In Texas, we pride ourselves on being neighborly and hardworking, and no other time of year demonstrates this better than election season. Texas is one of the hardest states to vote in (by design). However, the power of Texas voters is growing, evolving, and outperforming those who aim to create barriers at the polls. Working as an Election Protection Attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project has allowed me to see both the formidable voices of everyday Texans and the extreme lengths those in power will go to in order to silence them. To understand how we got here, let’s talk about the winding road of how elections have changed in the past four years.
When I started working in Election Protection back in 2018, there were plenty of problems, but most of them had been baked into the Texas voting process for years. Failures of our election system shut out at least 277,628 voters in that midterm, where Ted Cruz only defeated Beto O’Rourke by about 219,000 votes.
In 2018, our volunteers talked to dozens of new voters who had registered before the deadline, showed up to cast a ballot on the first day of early voting, and found out that they were not registered to vote. Almost every one of those voters was a victim of the same convoluted pathway. All Texas voters register via paper form because our state (mostly) does not offer online voter registration. County elections departments usually have about two weeks to manually enter all new registrants’ information. These elections departments are often underfunded (and likely to stay that way thanks to Governor Abbott) and they simply do not have the people-power to get it done. Thanks to these failures, a voter can do everything right, and the county can do their absolute best, and that voter might still have to come back a few days later to cast their ballot. The final nail in the coffin: Texas has the earliest voter registration deadline that federal law allows (30 days before Election Day), so the voters caught in this tangle have no way out of it.
Since the last midterm, we’ve seen things change for the better in a few ways. First, counties have gotten in the game. In 2020, Harris County led the charge by implementing 24-hour voting and drive-through voting. Since 2018, 43 Texas counties have joined the countywide polling program, allowing their voters to cast a ballot at any polling place in their county on Election Day (bringing the total number to 91 counties, which make up 82% of the Texas population). The Democracy from the Ground Up program (run by TCRP, MOVE, Texas Rising, and Common Cause Texas) achieved dozens of pro-voter reforms at the county level across Texas. Second, pro-voter organizations in Texas are more organized (and winning more victories) than ever before. For an example, look at the failure of SB9 in the 2019 Legislative Session or the record number of Texans registered in 2022. The Texas electorate is becoming more diverse by the day, and there is only so much that anti-voter legislators can do to stop it.
But they are going to do all they can. In 2021, Governor Abbott called multiple special legislative sessions in order to pass the voter suppression omnibus bill Senate Bill 1. SB1 sets us up for an election where partisan poll watchers are able to intimidate voters from within the polling place. SB1 also created so much confusion around mail-in ballot ID rules that more than 24,000 ballots were rejected in the primary. Thanks to election-denier rhetoric from Texas’s top officials, we’ve also seen elections administrators face an unprecedented amount of threats for doing their jobs, as well as efforts to file unlawful voter challenges in Harris County and McLennan County. The deeply flawed system is no longer sufficient to suppress Texans who want to vote; Governor Abbott and his anti-voting cronies are having to evolve as they continue to prioritize their own political power and self-interest over that of Texans.
The good news is that evolution is a response to a hostile environment. Texas voters from the Panhandle to the Rio Grande Valley are fired up about casting their ballots, and they do not plan to let these hurdles stop them. In 2018, the nonpartisan 866-OUR-VOTE hotline received 4,529 reports and questions from Texas voters. In 2020, that number shot to 10,589. The Texas electorate is going to continue to get more diverse, and Texas youth are going to continue to vote and get their peers registered, and the Texas Election Protection Coalition will keep protecting as many Texas voters as we possibly can. If you care about helping your fellow Texans vote, you can join our effort (non-lawyers at this link, lawyers/law students/paralegals at this one)!
But we can’t do this alone. During their campaign, both President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris promised to pass new federal legislation to protect voting rights. During the 2021 Texas legislative sessions, when Texas Democrats broke quorum to stop SB1, they traveled to DC to ask Congress to deliver on that promise. Over 1000 days into the Biden presidency, we still have not seen the pro-voter federal legislation that was promised. Texans are doing everything we can, but we need our elected officials to fulfill their promises and protect us from the next evolution of voter suppression in Texas.
Emily Eby is Senior Election Protection Attorney & Policy Counsel at the Texas Civil Rights Project.