KXAN that he his venue is still “firmly closed with no intentions of opening soon.”

“With all the noise about everything else going on this weekend, if we don’t have a spike in cases, we are going to be lucky,” Ables said referencing crowds at several Austin bars over the weekend.

Instead, Ables has also been live-streaming shows from his venue’s stage, proudly noting that these two concerts so far have raised $43,000 which has been given directly back to musicians.

Ables secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal government and he is hoping to get additional grant money through the City of Austin’s programs.

“I am solid, we are not going anywhere and we will opening when it’s ready,” he said.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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