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Battleground Texas: GOP Sues to Toss 127K Votes as Trump Caravan Tries to Force Biden Bus Off Road

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This weekend, a caravan of Trump supporters in Texas tried to run a Biden campaign bus off the road, ahead of a ruling by the Texas Supreme Court Sunday rejecting a Republican effort brought by a QAnon supporter to throw out nearly 127,000 early votes from 10 drive-thru polling locations in Harris County, but now a similar lawsuit has been filed in federal court. The drive-thru polling locations allowed any registered voter to cast their ballot in a car instead of going inside polling centers, as polls show a close race between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden in Texas, a traditionally Republican state. Susan Hays, a special counsel to Harris County on election matters, says the drive-thru locations have been “enormously popular” during the pandemic, and tossing those ballots undermines the democratic process. “An election contest is the remedy to any issues with the voting process, not lawsuits that happen before the election,” she says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Texas, where polls show a close race between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

On Friday, a caravan of Trump supporters surrounded, then following a Biden campaign bus on a highway between San Antonio and Austin. A Biden campaign official described it as an attempt to slow down the bus and run it off the road. The Dallas Morning News reports one of the pickup trucks that tailgated the bus swerved into a car full of Biden campaign workers, leaving deep dents in the passenger side. There is video of all of this.

After the attack, Texas Democrats canceled three scheduled campaign events. This came days after the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., called on his father’s supporters to, quote, “get out there, have some fun.” On Saturday, President Trump retweeted part of a video of the incident, writing, quote, “I LOVE TEXAS!” Then, on Sunday, Trump lashed out at the FBI for investigating it, writing, quote, “these patriots did nothing wrong,” suggesting they should instead investigate antifa.

This comes as Texas voters have already cast more than 9 million ballots — more than the state’s total turnout of the 2016 presidential election.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, the Texas Supreme Court denied a request to throw out nearly 127,000 early votes from 10 drive-thru polling locations in Harris County, home to Houston. The drive-thru polls allowed any registered voter to cast their ballot in their car instead of going inside polling centers. The case will now be heard today before the notoriously conservative U.S. District Judge Andrew Scott Hanen, who was appointed by President George W. Bush.

The Harris County Clerk’s Office said it created drive-thru voting, quote, “in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic as a safer, socially-distant alternative to walk-in voting for all voters.” The office is led by 34-year-old Chris Hollins, the county’s youngest and the first Black clerk. Hollins also pushed to make it easier for Houstonians to vote during the pandemic by tripling the number of early voting sites. Last week, he kept eight polling locations open for 24 hours for the first time in Texas history. The result has been record-breaking voter turnout. Critics note the drive-thru voting sites now being challenged were originally approved by the Republican Texas secretary of state and were set up in consultation with local Republican officials.

One of the main people who filed the lawsuit challenging the drive-thru ballots is right-wing QAnon conspiracy theorist Steven Hotze, who has called COVID-19, quote, “much ado about nothing,” and also sued Harris County over its order requiring people to cover their faces in public. The lawsuit claims drive-thru sites are unconstitutional. But Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who holds a nonjudicial executive position, addressed voters Sunday night and said Texas Supreme Court’s decision proves otherwise.

JUDGE LINA HIDALGO: We are working with urgency with the brightest legal team in our state, who is working day and night to fight this frivolous litigation that is now in federal court. I do acknowledge that the fact that we’re even having this conversation is cause for concern and means that something needs our attention. We have to be real and put out there that it is bewildering that this is even happening, that these votes that have already been cast are — that folks are trying to invalidate them. We know we’re right on the law. We had drive-thru voting for a past runoff election. The secretary of state has seen our plans for months with no objection. Just a few hours ago, the Texas Supreme Court rejected a petition to have these votes invalidated.

AMY GOODMAN: More than 40% of Harris County residents are Latinx, and about one in five residents are Black.

