After Texas voters waited in hourslong lines on Super Tuesday, voting rights experts and advocates highlighted the state's systemic problems with election administration, expressed concerns about the possibility of similar issues in November, and urged elected officials to make it easier—not harder—for Texans to get to the ballot box.
"Long lines in any single county can happen for any number of reasons but multi-hour wait times all over the state point to a bigger systemic problem," Common Cause Texas executive director Anthony Gutierrez said in a statement Wednesday. "That problem, to put it bluntly, is that the people in power in state government have no interest in making it easier for Texans to vote."
The line at TSU, Houston, for the Texas Democratic primary, 30 min after the polls closed. The line continues inside the building. From the front doors to the voting booth took me over 2 hours in line — and nobody in this picture has made it that far yet. pic.twitter.com/KvG0raAojv
— Christof Spieler (@christofspieler) March 4, 2020
During and after official voting hours, reporters and voters alike shared anecdotes on Twitter of the long lines in Texas. Among them was Hervis Rogers—the last voter to cast a ballot at his polling station, Texas Southern University in Houston. Rogers waited for nearly seven hours, finally made it to the ballot box around 1:30am, then went straight to work his night shift.
"The Harris County Clerk's Office reportedly insisted there were no major issues and that the outrageous waiting times were simply down to a high turnout and not enough machines," according to The Daily Beast. "Clerk Diane Trautman said more machines were provided during the night after an extremely high turnout saw Democrats out-voting Republicans 3-1 in some places."
Advocates and experts used Rogers' story to raise the alarm about voting conditions in the state. Jennifer Epps-Addison, president and co-executive director of the national advocacy group Center for Popular Democracy, declared on Twitter early Wednesday: "This is what #VoterSuppression looks like."
— Jennifer EppsAddison (@jeppsaddison) March 4, 2020
"This is absolutely unconscionable. No one in America should ever have to wait seven hours to vote," tweeted Mother Jones senior reporter Ari Berman, who has written extensively about voting rights across the country, including his 2015 book Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.
After summarizing Rogers' experience for Mother Jones Wednesday, Berman wrote:
There were similar reports of long lines in heavily Democratic cities across the state, including Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio. While voters in California also faced delays due to a shortage of polling locations and problems with new voting technology, the longest waits took place in Texas, particularly in Houston's Harris County, where the population is 43% Latino and 19% black.
Local election officials seemed unprepared for the high turnout, which was up 40% in the county compared to the 2016 Democratic primary. There were only six poll workers at the Texas Southern location, according to NBC News, where 10,000 students are enrolled. And the polling site had only 10 voting machines, which were 20 years old. Five of them broke down for part of the night, exacerbating the long lines. With many local races, Texas voters faced a very long ballot that took a long time to fill out.
Texas' troubles weren't just a case of bureaucratic incompetence or aging election infrastructure: The long lines were also by design.
As Berman noted, Texas has closed 750 polling sites across the state since 2012, according to a recent report from the Leadership Conference Education Fund. A Guardian analysis based on the civil rights group's report "confirms what many activists have suspected: the places where the black and Latinx population is growing by the largest numbers have experienced the vast majority of the state's poll site closures."
Specifically, as the Guardian reported Monday:
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.
That analysis received renewed attention from journalists and advocates Tuesday amid reports of long wait times for Texas voters, particularly in Democratic and diverse communities:
This isn’t just a result of enthusiastic voters. Texas has closed 750 polling locations since 2012 — more than any other state. The counties that gained the most Black and Latino voters lost the majority of the polling places. https://t.co/o5dzO9yS3P
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— Kira Lerner (@kira_lerner) March 3, 2020
Berman and other experts pointed out that Texas closed down hundreds of voting locations in the wake of a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act. Until the high court gutted that landmark federal legislation, counties and states with a history of voter suppression had to get approval from the Department of Justice for such decisions.
Michael Li, redistricting and voting counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, detailed the various reasons it can be hard for Texans to vote in a series of tweets Tuesday. He noted the state's restrictive voter ID law, long primary ballots, and "questionable allocation of resources in some places."
Texas unquestionably has a lot of problematic voting laws (a restrictive voter ID law among them), but there also are a lot of other complicating factors, including the fact that this primary is not just for president but for everything down to precinct chair. 1/ https://t.co/RiajDZBjV8
— Michael Li (@mcpli) March 4, 2020
In Texas, Li explained, "it's not just elected offices that are on ballots. Both parties add any number of non-binding opinion questions to the end of the ballot."
This year, Texas Democrats had 11 questions to answer in addition to voting on political candidates—most notably, those running in the party's presidential primary (former Vice President Joe Biden won the state but Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont secured nearly half its pledged delegates).
Gutierrez of Common Cause Texas, in his statement Wednesday, called out the state's elected officials for their collective record on voting rights in recent years:
You can get a clear sense of the anti-voting attitude of those in power by looking at the last few legislative sessions. Reforms that would encourage participation and increase convenience, like online voter registration or requiring poll sites on college campuses, rarely even get a hearing. Bills that would make it harder to register to vote or that erect new barriers to the ballot box seem to fly through the legislature.
It's time for Texas to stop erecting systemic barriers designed to limit participation and simply let Texas vote.
Texas' problems at the ballot box could be largely resolved with some straightforward reforms, according to Gutierrez.
"I think you would have a hard time finding a local election official who doesn't wish they had more voting machines, staff, and poll sites," he said. "Most of the election administration issues we see in Texas, including long lines, could be fairly easily solved if the state would just provide additional resources to the counties."
THIS SHOULD NOT HAPPEN IN AMERICA!
Paper ballots (instead of machines that break down)
Paper registration rolls at all polling locations (instead of electronic poll books that break down)
More polling locations
More options to vote: early voting & vote by mail https://t.co/4ei3RGqzhG
— Common Cause (@CommonCause) March 4, 2020
Common Cause's national organization also documented voting issues on Tuesday in California, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
"Our work to protect the vote is more important than ever as we continually see partisan attacks on the people's right to vote, serious risks when it comes to election security, and an alarming rise in the spread of disinformation and misinformation on social media," said Common Cause president Karen Hobert Flynn. "What we learned today is going to impact how we are going [to] work with election officials moving forward to make sure in the November elections voters will be confident their vote counts."