Whitley is gone, but Texas voter suppression remains alive and well

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Earlier this month, Gov. Greg Abbott announced the departure of David Whitley.

The personification of Texas voter suppression, Whitley served as a special advisor to the governor after resigning from his post as Texas Secretary of State, where earlier this year, he attempted a purge of almost 95,000 mostly Latino residents from the state’s voter rolls.

At the time, Whitley’s efforts were met with a successful lawsuit that ended the purge. He also faced a united bloc of Democrats in the Texas Senate that refused to confirm him to his acting role as Texas Secretary of State, rightly costing him his job as Texas’ top election chief. 

Yet even with Whitley’s welcome departure, voter suppression in Texas is still very much alive and well. 

This past session, the Texas Legislature passed yet another state law that will make it more difficult for voters to cast a ballot. A recent New York Times report discovered that at least six campus polling places around Texas will close their doors due to a new state law that outlaws polling places that can’t stay open for the full 12 days of early voting.

Voting rights groups have also been sounding the alarm about another new state law outlawing mobile polling sites, hampering the vote of rural communities and college students that often have to travel several miles to vote. But these new laws are just the tip of the iceberg and only the most recent examples of a concerning trend in the state.

One-party rule, if they can keep it

Last month, a report found that the Lone Star State led the nation in polling place closures. Between 2012 and 2018, Texas saw 750 polling locations close, a decline in democracy that impacted two out of every five counties in the state, according to The Leadership Conference. “Closing polling places has a cascading effect, leading to long lines at other polling places, transportation hurdles, denial of language assistance and other forms of in-person help, and mass confusion about where eligible voters may cast their ballot,” read the report. “For many people, and particularly for voters of color, older voters, rural voters, and voters with disabilities, these burdens make it harder — and sometimes impossible — to vote.” 

Officials have been quietly making devastating last-minute polling changes that are often only discovered after voters are harmed on election day.

No better example exists than Waller County, a small suburb outside Houston that is home to Prairie View A&M, a historically Black university. In 2018, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit against Waller County on behalf of students after local officials slashed the number of early-voting days on campus. 

In another similar case last year, the Texas Civil Rights Project and other voting rights groups threatened action against Hays County when officials closed the only polling site at Texas State University after only a few days of early voting. In a particularly revealing moment, the president of the county’s North Hays Republican Group warned in an email to supporters that extending polling hours on campus would “favor the Democrats” and urged the local party network to keep the location closed.

The bureaucratic red tape erected by these counties to suppress votes is backed up by a growing war chest of state laws– voter ID laws, restriction on voter registration drives, and most recently the restricting of polling sites– that allow local Republican leaders to creatively stifle democracy.

Without federal pre-clearance, a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that requires states with a history of racist redistricting and voting laws to have all election-related matters cleared with the federal government, Texas Republicans are free to devise ways to help their voters while hurting those of their opponents.

Since escaping that federal election-related oversight in 2013 due to a Supreme Court case ruling that gutted the Voting Rights Act, Texas Republicans have passed a frenzy of voter suppression measures that coincide with the state’s changing demographics and the Democratic Party’s surge in the state.

Come November 2020, there’s little doubt that thousands of Texas voters will be impacted due to the abusive mix of old and new state laws that aim to keep certain voters at home. But beyond removing a few bad apples on election day, defeating the state’s voter suppression culture will require a vigilant and mobilized army of Texas voters ready to fight back against the half-baked ploys cooked up by state’s fading and desperate Republican leadership. 

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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