For more, we go to Alpine, Texas, where we’re joined by Susan Hays, special counsel to Harris County, Texas, on election matters. She has worked on election laws in Texas for over 20 years.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Susan Hays. So, let’s talk about this. The Texas Supreme Court hands down a decision, says these nearly 127,000 votes, ballots can be counted. Explain what was set up to enable people to vote and what it means going before the federal court today.

SUSAN HAYS: Right. First, thank you for having me on today.

Harris County has set up 10 separate drive-thru locations. Nine of them are these enormous metal framing and tent structures. One of them is in a parking garage at the Toyota Center, one of the major sports arenas in Harris County.

Voters pull up. They’re greeted by an election worker, just as they might be at a walk-in polling place. They’re asked to turn off their cellphone, not converse while they’re voting. Their IDs are checked. Texas requires a voter ID. And then they come into the polling station. The vote — they sign a roster, just as they would in in-person voting. The voting machine, which is attached to a cable, is handed into the voter’s window. And they vote from the seat of their car, hand the machine back. It is sanitized between every voter. We’ve taken enormous efforts to try to keep the in-person voting as sanitized and safe as possible, given the pandemic. And then they pull on out.

It’s been enormously popular. About 10% of our in-person voting — votes so far have been through the drive-thru locations.

AMY GOODMAN: How long has this gone on?

SUSAN HAYS: Well, it was pilot-tested during a July primary runoff. And we surveyed everyone who went through. The results were incredibly positive. So, the commissioners court, which has the power under state law to approve polling locations, voted unanimously, including the two Republican members, on August 25th to approve these 10 locations, along with the other 112 early voting locations in Harris County. And it began on the first day of early voting, on October 13th. And the Texas Supreme Court has denied three separate petitions for writ of mandamus trying to attack and stop the drive-thru voting.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this whole process landed in court. Once again, the Texas state Supreme Court ruled on behalf of — what was it? Harris County? — said that these votes can be counted. Where does it go now in the federal court? What is it up against?

SUSAN HAYS: Late last — or, in the middle of last week, an almost identical complaint was filed in the Southern District of Texas. The judge set it for a hearing this morning at 10:30 on a motion for preliminary injunction. And what they’re asking for is that these votes be segregated and not counted tomorrow night, which is directly contrary to Texas law. Texas law requires that all the votes be counted. And if anyone — any candidate’s race is close, then they can file an election contest. An election contest is the remedy to any issues with the voting process, not lawsuits that happen before the election.

And we do not know what will happen today with the court. We have an incredibly strong legal team that’s been lined up in Houston that will be presenting argument. And a lot of organizations have weighed in to file, including some very prominent Republicans. The former Republican speaker of the Texas House has filed an amicus brief, backing up Harris County and backing up the right for everyone to vote.

AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us who Steven Hotze is, who is among those who filed this petition in the federal court to throw out the more than 126,000 ballots.

SUSAN HAYS: Hotze has been a figure in extreme Texas politics for decades. Decades ago, he lived in Austin and did a lot of anti-LBGT attacks. He’s been — he was, for a while, a major power broker in Harris County Republican politics. You didn’t get to be a judge in Harris County without his blessing. He published a slate card of people he endorsed, except you had to pay him to get endorsed. And as Harris County has gone blue, his political star has fallen. He’s become more and more outrageous, as you explained in your opening report.

He has filed 10 separate direct lawsuits at the Texas Supreme Court since the pandemic began, five on behalf — five attacking health measures that local officials have taken, particularly Judge Lina Hidalgo of Harris County, and five about election procedures, very focused on Chris Hollins, notably another person of color and in charge of — in power in Harris County. And the Texas Supreme Court has denied every single one.

AMY GOODMAN: QAnon supporter.

SUSAN HAYS: Yes. You know, he’s been so bad for so long, that, in a way, doesn’t even add that much to how extreme he’s been in Texas politics and the sort of cancerous effect he’s had on some Republican politics in Texas.

AMY GOODMAN: If the federal court throws out these votes, do all of these people have to vote tomorrow?

