In Texas and Other States, Voters Face a Variety of Barriers

In recent elections, Texas has had among the lowest voter turnout rates in the country

AP Photo/LM Otero

Democrats believe they have a shot at making gains this year in Republican-dominated Texas, including winning control of one house of the Legislature for the first time in nearly two decades.

Persuading voters isn't their only challenge. Voting and registration rules crafted by Republicans in recent years also could prove to be a big obstacle.

In a state that's growing rapidly in population and diversity, officials have closed hundreds of polling places, taken steps toward removing thousands of registered voters from the rolls, imposed strict voter identification requirements and made it more expensive to put early voting sites on college campuses -- all in the name of election integrity.

"The bottom line in Texas is Republicans are scared to death of demographic changes," said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause in Texas, "and are doing anything and everything they can think of to keep those changing demographics from affecting elections."

Nationally, Democrats say strict voter ID laws, purging of voter rolls, reduction in polling places, limits on early voting and other restrictive steps are Republican attempts to suppress their voters. Republicans counter that they are merely trying to maintain the integrity of elections and close off potential avenues for voter fraud.

It's an argument playing out across the country, and one that is leading to lawsuits in numerous battleground states.

In North Carolina, litigation over a voter ID requirement passed by Republicans has created uncertainty over whether it will be in place for the November elections. In Georgia and Wisconsin, voter advocacy groups have sued over efforts to revoke the registrations of voters who have not participated in recent elections. And in Texas, Democrats are suing over a ban on mobile polling places.

Attention on state efforts to expand or restrict voting access has been heightened since 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated some key protections of the Voting Rights Act. Before that ruling, Texas was among nine states with a history of racial discrimination that needed clearance from the federal government before making significant changes to their voting laws.

All nine now have laws that ask voters to show IDs at polling places, laws that often have led to confusion on Election Day. The Texas law, for example, allows a handgun license to vote, but not a college ID.

Voter roll purging also has accelerated in some states in recent years. Election administrators are supposed to remove people who have died or moved out of their voting jurisdiction, or in some places have failed to vote during the last several elections. How those purges are done is at the heart of legal battles across the country.

Georgia officials removed 313,000 people from voter rolls last year. Fair Fight Action, a group founded by 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who has become a major voter rights advocate nationally, has been pushing to have about 120,000 of them restored.

Fights over access to balloting on college campuses, restoring the right to vote for felons and whether interest groups should be allowed to collect voters' completed ballots are playing out in numerous states.

If voting restrictions reduce turnout, they can make the difference in races decided by narrow margins.

Many of these fights are playing out in Texas, the nation's second most populous state and one that has been a Republican stronghold for much of this century. New arrivals from other states, an expanding Hispanic population and urban centers with an increasing leftward tilt have given Democrats hope that they can rise from the political graveyard.

Yet in recent elections, Texas has had among the lowest voter turnout rates in the country. In 2016, with a presidential race on the ballot, barely half of registered voters participated. There was a surge of voting -- by non-presidential year standards -- in 2018, when Democrat Beto O'Rourke came close to unseating GOP Sen. Ted Cruz.

Last year, a variety of civil rights and voter advocacy groups opposed efforts from the Republican-controlled state government that could have had a chilling effect on voting. A judge forced the acting secretary of state to drop an effort to call into question the citizenship of 95,000 voters in a step toward removing them from voter rolls. The list of possible non-citizen voters turned out to be full of errors.

The Legislature ultimately rejected a bill that would have made it a felony to put incorrect information on a voter registration form -- even by accident. Opponents say it could have stopped voter registration campaigns in their tracks. But its sponsor, Republican state Sen. Brian Hughes, said bad information entered by voters on their registration forms is a problem that's known but not often prosecuted, largely because it's a lower-level offense.

"I understand folks try to characterize this as being something else," Hughes said. "But this is simply about making sure the rules are fair and that people follow the rules."

The Texas Legislature has adopted other restrictions, including a 2017 ban on straight-ticket voting, a process in which voters can opt to have their ballot marked for all candidates of one party. Common Cause's Gutierrez said the ban can have an out-sized effect in major cities where the ballot has dozens of candidates. If voters have to wade through every office, it could create excessively long wait times on Election Day, discouraging voters, he said.

That's especially true if the state or counties have closed traditional polling places. States and counties that used to have to submit voting law changes to the federal government closed nearly 1,700 polling places from 2012 to 2018, according to a report issued last year by the Leadership Conference Education Fund. Of those, 750 were in Texas, where a law that allows counties to test countywide voting centers also lets them close existing sites.

The story lines are similar in other states. The leadership fund, a civil rights organization, is monitoring bills in legislatures this year to impose more voter ID requirements as well as state and local actions to remove voters from the rolls. It's all part of a pattern that goes back to Reconstruction after the Civil War, said LaShawn Warren, the fund's senior vice president for campaigns and programs.

"You have advancements and you have efforts to undermine the advancements," she said.

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