Cynthia Riley realized some voters might not wear face masks when she staffed Texas’s primary runoff elections in July. But she hadn’t predicted that her fellow election clerks and one of the judges in Plano, Texas, would refuse to don basic protective gear at the start of a 14-hour shift sitting shoulder-to-shoulder.
“I don’t have to wear a mask, and I’m not going to,” she remembers the Republican judge snapping at her.
Riley, who has a chronic breathing problem, abandoned her post after maybe 30 minutes at the polls, though she didn’t do so thoughtlessly. She has worked elections since 2016, and she understands the difference the staff makes. “I just feel like it matters a lot who’s there,” she said. Things can happen, she said, if there aren’t clerks onsite who “are willing to open their mouth”.
Across the United States, the coronavirus pandemic has threatened the democratic process ahead of the presidential election. But the situation is even more acute in Texas, where Republicans have long devised a tortuous system that actively disadvantages minority communities who would generally lean Democratic. Long lines, voter intimidation, voting machine malfunctions and other issues afflicted almost 278,000 Texans during the midterm election in 2018, according to the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Most recently, Harris county – by far Texas’s most populous county, which includes Houston and has the most Covid-19 cases and fatalities in the state – became embroiled in a court battle with the Texas attorney general over whether the county clerk can even send mail-in ballot applications to all voters (a state district judge’s recent decision says he can, but the Texas supreme court blocked him from doing so “until further order” as the state appeals).
From antiquated voter registration practices to a controversial voter ID law, “Republicans have spent the better part of the last two decades” finding ways to challenge Texas voters, said Rose Clouston, voter protection director for the Texas Democratic party. Now, the myriad ways in which they neglected to “bring Texas’s election into the 21st century are only exacerbated and more problematic in a pandemic”.
Just getting on the electoral rolls in Texas can be arduous, with restrictions on where and when voters can register and who can help them through the process. Unlike in 21 states and Washington DC, there is no same-day voter registration; to participate in the presidential election this November, voters must register roughly a month in advance.
Texas also doesn’t provide online voter registration – a critical difference from the vast majority of states – which means residents either have to risk an in-person interaction or rely on the beleaguered US Postal Service to deliver their applications.
“Voter suppression is encapsulated in every part of voting in the state,” said Louis Bedford IV, an election protection legal fellow with the Texas Civil Rights Project. And this symphony of restrictions has contributed to low voter turnout in the state for years.
Judge Orlando Garcia of the US district court ruled last month that Texas was violating federal law by not allowing people to simultaneously apply to vote when they renew a driver’s license or submit a change-of-address application online. He mandated the state to devise an online system for voter registration no later than 23 September.
Amid that bottleneck, voter registration drives have faced serious roadblocks, as only Texans who are US citizens and undergo training can be appointed as volunteer deputy registrars and register others to vote, a burden some organizers were already struggling to overcome pre-Covid-19. Texas is the only state that requires people to be deputized in order to conduct a drive, a 2012 report by the Brennan Center for Justice indicates. There is no statewide certification, so volunteers cannot sign up voters from counties where they are not already sanctioned, out of 254 counties across the state.
Thousands of volunteer deputy registrars would have flocked to parades, block parties and other crowded events over the summer to register their neighbors under normal circumstances. But, “because we believe in the science and don’t wanna ask our people to put themselves at risk, those things are not happening” during the health emergency, Clouston said.
Nevertheless, after a slow start, new Texas voter registrations in June and July actually outpaced the same months in 2016, a recent report from the Center for Election Innovation and Research shows. Democrats mounted the single largest weeklong effort around voter registration in state party history this summer, reaching out to 1.3 million unregistered voters.
Amid the public health crisis that has killed nearly 200,000 people in the US, some states have opened up mail-in voting to residents with concerns over Covid-19. Not Texas.
“They’re trying to scare us by not easing vote-by-mail restrictions, hoping that when we have to choose between our health and our constitutional duty to vote, that we’ll stay home,” said MJ Hegar, the Democrat running to unseat the Republican incumbent US senator John Cornyn. “But frankly, they don’t know Texans very well. When you try to intimidate us out of doing something, we just want to do it more.”
