Despite a last-minute ruling restricting absentee voting in Texas, voting rights advocates in the state’s hardest hit communities of color are redoubling their efforts to get out the vote amid one of the most severe voter suppression campaigns in the state in recent election cycles.
Texas counties remain blocked from setting up multiple ballot drop-off locations after a federal appeals court on Monday upheld Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive restricting counties to one location for ballot drop boxes to remain in place.
State Attorney General Ken Paxton filed an emergency motion for an administrative stay Saturday, a day after a federal judge blocked Governor Abbott’s directive. Civil rights organizations filed at least four lawsuits against the order last week, arguing the move places an unconstitutional and unequal burden on the right to vote.
The new rule forces certain voters to have to drive more than an hour to deliver their ballot, as some counties in the expansive state measure more than 6,000 square miles. Texas voters must present an approved ID to deliver their mail-in ballot and may not turn in another person’s ballot — a rule many voting rights advocates say disproportionately impacts elderly and disabled voters.
Disability Rights Texas, a legal protection and advocacy agency for people with disabilities, filed an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit to block Abbott’s directive. “Many people with disabilities already face additional barriers when voting,” said Lia S. Davis, a senior attorney at Disability Rights Texas. “By ordering the closure of drop-off sites, the state of Texas is making it even more difficult for people with disabilities to vote.”
Abbott claims the restrictions on drop-off locations are necessary to preserve election integrity but has provided no evidence that multiple drop-off locations enable “voter fraud,” which is so extremely rare that it is virtually nonexistent in the United States.
The legal fight over ballot drop boxes joins several other state GOP-led efforts to beat back the expansion of mail-in voting during the pandemic. The governor’s claims reinforce attempts by President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders to sow doubt about the reliability of voting by mail.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Texans concerned about contracting COVID-19 at polling places would not be allowed to vote by mail. Those who can vote by mail in the state include voters who are 65 or older, incarcerated but otherwise eligible, away from the county, or those citing a disability or illness.
The Texas Supreme Court ruled last week against several Republican officials who sought to restrict early voting to a two-week period during the pandemic. But the court also ruled last week that Harris County elections officials could not send out mail-in ballot applications to the county’s 2.4 million registered voters.
The Texas Republican Party’s newest lawsuit was filed Monday night — only hours before early voting was set to begin across the state. The suit challenges Harris County’s efforts to provide curbside voting, in which election officials bring ballots to voters in their cars, and asks the court to end the county’s drive-through voting programs that allow poll workers to hand out voting machines to people through their car window after checking their ID.
Moreover, a legal battle over “straight-ticket voting,” in which a voter can select all candidates of a political party with one punch, remains ongoing. The state also banned temporary and mobile voting sites last year in an effort to suppress student turnout near college campuses and by residents of senior centers.
The Texas League of Women Voters is challenging several of this election cycle’s Republican-led voter suppression tactics in court, including Governor Abbott’s ballot drop-off rule. In August, a federal judge sided with the League, ruling that the Department of Public Safety must allow people to register to vote at the same time that they apply for or renew a driver’s license. The League scored another favorable ruling in September in a case over the state’s mail-in ballot signature matching process.
Grace Chimene, president of the Texas League, told Truthout that voter suppression tactics in the state have intensified this year, compared to previous election cycles, particularly as former Vice President Joe Biden outperforms past Democratic nominees’ margins in the state and Democrats are optimistic about taking control of the Texas House for the first time since 2002.
“We already have in Texas complicated election laws, and they get more complicated every time we go through a legislative cycle, with legislators adding more complications and making it harder for people to understand how to vote,” Chimene told Truthout. “They seem to call things ‘voter fraud,’ and they set up little traps for you in the election code. Those little traps are things like [making it] harder to assist a person with voting.”
But even as the GOP’s voter suppression efforts have intensified, so have the League and other organizations’ get-out-the-vote efforts: The state’s 33 regional chapters have registered more voters this cycle than in previous years, despite the pandemic, according to Chimene.
In addition to running several voter education initiatives regarding absentee balloting procedures and new voting procedures this cycle, the League has been working to recruit more election and poll workers amid fears that the pandemic could lead to a shortage, since many of those who have typically done the job are more elderly. Abbott’s statewide mask mandate issued in July specifically exempted polling places, and at least one county saw poll workers leave a polling site after Republican workers refused to wear masks.
While some counties may mandate that their poll workers wear masks, they can’t mandate that poll watchers, who work on behalf of a political candidate or party, wear them. The League has been pressuring the governor and other officials to enforce a mask mandate for all poll workers and official, certified poll watchers.
Chimene told Truthout that many county elections officials working with local leagues are feeling more confident amid an influx of younger, newly trained poll workers. “We have a fresh batch, which is great for our democracy,” she said.
The Texas League is also running election protection efforts, including sending League-affiliated observers to polling sites to look out for individuals who may be breaking rules regarding electioneering — as well as for potential voter intimidation as the Trump campaign calls on supporters to show up to polling locations to conduct “ballot security” operations.
