The trouble with voting in Texas
What if the real election fraud was the voter suppression we met along the way?
Consider how long you would be willing to wait to vote.
Imagine you are standing in line outside a high school gymnasium with your fussy toddler after getting off work. The sun is setting, and you have not eaten dinner. Imagine you still need to take the bus to a second job, and the line to vote is barely moving.
Could you last three hours? Six hours? Would you wait in a line until 1 a.m.? That’s how long some Texas voters waited to vote in the Democratic presidential primary Tuesday.
There are plenty of valid reasons why half of Americans don’t vote. Unreliable or inadequate voting machines, like the ones that ground the process to a standstill at some Texas polling sites, certainly don’t help.
In the days to come, media reports will chalk some of those voting obstacles up to incompetence and poor preparation on behalf of local election agencies. But some obstacles are hard to describe as anything other than textbook voter suppression.
Texas closed more polling stations than any other state in the American South between 2012 and 2018. Those closures disproportionately affected counties that saw the largest growth in black and Latinx population, according to a March 2 analysis by The Guardian:
The analysis finds that the 50 counties that gained the most Black and Latinx residents between 2012 and 2018 closed 542 polling sites, compared to just 34 closures in the 50 counties that have gained the fewest black and Latinx residents. This is despite the fact that the population in the former group of counties has risen by 2.5 million people, whereas in the latter category the total population has fallen by over 13,000.
The net effect is that residents of the affected counties had to travel farther to vote on Super Tuesday. In a 2019 paper, University of Houston researchers Jeronimo Cortina and Brandon Rottinghaus took a look at the “cost” of voting in some of those counties, specifically in terms of time and effort expended. They found that the polling station closures made Latinx voters in particular less likely to turn out and vote.
As I write this newsletter it is too soon to tell how great an impact these closures had on voter turnout or on Sen. Joe Biden’s victory in the Texas primary, but given Bernie Sanders’ popularity among young Latinx voters — and given the possibility of Texas flipping to a blue state in November — I would expect Cortina and Rottinghaus’ findings to take on new significance. Time will tell.
Incumbents have not been shy about their disdain for democracy. Particularly since the Supreme Court ended enforcement of Voting Rights Act election safeguards in nine states in 2013, some of our political leaders have not bothered masking their scorn.
In January, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell mocked the idea of making Election Day a national holiday, dismissing it as a “power grab” by Democrats. In North Carolina in 2016, Republican legislators openly called for gerrymandering in committee meetings, including one proposal that “could have feasibly elected an all-white slate” of Republican candidates to Congress, according to The Intercept.
Sometimes voter suppression looks like a farce. In South Carolina in 2011, Republicans ginned up a controversy about “zombie voters,” speechifying in high melodrama about 950 names from old DMV rolls that had allegedly been used to vote in state elections. They got right to work on “security” measures for the next election.
After a year-and-a-half-long investigation, state police found zero instances of “zombie” voter fraud. The entire narrative was false. Politicians who led the zombie hunt, including S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, remain in power today.
In the meantime, South Carolina lawmakers passed a voter ID law to prevent “election fraud,” requiring 178,000 voters without photo identification to obtain a new state ID. The new policy created a hardship for older voters and people who didn’t have access to their own paperwork, as I discovered while reporting on Columbia’s homeless crisis in 2010.
In a sense these are not new tactics. The American tradition of voter suppression traces back to the earliest days of Reconstruction, when black men suddenly had the franchise and whites scrambled to introduce poll taxes, literacy tests, and other tricks along the way.
A common feature of all these tactics is plausible deniability. Like the robotic architecture of insurance company phone answering systems that frustrate sick people into giving up hope, the lurching failure of voting systems creates a system of inequity where no one person is fully responsible for the state of affairs. The blame is dispersed into the ether and everyone in power sleeps easy at night.
Here’s a 2010 video my college roommate and I made demonstrating the challenges faced by homeless people seeking photo identification. Look closely and you’ll spot a cameo from the Strom Thurmond Federal Building, a late masterpiece of brutalist architecture. You can read my report for Huffington Post here.
Image at the top: Voting machine used in the 2000 Presidential election, Lee County, Florida. Public domain, from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.