Report Documents State Drive to Restrict Voting
Texas lawmakers have ramped up efforts to deprive millions of Texans of the right to vote since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutted key portions of the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA), the Texas Civil Rights Project charges in a new report.
The study, “Texas Election Protection 2016,” details the most pressing problems at Texas polls, including an “archaic and outdated voter registration system,” racially discriminatory voter ID rules, “a shortage of polling locations,” hours long wait times, and aggressive voter intimidation tactics.
The TCRP estimates that “4.4 million eligible Texans were excluded from the 2016 presidential election.” This is more than the total population of 25 individual states.
The TCRP used a robust public education campaign and grassroots organizers in efforts to boost turnout on Nov. 8. TCRP volunteers logged over 4,000 calls on Election Day, mostly regarding confusion about polling locations or difficulty with registration. Among voters who provided demographic information, more than 52% identified as Hispanic or Latino and 20% identified as black.
Texas has longstanding problems regarding practices that target non-white voters. Until the Shelby County decision, the VRA, one of the most important achievements of the civil rights era, required states and localities with a history of discrimination to get federal approval before changing their voting laws. This “preclearance” proved effective in enforcing voting rights; in Texas, it initially stopped state officials from implementing a strict voter ID law passed in 2011. After Shelby County, the state moved to enforce the law, which is still being challenged in court.
During the preclearance review, a panel of federal judges found that “the cost of obtaining a photo ID to vote would fall most heavily on African American and Hispanic voters,” and the law would act as a tool to disenfranchise voters of color. Like a modern day poll tax, voter ID laws put a seemingly neutral face on discriminatory policy. Unfortunately, the problems once held at bay by preclearance have been allowed to flourish in the past few years.
Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion in Shelby County was grounded in the idea that “the conditions that originally justified [preclearance] no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.” But the opinion ignored the fact that improvements in voting rights enforcement were a product of the preclearance requirement. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ginsburg compared the move to ”throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
The TCRP report says that following the law’s implementation, “an estimated 600,000 registered Texans immediately became unable to vote.” Though the law was blocked again by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in July 2016, the TCRP found that “the change in requirements so close to the election left many voters and election officials confused about what requirements were necessary in order to vote.” While Texas’ many problems in the 2016 election were not entirely racial, they had a disparate impact upon minority populations, TCRP concluded.
The TCRP is working to expand its operations in preparation for the 2018 election, pushing for “common sense reform[s]” like a modernized registration system, shorter wait times, and expansive voter education. Meanwhile, national efforts continue for the restoration of preclearance. This could be achieved through two means: an act of Congress, or a court order. With Republicans in charge of both house of Congress and their leaders opposed to preclearance, congressional action is unlikely, so it’s imperative that Texans – and all Americans – keep fighting in the courts for the restoration of fair, efficient, and non-discriminatory elections.