The Democratic party’s Clouston described “heartbreaking conversations” during the primary runoff as voters made impossible calculations around either breaking lockdown to cast a ballot or protecting an immunocompromised child at home. Low-income, minority voters – many of whom are essential workers – have borne the brunt of the virus. They may also work hours that make a trip to the polls difficult, said Brittany Perry, an instructional associate professor at Texas A&M University.
“The number of institutional and personal hurdles is kinda stacking on top of these communities that tend to, of course, vote Democratic,” she said.
Democrats have jockeyed for the state to expand its limited vote-by-mail eligibility, so far to no avail.
A more inclusive version of vote-by mail “would benefit voters”, Clouston said. “It would benefit voters’ health. It would benefit voters’ confidence. And it would benefit their safety.”
Young people in Texas fueled Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 senatorial bid, and college students overwhelmingly lean middle of the road, liberal or far left. But while Texas’s voter ID law allows residents to use their handgun license to confirm their identity, student IDs have been left off the approved list.
When Brian Rowland attended Prairie View A&M University – a historically Black institution near Houston – in the early-2000s, the students there received a letter from their district attorney singling them out and detailing the potential penalties associated with voting in the county.
The letter embodied “the front, in-your-face of how emboldened people were at that moment in time”, said Rowland, who is now a Prairie View city council member.
Students at the university have faced obstacles to voting for decades, from fighting their way to the US supreme court in 1979 to secure the right to vote based on their college address, to 19 students being indicted in 1992 over voting, though the cases were later dismissed for insufficient evidence. During the last midterm election, the school continued to field issues, from a voter registration dispute to allegations of voter suppression.
“It’s continued to be that: this cloud of, ‘what is it about Waller county not wanting Prairie View students to have the right to vote?’” Rowland said.
At Texas A&M University, one of the state’s gargantuan public schools, the early voting location is hard to find, there has been a change of venue for the polls on election day this year and the pandemic presents even more challenges to disseminating information about where to vote, said Raven Atkinson, a senior studying political science.
She expects long lines that will especially affect student workers, who “don’t have time to be waiting hours to vote”. But advocates’ attempts to add a second polling place on or near campus have fallen on deaf ears.
Alleged voter intimidation pervades much of Texas. Officials have been quick to threaten prosecution – or actually prosecute – voters, so the specter of criminalization acts as yet another deterrent against participating in the democratic process.
In 2018, the Harris county GOP’s ballot security chairman, Alan Vera, challenged about 4,000 voter registrations in one fell swoop, supposedly because voters had listed post offices or parcel stores under their addresses. Any registered voter in Texas can challenge the legality of other voters’ registrations within the same county, and Vera’s challenges resulted in more than 1,700 wrongful voter suspensions because of a “software glitch”, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Then, last year, state officials caught Donald Trump’s attention with the insinuation that almost 100,000 voters had been illegally registered. But they later dropped their review after many of those people turned out to be naturalized citizens flagged through flawed methodology.
Permitted voter IDs are generally harder for minorities to access, Perry said, while widespread poll closures have also disproportionately affected areas with burgeoning Black and brown populations.
“You have a general environment of neglect. And then you have these episodes of aggressive suppression intent,” said Clarissa Martínez, deputy vice-president of the Latino civil rights and advocacy organization UnidosUS.
Despite the pandemic, the “historically high” stakes this election cycle have given voters plenty of reasons to cast a ballot, Perry suggested. “The people see such a huge gulf between the two candidates,” and for supporters of the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, one of his greatest draws is that he isn’t Trump.
After a series of polls that signal a competitive race in Texas, Trump is now only “slightly favored” to win the famously red state, according to the political forecaster FiveThirtyEight. In recent years, Texas’s historically low voter participation has been surging, and Clouston anticipates the election will see record-breaking turnout.
“I know that Texans are incredibly motivated and excited to vote in this election,” Clouston said. “And to have a change in leadership.”