A provision of Abbott’s ballot drop-off directive allows certified poll watchers “to observe any activity conducted at the early voting clerk’s office location related to the in-person delivery of a marked mail ballot.” The provision seems to come in response to Trump’s debate comments urging supporters to volunteer as poll watchers. Many voting rights advocates are concerned, however, about unofficial, uncertified volunteers showing up at polling locations claiming to be “poll watchers” while engaging in intimidation tactics.
Chimene encouraged voters to call the League’s election protection number in case they spot any violations of rules and regulations at polling locations. She cautioned against calling police except in extreme situations, however. “Sometimes police can be intimidating for voters also, so we don’t want that to happen,” she said.
Other organizations throughout the state are making similar preparations as early voting begins this week. In Hidalgo County and across Texas’s predominantly low-income and Latino Rio Grande Valley in the state’s southern tip, organizers with La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) are also working to recruit poll workers and independent observers to ensure election operations run as smoothly as possible in a region that has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic.
In Hidalgo County, the COVID-19 death rate is more than 10 times the national average. In fact, South Texas is home to the five metropolitan areas with the highest rates of new COVID-19 cases relative to their populations in the U.S., according to data compiled by The New York Times.
Daniel Diaz, who coordinates LUPE’s get-out-the-vote campaign efforts, was sick with COVID-19 over the summer. Several people close to him have died of the disease, including his uncle. He told Truthout that LUPE’s organizers have sent more than 100,000 texts and made more than 23,000 calls to “high-potential” voters across the valley — people who have turned out in a primary or for a local election but haven’t yet turned out for a general election.
Diaz says many residents respond to the group’s calls or texts by expressing concerns about their particular vulnerabilities to coronavirus, with some expressing concerns about the lack of a mask mandate at the polls. LUPE is working to educate those voters about curb-side voting and absentee voting options.
Abbott’s recent directive restricting ballot drop boxes, in particular, created confusion among many South Texas voters, Diaz said. “I had people responding to me, ‘What does this mean? Does this mean I cannot mail my ballot anymore? Do I have to go vote in person now?’ It’s like, ‘No, no, no, you can still mail your ballot,’” he says. “Making these wild decisions right before early voting starts is just a tactic to confuse people; it’s just part of the agenda.”
Diaz told Truthout that LUPE is partnering with the Texas Civil Rights Project and the ACLU of Texas to train volunteers acting as observers to record and document potential intimidation activity at polling sites and report any such activity back to the legal organizations.
He is concerned about the potential for intimidation in the area after witnessing some “Trump train rallies” over the past several weeks. “There’s been a lot of intimidation from Trump factions here, where they’ve been having these caravans and driving around,” Diaz said. “I’m worried that attitude is going to be transferred to polling locations. There’s always local races that get really contentious and ugly and electioneering rules can be kind of loose here. I’m concerned that maybe a Trump faction can exploit that and get really close to the voters.”
The same kinds of concerns are also at the forefront of Felicia Moon-Thomas’s mind as she prepares a new, grassroots team of volunteers with See You at the Polls: Texas to fan out across polling locations in Fort Bend, Harris, Montgomery and Brazoria Counties on Election Day.
Moon-Thomas is based in Fort Bend County, where the only ballot drop-off site is a converted Walmart building. The county was planning to add four locations where voters can hand deliver their absentee ballots before Abbott’s ballot drop-off rule last week put a stop to the election administrators’ expansion plans. After driving across the 855 square mile county, residents who vote at the Walmart site must also show a photo ID, have their temperature checked and go inside the converted building to deliver their ballots.
To make matters worse, on Tuesday, the first day of the early voting period, voting machines across Fort Bend County were down due to a glitch after polls opened at 8 am, but county elections officials said most machines were back online as of 9:15 am.
The state’s voter suppression efforts — and Black and Brown people’s determination to overcome them — is what inspired Moon-Thomas to start the See You at the Polls group, which has now grown to more than 2,500 volunteers. Those volunteers will distribute water, rain ponchos, chairs and snacks to voters at predominantly Black and Brown polling sites on Election Day. They will also hold people’s places in line at times and provide portable cell phone chargers.
“If we can all get 20 of our closest friends to participate in this movement, then that’s a good thing,” Moon-Thomas says. “We’re targeting inner-city neighborhoods where we know that voter suppression is already happening but will definitely happen on November 3.”
The group is practicing role-play scenarios in advance of Election Day in which agitators are disguised as poll watchers and attempt to intimidate voters standing in line.
She points out that while many are focused on individuals who may attempt to berate voters standing in line, fewer are focused on people who may be planted to try to discourage others from voting by complaining about how long the line may be, or suggesting that they may have a better chance if they come back later.
“Education has been key to part of the success of our campaign. We’re trying to educate people on every single thing that we possibly can that could happen that falls under the guise of voter suppression,” Moon-Thomas said.