Voter Suppression in Texas: Examining The Fine Print

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When you think of voter suppression, what comes to mind? In the history books it’s poll taxes, literacy tests, and violence. For me, a Gen X-er and fifth-generation Texan, the picture certainly includes long lines of black and brown Americans enduring the elements for hours to cast a ballot and slow-moving police cars congregating in certain neighborhoods like Alief in Harris County, circling polling places like sharks. However, the picture of modern voter suppression is not complete without an agonizing trip through the tangle of agency advisories and legislative committee reports that eventually evolve into legislation enshrined into law by the Texas Legislature.

So, put on your work boots because in this post, we’re going to maneuver through a bunch of thorny subjects before anyone’s even registered to vote or cast a ballot.

The Texas Legislature meets every other year. During the interim, the Legislature’s work continues through interim committees.

In the Texas House of Representatives, the presiding officer announces interim charges. The purpose of interim committees is to oversee implementation of legislation, examine issues, and make recommendations meant to inform and guide lawmakers when they return to Austin.

In 2019, Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) tasked the House Elections Committee to review the implementation and cost of a handful of laws passed by the 86th Legislature. The most consequential of the bunch is HB 4130 , which seeks to examine countywide vote centers, wait times, and whether digital poll books were able to keep up with the high number of voters who used or were likely to use vote centers.

Notably, Chairwoman Click (R-Ft. Worth) and Reps. Swanson (R-Spring) and Cain (R-Deer Park) are all on the record as opposing vote centers for counties with populations over 100,000 people. Over the vigorous objections and skepticism of Republican committee members, over 72 Texas counties, including the five most populous, offer voters the ability to cast their ballot at a vote center.

The remaining charges to the Texas House Election Committee are as follows:

  1. Make recommendations for establishing best practices for conducting an election during a declared disaster. Examine model legislation and statutes from other states pertaining to voting during a declared disaster.
  2. Evaluate election laws with the purpose of strengthening voter integrity and fair elections. Perform an in-depth study of the voter registration processes and explore whether centralizing voter registration would be more effective than today’s processes. Consider ways to improve voter list maintenance and study the volunteer deputy registrar process and voter registration procedures in other states. Include in the evaluation a review of the state’s curbside voting protocols and identify processes to improve the efficiency, privacy, and security of curbside voting.

Upon first reading, charges two and three seem harmless enough. Given the tremendous challenges posed every hurricane season and the COVID-19 pandemic, how to vote during a crisis seems like a reasonable question. The third charge reads the same way. Who doesn’t want safe and efficient elections, and isn’t it marvelous that a Texas legislative committee is working on that?

The problem, of course, is that Texas has a terrible track record of voter suppression. I will not list every insult and broken democratic promise in our history, but here’s a list from a Center for American Progress report on the problems they identified in the 2018 midterm elections:

  1. Voter registration problems
  2. Voter purges
  3. Strict voter ID and ballot requirements
  4. Voter confusion
  5. Voter intimidation and harassment
  6. Poll closures and long lines
  7. Malfunctioning voting equipment
  8. Disenfranchisement of justice-involved individuals
  9. Gerrymandering

The charges to the House Elections Committee are fundamentally flawed and deeply disturbing because we know that no matter what the charge to the committee is, what the compiled report says, or even how thorough and passionate the included testimony of experts and ordinary citizens will be — the result is always the same! If politically possible, the committee’s work will be used to create new administrative barriers to vote. Those barriers will weigh heaviest on seniors, students, black and brown communities, and poor people.

In the simplest terms: Texas voters are Charlie Brown. The House Elections Committee is Lucy. The interim report is Lucy’s elusive football.

It’s time for the House Elections Committee to speak plainly about their work. What’s the point of a House Election Committee report or even the committee itself, if the work of the body doesn’t actually help people vote?

I recommend a mission statement be posted on their website and included at the beginning of the report they will compile in the coming weeks. Here’s some model language I’ve adapted from the fiercely non-partisan League of Women Voters and from selected provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965:

The House Elections Committee will honor, defend and protect the constitutional right of every eligible Texan to vote. We understand that we live in extraordinary times, and that we have an opportunity and a duty to ensure our elections should be free, fair and accessible to all eligible citizens. We will fight all forms of voter suppression and protect voting rights for all.

The reports and legislation we produce will be used to ensure that the state of Texas and all local governments within its borders do not deny citizens the equal right to vote based on their race, color, or membership in a minority language group.

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Texas has a storied history of voter suppression, but it’s not ancient history. Voter suppression in Texas is crafted in virtual committee rooms in 10-point type. It’s woven in the administrative language used to deny and deter full suffrage. It’s the stuff of lawsuits and peaceful protests.

So, before Texans are asked to stand in another long line or untangle the web of statutes and rules that govern how to cast a ballot, it’s time for the House Elections Committee to trash the fine print and make a commitment to help every eligible Texas voter cast a ballot.

The Committee will take testimony until September 18 and will issue a final report before the 87th Legislature convenes in January of 2021. You can review the members of the House Election Committee, their interim charge, and instructions for submitting written testimony by clicking here.

This piece was originally published on Medium by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. We’re reprinting it here because gerrymandering is one of the largest threats to fair and free elections in Texas, and we’re here to help you fight back.

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