Going into the midterm elections, organizers with Houston’s “Grow the Circle” campaign knew to prepare for the unexpected. The organization, which seeks to increase voter registration and turnout among BIPOC, youth, and LGBTQIA+ communities, sent organizers to 90 polling locations across Fort Bend County and Harris County. With voter suppression law Texas Senate Bill 1, which restricts voting by mail, a ban on drive-thru voting, and the empowerment of partisan poll watchers, the organizers knew that they had to protect what little protections left they had. They ran into issues like four-hour poll site delays, broken machines, and limited ballots, but the Grow the Circle campaign was able to mitigate the issues by having an established network of support for voters. Prism interviewed Juan Cardoza-Oquendo, director of policy and elections for Houston in Action, to learn more about their strategy behind empowering communities to build an electorate that’s reflective of the growth and diversity of the people of Houston and how other cities can best mitigate issues on election day.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alexandra Martinez: What were some of the biggest concerns that you had leading into election day?
Juan Cardoza-Oquendo: Our biggest concerns were intimidation and violence. Given what the extreme right wing did in 2020 and the rhetoric about stopping stealing elections, we were really worried about that. Thankfully, there were only a few isolated incidents of intimidation, and they didn’t involve firearms, which is a huge relief. Ironically, the biggest issues were polling locations not opening on time, and a good number of the voting machines not working.
Martinez: What were your strategies for handling situations of potential violence or logistical problems?
Cardoza-Oquendo: We were supporting and coordinating about 50 organizations that work in different communities across Greater Houston. We had the support of those organizations to be at polling locations to answer voters’ basic questions, to be confident and comfortable in case confusion or hostility happened at the polls, and to be comfortable to report those issues to our partners at the election protection coalition and us, the Houston in Action staff.
We trained organizations on different roles they could play at polling locations, such as creating joy, basically being a positive, welcoming presence at polling locations and passing out food and water, being a community safety monitor, paying attention to the [atmosphere] at polling locations, making sure that voters are calm and confident about voting, and that they would enjoy voting. We are celebrating voting, so that’s what we did in the weeks leading up to election day.
Martinez: What were some of the issues that your organization had to mitigate on election day?
Cardoza-Oquendo: The Houston Astros won the World Series the Saturday before election day. On Monday, the city threw a parade to celebrate the Astros win, and the Houston Independent School District canceled classes. We knew going in that morning of Election Day that there were going to be delays in polling locations opening because schools were closed on Monday. There were dozens of polling locations that weren’t ready at 7 a.m., including one polling location in the east end of Houston. That didn’t open until 11:51 a.m. Locations had to open at 7 a.m.
Our organizations were already out at polling locations, so they were able to report these delays. They were able to liaison with the presiding judges and the election workers at the polling locations and be there for support, showing these election workers that they weren’t alone.
As the day went on, polling locations opened thankfully, but then we had to collect affidavits to support a lawsuit to make sure that polling locations stayed open until 8 p.m. given that so many locations had effectively disenfranchised people.
Think of people who have busy schedules, people who don’t have access to child care, people who may have limited transportation … not being able to vote when you plan to can make or break your voting. That morning, we collected a lot of affidavits to support a lawsuit. Then it was in the hands of our litigation partners, and we had to be ready to respond in case a district judge ordered polling locations to be open and make sure that information got to voters as quickly as possible.
Then we were monitoring locations throughout the day. There was one location in particular where voters were leaving with their ballot in hand without scanning it, which is a final step to get your vote counted. There was another location where there weren’t any Spanish-speaking election workers. One of our partners went to that location to serve as an interpreter for Spanish speakers.
A member of our steering committee from Positive Women’s Network actually took care of a child. There was a dad who wanted to go in and vote. He was stressed he did not have much time because the location opened late, but our steering committee members took care of his kid. It’s a beautiful example of taking care of voters and showing voters that we’re in this thing called democracy and this thing called raising our voices for change. We’re in it together.
Martinez: Which communities are most directly impacted by voter suppression and bills like SB 1 on election day?
Cardoza-Oquendo: Communities that historically have been disenfranchised, communities that have less time and less energy to follow all of the technical details that the state of Texas has put in the way of voters casting their ballots. We’re talking about communities of color, communities who have limited English proficiency, or are more comfortable in other languages, immigrant communities, young people. Somebody who has more resources, more time, who has child care, who has a flexible work schedule, these kinds of logistical barriers may not affect them as much as communities who, for good reason, haven’t voted, aren’t regular voters, or have a greater difficulty in getting to a polling location or filling out a mail ballot application properly.
Martinez: Could you explain how SB 1 has made voting more difficult for folks?
Cardoza-Oquendo: One big thing is the chilling effect of all these different rules that voters have to follow. Creating new requirements for filling out your mail ballot application, new signature requirements, and ID requirements that were really confusing earlier in the year [made it more difficult to vote]. Other difficulties included challenges like the transportation of voters to fill out affidavits and assisting people at the polls. And if you help someone with their ballot, there’s an affidavit that needs to get filled out.
Harris County piloted 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting of the 2020 election as a COVID-19 precaution, and that was banned. That affects immigrant communities, limited English proficiency communities, and Black communities.
Martinez: What would you like to happen regarding voting rights and Election Day protocols?
Cardoza-Oquendo: At the Harris County level, we’re talking about 1.7 million people who voted, almost 2.5 million registered voters. We need to see a bigger investment in elections [and] more rigorous training of election workers. We want to see the elections administrator partnering with community organizations like our member organizations, to make sure that voters have the most accurate information. We need to ensure that election workers come from the communities that most need somebody in their corner, explain to them how voting works, and be a welcoming presence at polling locations.
At the state level, we need to see the state legislature making voting easier and not engaging in these extreme actions of making it harder to vote, or even arming our state attorney general by [allowing the] criminalization of people voting. It’s a really dangerous trend, and it’s important to remember that we, the people, our democracy belongs to us, [and] our votes belong to us. We need to see equal investment from our state government and our local elections administrator’s office in that process. The stakes are just so high. People’s right to vote is sacred, and we need to make sure that it’s smooth that voters are supported when they’re casting their ballots.