Texas has vacillated between occasionally prying open a smidgen of expanded access to the ballot box and then constraining it. It’s a state with a long history of voter intimidation and suppression — recorded since at least 1902, when it enacted an annual poll tax, designed to discourage Mexican-Americans, African Americans and poor whites from voting.
Those disenfranchised saw voting access open up with the ratification of the 24th Amendment in 1964 — prohibiting the use of poll taxes — and the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But after the law’s “preclearance” provision was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, Texas again implemented some of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the country. Previously, it was among states with a long history of discrimination that were required by preclearance to get approval from the U.S. Justice Department before implementing election changes that could create voting inequities.
Several factors have fueled the Republican-controlled Texas legislature to enact new voting restrictions in the past two years: President Donald Trump’s re-election loss in 2020 and his false claims of widespread fraud costing him the elction; surging turnout, thanks in part to voting by mail; and shifting demographics that threaten their grip on power. In 2021, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a massive elections overhaul that rolled back extended voting hours and drive-through voting, restricted voting by mail, added new voter ID requirements, banned some forms of organizing voter turnout and increased criminal penalties for violating election laws.
Civil rights groups immediately mounted a court challenge, claiming SB1 violates the federal Voting Rights Act by intentionally discriminating against voters of color, voters with disabilities, those who are more comfortable with a language other than English, and those who have no option but to vote by mail. While the case won’t go to trial until July of 2023, the law has taken effect.
In 2020, election officials in Harris County, home to Houston, experimented with “drive-through voting” as a way to encourage turnout amid concerns about COVID-19. It survived a court challenge from Republicans, but SB1 banned the practice.
“More than anything else, SB1 was a response to the efforts to facilitate voting in 2020,” said J. Morgan Kousser, a professor of history and social science at Caltech. Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin “tried to make it easier to vote in 2020, particularly because of the particular conditions of voting in the midst of a pandemic.”
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This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
“Harris County, for example, set up 24-hour-voting for two days — in a limited number of places, but still, you could vote at any time. They also set up — and again this was quite constrained as to time — drive-through voting: You still had to show identification, but you could sit in your car, and they would give you a tablet that you could vote on,” Kousser said. “They kept statistics on that by race and we know that that was extraordinarily likely to be used by Blacks and Latinos. Texas has had early voting for a long time, [but] the legislature is likely to constrain early voting more in the next legislative session because Democrats — particularly Black and Latino Democrats, particularly in urban areas — are likely to engage in early voting.”
A new requirement in SB1 that a driver’s license or last four digits of a voter’s Social Security number be included with absentee ballots and that they match applications on file led to the rejection of 25,000 mail-in ballots in Texas’ April primary. That was more than 12% of total votes cast, according to a Bloomberg report, compared to the average rate across the country of 1%.
The law makes it a felony for local election officials to send out “unsolicited” absentee ballot applications — a common practice in other states — or to assist an outside group in distributing them.
One portion of the new law was struck down this summer by a federal judge. It would have placed restrictions and possible criminal penalties on people who assist others with casting a ballot, including those with limited English skills or a disability, requiring them to fill out paperwork disclosing their relationship to the voter and whether they are being paid in some way to assist them. They are also required to recite an oath pledging not to “pressure or coerce” the voter. Advocates with disability rights organizations had expressed worry about the ambiguity of the criminal penalty portion of the law, and worry that it will prevent people from voting.
Stephanie Gómez, political director of advocacy group MOVE Texas, said the new law has hampered her organization’s efforts to engage underrepresented youth in the political process.
“Our field team encountered young people who were attempting to vote by mail and unable to or had to maneuver a really confusing process,” she said. “Another issue that we’re running into is that we have some young people who are interested in getting their friends to the polls (when there is no easily accessible campus polling option) and will be unable to do so without signing an affidavit due to changes from SB1!”
There is no online voter registration in Texas, and the deadline is 30 days before Election Day — so, for the Nov. 8 midterm elections, that date is Oct. 11. When voting in person at the polls, seven acceptable forms of ID can be presented. Voters who don’t have any of the approved forms of photo ID can fill out a “Reasonable Impediment Declaration” form and submit an alternative form of ID, such as a utility bill or bank statement.
In addition to SB1, Texas legislators approved bills after the 2020 election that bar local officials from accepting grants from private foundations to supplement the cost of running elections; prohibit people from establishing residence in the state for the sole purpose of swaying an election; and strip state funding from local officials who refuse or fail to comply with some aspects of the state’s election laws.
Election workers targeted
With a hotly contested gubernatorial race and congressional seats, calls for gun control legislation, and abortion rights all up for grabs on Nov. 8, threats against election administrators and county clerks have increased throughout Texas. In one county, the entire elections staff quit after being stalked and having faced threats of violence from Trump supporters echoing false conspiracy theories he’s advanced about the 2020 election. Trump won Texas in 2020. The county that lost its election staff voted for Trump in 2020 as well.
Texas Republicans in Congress voted against certification of federal election results after Trump lost. The Texas Republican Party adopted a resolution at its state convention rejecting President Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 election.
During testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Aug. 11, Texas elections administrators spoke of how “‘personal attacks on national media outlets’ led to alarming threats against an election administrator, including a social media call to ‘hang him when convicted for fraud and let his lifeless body hang in public until maggots drip out of his mouth’ and messages threatening his children.”
Texas strips voting rights from people who are in prison on a felony conviction or on parole. Those rights can’t be restored until someone has “fully discharged” their sentence or has been pardoned. A 2019 Georgetown Law Civil Rights Clinic report describes Texas as having an “implicit” requirement that fines and fees associated with a conviction must be paid before rights are restored, because of its requirement that parole and probation be completed first.
In 2020, more than 500,000 Texas residents were unable to vote because of felony disenfranchisement. Nearly 28% of those barred from voting were Black, despite representing only 12% of the state’s population.
As a recent Public Integrity report detailed, people incarcerated awaiting trial or on misdemeanor convictions are eligible to vote but can be “de facto disenfranchised” if state and local officials don’t provide a mechanism for them to cast ballots.
Activists are pushing to have more of the state’s jails serve as voting sites after Houston’s Harris County Jail was used as a polling place for eligible incarcerated voters. “The pilot program allows people arrested on or after Oct. 22 to vote in a secure area of the jail,” Houston Public Media reported. “An unsecured part of the jail is available for the public to vote.”
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