Ahead of the March primaries, the number of registered voters in Texas hit a record 16 million—a million more than 2018 and almost 2 million more than the 2016 presidential race. This week, we’ll find out if they will actually make it to the polls.
Austin attorney Chad Dunn has participated in major legal battles over voting rights in Texas, including successful court challenges of the state voter ID law and attempted purges of tens of thousands of voters in several Texas counties. Dunn, who once worked as a policy intern for Republican U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and later became general counsel for the Texas Democratic Party, sat down with the Observer to discuss issues on voters’ minds as Super Tuesday approaches.
Texas Observer: We’ve seen a boom in voter registration statewide in Texas. Why has registration increased so much this year, especially in counties like Travis, Brazos, and Harris?
I think there are several factors that play into this. The biggest factor is that Texas is the biggest swing state now. So, all these resources are being invested to solve its under-registration problem. [Voter registration drives] are well-coordinated and they’re nonpartisan in many cases.
Beto [O’Rourke]’s success in nearly winning the Texas U.S. Senate seat is part of what spurred investment in addressing Texas gaps: The young are not registered at a high rate here, people of color are not registered at a high rate.
And I think you’ve got a broad group of candidates that appeal to a broader group of the electorate that’s encouraging registration … Plus a lot of the people moving into Texas were politically involved and were already registered voters in their former states.
Often at the polls you are asked for a state issued driver’s license or Texas official ID. Can you vote if you don’t have one?
Yes. The state’s ID laws were adjusted by the federal courts. What the state wanted to do was say that people could only vote with a limited number of IDs. Through expert analysis, we showed that 1.2 million eligible voters didn’t have those state IDs. Now all of those people can vote.
Ultimately the courts entered an order that Texas had to allow what’s called a reasonable impediment declaration. If you show up at a polling location and you have a reasonable impediment to having one of those IDs you sign a document attesting to that fact and you’ll be given a full ballot like everyone else gets.
What should you do if you experience any problem voting on Super Tuesday?
In Texas, political parties are responsible for running their primary, though in reality it’s the local county officials that are almost always contracted to perform the election. Voters really should call the party—that’s divided up among the county parties and the state party. The party has a lot more authority to deal with election shenanigans in the primary because it’s viewed as its election.
Last year, there were lawsuits filed and concerns raised about purges of the voting rolls proposed by the secretary of state. What happened with the attempt to remove something nearly 100,000 registered voters, many of whom were Hispanics, who supposedly weren’t citizens?
Organizations that I represent and others came in and filed a lawsuit in federal court. The court, after hearing days of testimony, determined it was a ham-handed effort that wasn’t well thought out, and that the vast majority of [those targeted] were naturalized citizens. And ultimately the parties reached an agreement that the state wouldn’t continue that process. Federal law should prohibit any purging at this point.
It’s hard enough to keep track of the presidential candidates, so why should Texans vote and pay attention to down-ballot, low-level races that are often overlooked?
These races for election administrator, county clerks, they’re important. Find candidates that believe in democracy and vote for those candidates. There are some on both sides, but you’ve got to look for them now.
It’s safe, easy, and fun to vote. Nobody should stay home and say this is going to be hard and difficult. Plenty of people are standing behind you. Go get your ballot. It will count, your voice will matter.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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