By: Maggie Stern
Texans will begin going to the polls on October 13th in the midst of an unprecedented public and civic health crisis. Nearly 16,000 Texans have died of COVID-19, and over 3.5 million have filed for unemployment relief since March. Throughout the crisis, several state leaders have wasted time in court trying to limit voters’ options to safely cast their ballots rather than protecting the sacred right to vote for all eligible Texans.
It is the responsibility of the state to provide equitable opportunities to vote to all eligible Texans. Yet throughout the pandemic, state leaders have argued that their actions are limited by the Texas Election Code. This spring, Texas lawmakers will finally be able to do something about those barriers. CDF-Texas urges the 87th Texas Legislature to finally address the longstanding policy and political barriers to voting that have been exacerbated by COVID-19.
Lawmakers can start by aligning our election system with practices that are already widespread in other states. Texas is one of just four states that has yet to adopt any of three common modernizations of our voter registration process: online, automatic, or same-day voter registration. Although a court case recently forced Texas to introduce limited online voter registration for people renewing their drivers’ licenses, this victory must be expanded to cover all eligible voters. Texas lawmakers can further modernize our outdated voter registration system by allowing automatic registration when Texans interact with state agencies and by extending the voter registration deadline. These reforms in other states have increased voter registration among underrepresented groups, saved money for both states and counties, and improved the accuracy of voter rolls.
Other changes will require Texas to confront systemic racism that continues to suppress the voices of predominantly Black and Latinx voters. Black and Latinx Texans on average live further away from polling places and face longer wait times at the ballot box – a problem that has been exacerbated with the 750 polling place closures across Texas since 2013. 94 percent of polling place closures occurred in Texas counties that had gained the most Black and Latinx residents, and counties closed more polling places in predominantly Latinx neighborhoods than in predominantly white ones. Increased wait times and distances to polling places stifle turnout, disproportionately based on race, income, age, and education. While the national government must restore the Voting Rights Act, Texas can proactively protect underrepresented voters by reinstating racial impact analyses for future changes in elections practices.
We must also strengthen existing provisions in the Election Code that support young voters. While nearly one in three eligible Texas voters are younger than 30, young Texans consistently face increased barriers to the ballot box, resulting in low voter registration and turnout rates. Current law requires Texas high schools to provide voter registration applications to every eligible student at least twice per academic year, but ignorance of the law and anemic support from the state means that many high school students are not receiving this opportunity. Lawmakers must require the Secretary of State to lead the effort to register young Texans through increased outreach, training, and tracking compliance.
It is troubling that the House Elections Committee was not explicitly charged with studying voter suppression during the interim. In fact, the greatest threat to fair elections today remains systemic barriers to the ballot box that deter many Texans – particularly those who are Black, Latinx, low-income, young, or disabled – from casting their votes. It cannot be the position of a democratic government that voters have to “prove” their commitment to voting by overcoming obstacles to the ballot box. The Texas Legislature must commit to protecting the full participation of all Texans in the 87th session.
For Children’s Defense Fund – Texas’ full comments to the House Elections Committee, visit this link.
Early voting in Texas will be October 13th through October 30th, and Election Day is November 3rd. For more information on voting in Texas, head to this voting guide.