By Maggie Stern
Early voting in Texas this year began with a warning in a report published in the Election Law Journal which found that Texas has the most restrictive voting system in the United States. Remarkably, despite strict barriers, by the end of October, more Texans had already voted in the early voting period than the total number who cast their votes in 2016 and headlines blazed that Texas was leading the country in early voting. Yet today, with ballots still being counted, projections are that Texas will nonetheless have the eighth lowest voter turnout rate in the country.
This election in Texas may be remembered as a moment when the rising tide of civic engagement met the unrelenting force of voter suppression. CDF-Texas has documented the history of efforts to prevent Texans of color, young Texans, and Texans experiencing poverty from voting. Unfortunately, state leadership continued these patterns in this election cycle:
- A series of lawsuits ultimately left Texas as one of just five states to require voters to have a reason beyond COVID-19 to vote by mail, thoroughly confusing Texans and forcing many to choose between their health and their vote.
- A failed attempt to throw out 127,000 votes in Houston after they had been cast at drive-through polling places left Harris County voters concerned that they would be disenfranchised despite having followed guidance from the County Clerk and the Secretary of State.
- Headlines that the Texas Army National Guard would be deployed on Election Day spread fear that armed troops would use the same violence as they did against protestors affirming that Black lives matter this summer.
These efforts build on the legacy of voter suppression that is deeply ingrained in a country that still elects presidents based on a system that was deliberately constructed to protect slavery and continues to privilege voters in rural, predominantly white states.
The Constitution originally limited the franchise to white, property-owning males over the age of 21. It is not a coincidence that even in the modern era, voters have disproportionately been white, wealthy, college-educated, and older. White citizens made up 74 percent of voters in 2016 — 6 percent points higher than their share of the eligible voting population — and Republican presidential candidates have won a majority of the white vote ever since Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
In response, organizations have invested in turning out the vote among underrepresented groups. This year, Move Texas registered 55,000 young Texas voters, who are mostly Black, Latinx, and Asian. The Jolt Initiative supported 500,000 Latinos who voted for the first time in Texas during early voting. Texas Organizing Project contacted 1.4 million new or infrequent voters of color. Nor is this phenomenon unique to Texas. From indigenous and Latinx organizers in Arizona, to Black women in Georgia, to Muslim and Arab voters in Michigan, turnout was fueled by community advocates who recognize that civic power is a long-term investment stretching far beyond any one election cycle.
Beyond the quadrennial presidential election, these organizers focus attention on local and state elections, where turnout is historically low and important races are too often decided by only the whitest and wealthiest voters. They speak to the issues that matter to their neighbors and support community members to hold politicians accountable between election cycles. They build relationships to help voters overcome barriers to the ballot box, while recognizing that racism in our electoral system cannot be rooted out by voting alone. They demand that we support other forms of civic engagement such as protesting and civil disobedience that often lead people to the ballot box. (It is telling that voter registration numbers fell in the first months of the pandemic, yet surged following global protests against racial injustice this summer.)
The United States has always been a democracy in progress — one created to empower a small minority of rich white men, one that was built on genocide and slavery, one where expansions of the franchise have often been met by violent backlashes fueled by white supremacy. While we celebrate every voter who managed to make their voice heard this year, we can and must create a better system that allows every Texan to participate equally. Election officials are still doing the work of counting every vote. Now it is our job to make sure that every voice counts.