Letter Three

Before I left Austin I had one more meeting, with Beth Stevens, the Voting Rights Director at Texas Civil Rights Project. She leads TCRP’s voting rights litigation team and helps TCRP partner with organizations to ensure eligible Texans are able to vote. I realized early on that understanding minority representation in Texas means understanding the complexities of voter turnout—and that means that I will have to do considerable outside research on the voting history of Texas. So, I will have to talk with people at the forefront of the battle to increase voter turnout.

After compiling Texas’ Gubernatorial voter turnout history from 1990 to 2014, I learned that after Democrat Ann Richard’s successful campaign in 1990 Democratic voter turnout has been on a very consistent decline with a Republican winning the governor’s office for the past two decades. Her historic victory saw Texas Democrats voting in large numbers both in the primary and in the general election. Half the number of Texas Democrats now vote in the gubernatorial primary as compared to primary turnouts during Governor Richards’ 1990 election. Since primary voter turnout correlates with voter enthusiasm and turnout in the general election, it is easy to see why a Democrat has not won the Governor seat in decades.

Outside of partisan arguments over which party represents low income and minority voters, this statistic is important to understand current voter sentiments and to evaluate methods to account for this decrease in voter turnout—and ultimately the potential for progressive change in voter turnout.

After scheduling conflict after scheduling conflict (on both of our parts) we were finally able to find a time and place to talk.

Talking with Ms. Stevens I learned that there has been increasing voting restrictions that might not objectively seem like they harm Texas residents who should be able to vote but they actually do. Laws like Texas’ Voter ID law seem like common sense (how you should present a form of identification before being allowed to vote) because it protects the democratic system from voter fraud and unlawful voting. The Voter ID law mandates that voters needed to show one of seven forms of approved photo identification, some including: A driver’s license, a passport, a military ID or a handgun license. And none of these can be expired for more than 60 days.

But a federal judge ruled that the Voter ID law disenfranchises many Texans from voting and strips minority and low income voters from the voting rights that were granted to them through the Voting Rights Act. The judge explains that the Voter ID law is unconstitutional because they found that 600,000 Texans would be stripped from their right to vote. In this modern era of low voter turnout, restricting 600,000 eligible voters in one state is enough to seriously impact any election. Included in this 600,000 disenfranchised voters are recent high school graduates who might not be able to get a driver’s license because their parents would not be able to afford the expenses that come with an extra driver, including the cost it takes to actually go through the driver’s education course, and is unable to acquire any of the other eligible forms of voter identification because of sheer inconvenience; how they might have to prioritize working over trying to get their handgun license.

Unlike the United States some countries allow online voting; substituting the hours wasted waiting in line to vote at a polling location for the greater convenience of just minutes filling an online ballot. The problem with this method of voting is that it leaves elections susceptible to hacking and increase to possible voter fraud or unintentionally publicizing someone’s voter preference because they might have voted in a public computer or in a public location. Some countries also allow voting day to be a public holiday so citizens would not have to sacrifice a paycheck for a ballot. This is a very pragmatic way of increasing voter turnout and patriotism because it allows people to feel that they are truly investing their time on something productive like electing their representation. An effective alternative to the Voter ID law, which other states take advantage of, is the inclusion of eligible forms of identification to include proof of residency. This curbs voter fraud while also not disenfranchising citizens from their right to vote.

The Voter ID law seems like a real obstacle to voting, but besides legislative barriers there are also physical barriers to voting. She explains that Texas has been closing precincts all over the state. This not only makes it much tougher for eligible voters to find the polls it also makes existing polling locations to be congested and force people who want to vote to take out hours from their weekday work to stand in line to vote. Higher income voters would not find this to be much of a problem but lower income voters, who are reliant on every single paycheck, might find those hours away from work to negatively affect their ability to pay their next rent bill, disincentivizing them from voting.

The United States Government is also one of the few governments that are not involved in their voter registration process. Citizens are responsible for their own registration meaning that if a person wants to procrastinate signing up to vote until it is too late, then they have that ‘freedom’. And redistricting and gerrymandering in Texas make it tough for certain populations to be properly represented in their district.

I took away very useful insight about Texas’ voter history from my meeting with Beth Stevens and now I am planning to focus my final report on the effects of Texas’ contemporary voting rights practices. There is so much to uncover about Texas’ laws and practices hindering proper and inclusive representation, but I feel that it is only fitting to unravel the largest barrier to proper representation (voting) to allow a more accessible and practical resolution for the representational barriers problem.

Onuoha Odim is a T’20 Undergraduate and an Ethics Certificate student. He also participated as a 2017 Kenan Summer Research Fellow.

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