As we enter the last couple of months before the November general election, Democrats here, as they have nationally, have been apprehensive about a cluster of laws and rule changes that they claim represents a modern-day form of voter suppression. On Wednesday, the Texas Democratic coalition launched what they’re calling a “voter protection program”—a joint effort of the Texas Democratic Party and Battleground Texas, which is closely aligned with the Wendy Davis campaign.
The groups will be getting support and advice from a relatively new Democratic National Committee effort called the Voter Expansion Project, supported by Bill and Hillary Clinton, which has been active in a number of states. On a conference call Wednesday morning, Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa explained that the voter protection program seeks to provide additional education and support to voters who may not yet be aware or well-acquainted with voter ID requirements, while training additional poll-watchers to ensure the November election holds to the letter of the law.
Davis, also on the call, touted the importance of the effort for the November election, and her own “strong record of fighting for voter protection” in the Texas Senate. “By contrast, Greg Abbott has fought the Voting Rights Act in court. He’s used his office to try to remove protections against voter discrimination and actively sought to weaken the voting power of some Texans,” Davis said. “He’s using our tax dollars fight against our own rights.”
Added Davis: “We want more Texans to participate in this election, not less.”
Over the years, Abbott’s office has aggressively prosecuted predominantly older, minority voters for small violations of election law, while ignoring potential violations from likely Republican voters. Abbott’s office sent state police officers to spy on older, minority voters to determine whether they were eligible to vote by mail. From a 2008 Observer story:
Fort Worth’s Gloria Meeks, 69, was a church-going community activist who proudly ran a phone bank and helped homebound elderly people like Parthenia McDonald, 79, vote by mail. McDonald, whose mailbox was two blocks away from her home (she recently died), called Meeks “an angel” for helping her, a friend of both women said.
The lawsuit describes various investigative tactics used by Abbott’s special unit, including an incident in which two state police officers were seen by Meeks “peeping at her through her bathroom window” while she was taking a bath on August 10, 2006. “She later learned that these two persons were investigators with the office of the defendant Attorney General Abbott,” the suit said.
But Abbott’s office never showed much interest in white voters:
A PowerPoint presentation used by Abbott’s office to train Texas officials was rife with racial stereotypes associating voter fraud with people of color-communities that in recent history have supported Democrats.
As an introduction to a section of the PowerPoint involving ‘Poll Place Violations,’ a slide depicts a photograph of African-American voters apparently standing in line to vote,” the lawsuit’s complaint said. “Notably, the 71-slide presentation contains no similar photographs of white or Anglo voters casting ballots.”
In recent years, state Republican parties in many parts of the country have favored laws that make it more difficult for poor, elderly and minority voters to exercise their franchise. These include voter ID laws, but encompass many different kinds of efforts. Before the 2012 presidential election, Republicans in Ohio, a critical battleground state, attempted to cut early voting periods, restrict absentee voting and reduce polling place availability in major cities, moves that disproportionately affected Democratic-leaning populations.
Democrats have been suitably freaked out about these developments. In Texas, where Democratic groups have been trying to turn hundreds of thousands of people who don’t normally vote into regular voters, it’s seen as especially important to counter restrictive voting laws.
Here, much of the discussion has been about voter ID laws. On the conference call, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio), a Democratic heavyweight and leader of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said the motivation for new voter ID laws was transparently political.
“Of 13 million votes cast across the state in the 2008 and 2010 elections, there were four investigations into improper voter impersonations and one conviction for a young man who voted on behalf of his brother,” Martinez Fischer said. “To go after one person, we threw 795,000 registered voters under the bus because they lacked the proper ID.”
The state offers free “Election Identification Certificates” to those who lack acceptable forms of voter ID, but Martinez Fischer notes that “one-third of Texas counties don’t have a DPS facility where people can go get a free election certificate.” And to get ID, you must obtain other forms of identification first—and because that can cost money, opponents of the ID law have argued it’s a form of the constitutionally prohibited poll tax.
Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks put the effort against voter suppression in the context of long-standing civil rights struggles. “For several decades, my mother served as a precinct election judge in Tarrant County. In the early years of her life, she was told to pay to vote. She wasn’t allowed to vote in the primary, and she was made to enter a test before she could enter a polling booth,” Brook said. “Through her election work, my mother saw firsthand the trajectory of history that always points towards progress.”
Brooks added: “She knew, and I know, that progress isn’t won permanently. It’s renewed every election. Every time we cast our votes, we strike another blow for progress. That’s why I raised my children to know that voting goes beyond a simple right. It’s a sacred duty. But today, too many politicians are trying to roll back the right to the vote.”