How voter suppression, poor planning, incendiary rhetoric, and fear of coronavirus could erode public confidence in elections.
Primary voters in some parts of Texas waited in punishingly long lines to cast a ballot last Tuesday. A surge in Democratic voter turnout overwhelmed many polling places on university campuses, as well as other locations serving communities of color in Houston, according to complaints received by the Texas Civil Rights Project. At Texas Southern University, the city’s historically black college, people waited in line for more than six hours.
Black and Latinx lawmakers in the state say they’ll soon hold a hearing on barriers to voting. On Friday, Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, the local elections administrator, apologized for the long lines. “It is clear that the history of marginalized communities being left behind in the voting process has led to polling deserts in areas of Harris County,” she said in a statement.
Richard Hasen, an elections law expert and professor at the University of California, Irvine, argues that these kinds of breakdowns further America’s distrust of voting. In his new book, Election Meltdown, and a corresponding Slate podcast series, Hasen argues that voter suppression, election interference, and incendiary rhetoric all erode the public’s confidence in democracy. The Observer spoke with Hasen about his book and what happened in Texas on Super Tuesday.
Texas Observer: What do the long lines we saw in Texas last week and other barriers to voting do to the public’s confidence in elections?
Richard Hasen: I see what happened in Texas as part of a larger nationwide pattern of mostly minor, but some more serious, issues of election administration and voting problems on Election Day that can shake people’s confidence that elections can be fairly and accurately done in this country.
In some ways it’s a little bit of good news, in that people are paying a lot of attention to these things. I think that started in part because the Iowa Caucus was such a debacle, so now there’s just more attention. The good news is that I think there’s going to be a chance to try to fix things before November. Certainly, if you look at the reaction of the counties where there were multi-hour long lines, officials aren’t poo-pooing the issue. They appear to be taking it seriously.
You call Texas’ ill-fated attempt at purging the voter rolls last year part of a larger pattern of voter suppression. Is Texas more aggressive on this front than other states?
I mean, it took just minutes for plaintiffs’ lawyers to figure out that Texas had wrongly targeted naturalized citizens. And to me, what’s most infuriating about the Texas situation is that after the trial court found that Texas had screwed up—and after all of those registered voters were either reinstated or the instruction was given not to purge them, even after the attorneys’ fees were ordered and everything—these messages from Ken Paxton and Greg Abbott on Twitter about voter fraud are still up there. They’re still making these bogus claims. They’ve ceded to their base, and that further undermines voter confidence. It’s completely irresponsible.
A lot of people saw the long lines here on Super Tuesday and thought they saw voter suppression, in part because of Texas’ long history with the practice. How does that track record influence public confidence in elections?
With a place like Texas, this history of racial discrimination in voting and passing rules that make it harder for people to register and vote raises a fundamental question about whether voting problems are the result of incompetence or the result of intentional suppressive action. And either way, a voter might be disenfranchised.
A voter can’t wait four or five hours to vote. But figuring out the cause of the problem is important in order to come up with a solution. So if the issue is that, for example, voting machines are not being allocated in areas where there are minority voters in order to suppress votes for minority-preferred candidates, then the solution there might have to be a voting rights lawsuit in federal court. But if the problem is one of inadequate planning or a lack of adequate resources because of an unexpected surge in turnout, then the solution is for the Legislature and county bodies to provide adequate resources and training. So figuring out the root cause of these problems, and it could be multiple causes, is very important in terms of solving these things before November.
In your book you apply Hanlon’s razor—the maxim that one shouldn’t attribute malice to what is adequately explained by incompetence or poor planning—to elections malfunctions. Does that become more difficult in a state like Texas given its history?
I think it’s very difficult. Because of the history, people might jump to a conclusion that any time that an election is messed up in Texas, it’s because someone is intentionally trying to suppress the vote, and that’s not always the case. And thanks to social media, these things spread very widely. When you see someone at a historically black college take six hours to vote, immediately Democrats jump to voter suppression, which may or may not be true in that particular case. I think there’s both legitimate outrage—no one should have to wait seven hours to vote—but also a political calculation that calling out Republicans for making it harder for minority voters is something that is part of the rhetoric of Democrats around elections.
Do you think the surge in voter registration in places like Texas will result in more problems at the polls? What should we be looking for or planning for?
The experts on turnout who I listen to, like Michael McDonald at the University of Florida, predict that we’re going to have a tsunami. People are very concerned about the future of the country on both the Democratic and Republican side. Donald Trump is a polarizing figure, so turnout is going to be up, and election administrators need to prepare for it. And they need to prepare not only for higher turnout, they need to prepare for problems—like machines breaking at the polling places, the potential need for absentee ballots because of the coronavirus, or the lack of poll workers because of fears of the coronavirus. Now is the time to be planning, because even if there was no more voter suppression in the state of Texas, running a high-turnout election in this heated atmosphere is going to be a huge challenge.
You’ve urged people to reject widespread claims of voter fraud, but also to more closely scrutinize elections administrators and whether they have adequate resources. What’s your advice to people consuming news about voting in this heated environment?
Don’t get sucked in by the rhetoric, and [instead] look at the actual data. If the question is, “Why did people wait seven hours at polling places?” that’s a question that can be answered. So in Los Angeles, where we had long lines, it turns out one of the bottlenecks is the voter registration database was very slow and glitchy, so people couldn’t be checked in at the polling places. Find a story with data about what actually happened—that’s more helpful than turning to talking points from both sides, which may or may not be based in empirical reality.
You write that Trump is in some ways a symptom of problems with the national electoral system. How so?
People had to be primed to believe, on the Republican side, at least, that voter fraud is a major problem in order for them to be taken in by an outlandish claim like that 3 to 5 million non-citizens voted in the 2016 election—a claim that is utterly ridiculous and unsupported by any facts whatsoever. Donald Trump was able to take advantage of a public that was already primed to believe that Democrats were cheating. While his rhetoric certainly contributes to mistrust in the election system, that mistrust predated Trump. He just built on top of what was already there, and it will survive Donald Trump as well.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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