SUSAN HAYS: That is one potential solution we have, is, along with the rest of the country since Bush v. Gore, a provisional balloting system. You know, Harris County does, of course, have the data of who voted drive-thru. And the voters in Harris County, be they Republican, Democratic or independent, are very unhappy about this. Some of the voters have intervened in the case, filed late last night. There are about 20 who are named in that intervention, but we have currently over 4,000 other voters signed up to join the lawsuit, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, on Saturday, Susan Hays, Trump tweeted a video of his supporters surrounding the Biden-Harris campaign bus in Central Texas, writing, quote, “I LOVE TEXAS!” The president’s tweet came after a separate video surfaced showing cars and trucks with Trump 2020 flags encircling Biden’s blue campaign bus as it traveled from San Antonio to Austin on a highway. It’s astounding video. Biden criticized Trump’s tweet during a campaign rally in Philadelphia Sunday.

JOE BIDEN: There’s a big Greyhound bus, white bus, painted blue with Biden’s markings on the side. And it was an interstate highway in Texas. And a bunch of Trump trucks, pickup trucks with Trump flags, tried to run it off the road. They’re stopping it, stopping in front of it. And the president saw it, took the video that someone had taken, and tweeted it back out and said, “I LOVE TEXAS!” “I LOVE TEXAS!” … We’ve never had anything like this. At least we’ve never had a president who thinks it’s a good thing.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Biden. On Sunday, Susan Hays, you tweeted, “While all of you were getting excited about #TexasTurnout or horrified about terrorists trying to run a bus off the road, Texas passed California in COVID cases. Now call everyone you know to vote like your life depended on it.” If you can talk about what actually took place? You have a car ramming — a Trump car ramming a car of Biden campaign workers, the FBI now saying they’re investigating, as Trump tweets “I LOVE TEXAS!”

SUSAN HAYS: You know, what I know is what I’ve seen through the media. And I watched the video. I’m very familiar with that stretch of highway. It’s an incredibly busy area between Austin and San Antonio. It’s a dangerous stretch of highway on a good day. But I was very disappointed in the Hays County sheriff, which is the county just south of Austin, for not seeming alarmed about that. And I also noted that sheriff is on the ballot tomorrow.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, because there’s video, you can see license plates. You can see exactly who did this. This ultimately forced the Biden campaign to cancel their events.

SUSAN HAYS: Absolutely. And, you know, I hope that the Department of Public Safety, which would also have jurisdiction over that stretch of highway, is investigating, as well. And I would hope the relevant sheriff’s departments are investigating, as well. And law enforcement doesn’t talk about investigations while they’re ongoing, but I would hope that they would quickly wrap that up and arrest whoever was driving that black pickup, who tried to run a car off the road in the middle of a busy interstate. You know, the speeds on that interstate regularly exceed 75 miles an hour. I doubt the bus was going that fast, but that’s the traffic in the — right along there. It’s very dangerous, as I said, on a good day.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for joining us. Final question about COVID, I mean, Texas breaking records in early voting, but also around the issue of COVID. Can you talk about the scale of the pandemic and how you think it’s going to affect the rest of the election, though record voting in Texas so far?

SUSAN HAYS: You know, it’s shooting up. Our state government has not handled it well. Our state government has aggressively pushed back on county governments who have tried to handle it. El Paso is having an outbreak, and our attorney general sued the county judge for putting the county on lockdown.

You know, I’m speaking to you today from Alpine, Texas, a remote rural area, because my husband has underlying conditions. And we came here to try to be safe. It’s now hit the rural counties with a vengeance, in part because of all the messaging coming from President Trump and coming from people like Steve Hotze, who deny medicine and deny science, trying to minimize what people should be doing. And it’s killing people. It’s killing people in the rural communities. It’s killing people along the border. Latinx are more susceptible to it. It’s awful.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan Hays, I want to thank you for being with us, special counsel to Harris County, Texas, on election matters, worked on election laws in Texas for over 20 years.

Next, we go to the battleground state of Florida to speak with Haitian American author Edwidge Danticat to talk about how more than a quarter of a million U.S.-born children could be separated from their parents. And we’ll speak with one of them. Stay with us.

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