Texas has long been a battleground state for voting rights, dating back to 1918 following the passage of the 19th Amendment, where Texas’s all-white primary system effectively meant that Black women and Mexican American women were not given their right to participate in elections in Texas. In the century-plus since these initial disenfranchisement efforts, Texas has since gained the reputation of being a “voter suppression state.” Texas’s voter related laws, including a voter ID law disguised as a voter fraud protection law, are nothing more than discrimination against poor Black and brown Texans who do not have access to the funds required to get a Texas ID. In addition to this, Texas’s mail-in ballot provision is among one of the strictest in the country, which means that to vote in Texas, voters are being forced to venture out in a pandemic and stand in long lines that will likely obliterate any social distancing measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in a state that has had several outbreaks already.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, whose premature loosening of coronavirus restrictions helped the virus spread, has taken a hard-line approach to mail-in ballots. On Oct. 1, he issued a proclamation limiting the drop-off locations for mail-in balloting to one per county. The governor’s proclamation was immediately met with a legal challenge from the League of Women Voters, the National League of United Latin American Citizens, and the League of United Latin American Citizens, all groups concerned with how the proclamation would be used to further disenfranchise voters in the state. For perspective, Harris County houses one of the most populous cities in the United States: Houston. The county has a population of nearly five million people, which one drop off location is supposed to be able to serve. This is a naked attempt at suppressing the votes of those who are allowed to file a mail-in ballot, namely the elderly, the disabled, and the ill.
Texas has also taken a few losses while it has been advancing various laws aimed at suppressing the vote. The previously cited voter ID law has been upheld by federal courts, but the state is still required to pay $6.8 million in associated fees, according to the Texas Tribune. In addition to these reports, an analysis of Abbott’s voter suppression tactics by Texas Monthly reveals a pattern of creating hurdles for voters under the auspices of ballot security. Abbott’s history of voter suppression stretches back to at least 2004, when Gloria Meeks, a 69-year-old Black woman from Ft. Worth helped a neighbor fill out a mail-in ballot. For the egregious crime of not signing the ballot properly, Meeks had her home staked out by investigators from Abbott’s office in 2006. In 2010, Abbott’s office sent armed agents to seize the equipment and papers of a group called Houston Votes which had been accused by a tea party group of voter fraud. Abbott later said that the group had done no wrong, but the items seized by Abbott’s office were still destroyed.
These more extreme responses to incidents of alleged voter fraud are nestled in with more subtle forms of voter suppression and intimidation. Abbott’s order to limit the drop-off boxes to one per county might not have set alarms off if it weren’t for the simple fact that not all of Texas’s counties are created equally. For example, in Harris County, the drop-off point has been set as NRG Stadium. NRG is situated close to downtown Houston, which might be fine for those who live in the inner bands of the metropolis, but for those who are in its farthest suburbs like Katy or Sugar Land or from other parts of the county itself, the drive can easily exceed an hour’s trip one way.
Abbott’s order still stands as a ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals allowed it to remain, but Austin’s District Judge Robert Pitman statement in his own ruling briefly put a halt to the governor’s proclamation: “Even without declaratory evidence, it is apparent that closing ballot return centers at the last minute would cause confusion, especially when those centers were deemed safe, authorized, and, in fact, advertised as a convenient option just months ago.”
This kind of confusion is part and parcel of the rampant voter suppression that the state of Texas has been engaging in under Abbott’s leadership, prompting The Intercept to compare it to Jim Crow-era disenfranchisement. Pam Johnson Gaskin, a 73-year-old Black woman who lives in Fort Bend, a central figure in their reporting described the efforts as: “[A] return to trying to make things so difficult that you just throw your hands up and say, ‘I give. I’m not going to do this. OK, Mr. White Man. Have it your way.’”
In response to these measures of voter suppression, Gaskin and others are getting involved in groups designed to ensure that everyone who needs to vote can vote, down to even ensuring that if someone has to step out of their place in line to go to the bathroom that they will not lose their spot in line. These measures and efforts from voters should not be required—and would not be required—if there were state leaders who were more concerned about fair and just voting systems than they are about losing the next election. Abbott and his Republican allies are committed to voter disenfranchisement because it will ultimately result in them consolidating power and keeping control of the state, voting rights be damned.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has been vocal about these tactics, encouraging voters not to feel “muzzled” by the attempts of the state at engaging in voter suppression. As Houston’s KPRC 2 reported, Hidalgo said, “It’s a problem, it’s a thinly-veiled attempt at suppression …The message to the community here is we’re here for you to participate, whatever your political persuasion is, we want to make sure that you can participate, that you can vote.
Hidalgo is not the only county official taking issue with the way Abbott’s office and the state in general are engaging in voter suppression. Jefferson County Clerk Carolyn Guidry spoke to KFDM’s Angel San Juan, telling the reporter that “The governor (Greg Abbott) comes out with this new ruling to disenfranchise voters. Oh, it’s definitely voter suppression in the worst form.” Jefferson County is also a county full of Black working-class and low-income people who are two of the groups that the lawsuit against the governor’s proclamation declares that it is targeting. The ACLU of Texas did not appear in the lawsuit, but has been engaging in a voting rights campaign letting Texas voters know what their rights are and how to make voting safer in the time of COVID-19. The organization did, however, issue a response to the governor’s proclamation which reads in part: “We are dismayed that the governor of Texas decided to curtail the ability of Texans to cast their ballots safely in the middle of a pandemic by limiting the number of drop-off sites per county … As is well documented, Texas has a voter suppression problem, not a ballot security problem.”
The fight in Texas for allowing complete participation in the process of voting is an ongoing battle, and even if the courts do not legally recognize how the state is engaging in voter suppression and disenfranchisement of voters, that does not mean that we stop calling it out and fighting for free and honest elections in Texas and throughout the rest of the South.