Texas is looking more and more like a battleground state every day. But will electoral ‘maneuvering’ ensure the Lone Star State stays safely within the GOP’s hands?
By Alexander Locksley
The phrase “elections have consequences” has become a cliché, a political version of “it is what it is.” However, it’s doubtful that suburban Houston and Dallas voters knew they’d be determining ballot access for thousands of Texans when they cast a vote in a pair of bond elections in the spring of 2014. The results of two relatively minor, and easily overlooked, elections led to a recent change in Texas’ election law that could write another chapter in the history of voter suppression at a historically black college and university.
The new law, HB 1888, went into effect on Sept. 1 and requires all early voting locations to remain open for the entire 12 day early voting period. On its face, the law seems innocuous and could even be construed as a pro-voter measure. In reality, the law bans the use of temporary mobile voting facilities, also known as “rolling polling places.” The elimination of temporary voting locations will only make it more difficult for mobility-challenged populations to get to the polls. The Texas Legislature isn’t overly concerned about voter disenfranchisement. If they were, Republican members wouldn’t have spent years trying to get rid of mobile polling places.
The most important election you’ve never heard of
Before they were banned, mobile polling places were often used to reach populations challenged by traveling to early voting locations — like college students and the elderly. The portability of the polling machines made them particularly popular on college campuses, where they would be installed for a few days before being moved to another location. The flexibility of the machines allowed them to be set up and taken down in a matter of minutes and, prior to 2015, state law didn’t require them to be up for a minimum amount of time.
The combination of these factors made the machines ideal for going where the voters were, which is exactly what Republicans accused Cy-Fair Independent School District of doing. In 2014 CFISD was considering a bond proposal. At the time, the district was “bursting at the seams,” according to Superintendent Mark Henry. The school board hadn’t asked for a bond in seven years, and the district had 115,0000 students and was growing at 2 percent per year — making it Texas’ third-largest school district.
Overpopulation had gotten so bad that CFISD was using 300 portable buildings to make up for its lack of capacity. So CFISD’s board decided to put a $1.2 billion infrastructure bond on the May general election ballot. Conservatives, some of whom criticized the fact that the bond was an all-or-nothing package, vigorously opposed the proposal. The $1.2 billion price tag energized members of the then-ascending Tea Party in Texas. Conservatives block walked to drum up opposition to the bond proposal and hoped to reach the 21,000 voters who turned out during that year’s Republican primary.
The type of organized opposition the Republicans put together had already killed a $99 million bond package in Katy and conservatives hoped it would put a stake through the heart of CFISD’s proposal. And then Election Day came. The bond proposal passed with a 69 percent approval rating and Republicans cried foul.
In politics, losers make the rules
They blamed ‘pop-up polling places’ for their loss — despite the fact that there were two locations open for the entire voting period. They claimed that CFISD gamed the system by setting up mobile polling places at football games — despite the fact that the election was in May and football season ended in December. They accused CFISD of restricting access by setting up polling places for a few hours at a time — despite the fact that early voting locations are decided by counties, not school districts.
CFISD wasn’t the only school election where Republicans got beat in 2014. They also lost a vote on a $775 million bond in Frisco ISD. In both elections Republicans blamed the number of polling locations for their losses, Frisco ISD had more than 40 locations open and CFISD had about 50 or so. As is so often the case in politics, when someone loses an election they try to change the rules so it won’t happen again.
In 2015, state Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood) took aim at mobile voting. Bonnen, the older brother of Speaker Dennis Bonnen, introduced HB 2027, which required mobile polling locations to be open for at least two consecutive days for at least eight hours a day. Opponents of the law argued that it would put an undue financial burden on local governments by requiring them to keep temporary polling places open longer.
Bonnen’s rationale for the bill was that mobile polling places allowed governmental entities to “harvest votes,” which is a nasty way of saying get people to come out to the polls. After the 2017 session, mobile voting seemed safe — and then the Republicans got trounced in the 2018 midterms. As the Republicans looked at the tectonic shift that had occurred in the Texas electorate, they decided that instead of changing their policies to make it easier to win, they’d change the rules to make it harder to lose.
This gave Bonnen license to continue his attack on temporary voting locations. During the 2019 session, Bonnen introduced HB 1888 — a bill that went even further in restricting mobile voting than HB 2027. Like he did in 2015, Bonnen claimed that his bill would end electoral favoritism and voter discrimination. Unsurprisingly, it does the exact opposite.
The completely intended effect of the law of unintended consequences
In Texas political circles, Waller County has been known for voting rights struggles since Jimmy Carter’s time in the White House, but the fight got particularly heated during the George W. Bush Administration. Most of Waller County’s problems with voting rights can be traced back to the political establishment’s relationship with Prairie View A&M University. With a student body of about 9,000 people (2018, most recent available), PVAMU is one of the largest historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the country. However, the school is situated in an area with a relatively small and predominantly pale population — about 50,000 people, 70 percent of whom identify as white.
This racial disparity has led to deep-seated tension between the two populations. That tension came to a boil in 2003, when a Prairie View student announced his intent to run for a seat on the county commissioners’ court. In response to a young man’s attempt to seek elected office, then-district attorney Oliver Kitzman sent a letter to the county elections administrator threatening any Prairie View A&M student who tried to vote with 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Kitzman’s threats hinged on a flawed reading of Texas’ election law, and drew from a decades-long tradition of disenfranchising college students, active-duty military personnel and other ‘transient voters.’ Although Kitzman’s letter led to a federal lawsuit and his resignation, it wasn’t the end of Waller County’s attempts at voter suppression.
In 2004 and 2008, students walked 7 miles from Prairie View A&M to the Waller County Courthouse in Hempstead to protest the lack of early voting locations on campus. Both marches were well-attended, with more than 1,000 people participating in the 2008 march — some waited up to five hours to cast a ballot. Sadly, 2008 wasn’t the end of Prairie View students’ fight for on-campus early voting locations. In 2018, five students sued Waller County for failing to provide any early voting locations on campus or in the city of Prairie View during the first week of early voting. The lawsuit acknowledged that two early voting locations were going to be set up in Prairie View during the second week of early voting, but one location was going to be off-campus and neither would have Saturday hours.
Conversely, Waller County planned to install two early voting locations in the city of Waller for the first week of early voting and one in the second week. Some of the Waller sites also offered Saturday hours.
The students also accused county officials of attempting to reduce the hours on-campus early voting locations would be open. The lawsuit came amidst concerns regarding student voter registration and the arrest of a Democratic congressional candidate’s field director.
Studies show: if it’s easier, more people will do it
While the brouhaha over early voting locations may seem overblown, a polling place’s location directly affects voter engagement. A 2003 study of suburban Maryland counties found that for every mile between a population center and a polling place voter turnout changed by about 0.5 percent. The researchers also found that routes to polling locations affect voter turnout — in rural areas where routes are straight and unimpeded turnout is higher than suburban areas where routes are cluttered and curved.
Data for voters without cars shows proximity is even more of a determining factor. If a polling place is located one-hundredth of a mile from a person there’s a 66 percent chance that person will vote. If someone has to walk two-thirds of a mile to vote there’s only a 42 percent chance they will go to the polls. Despite the potential impact HB 1888 will have on Texas voting, particularly in Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin, it’s not expected to alter the on-the-ground reality of Houston’s special elections this year.
Neither Harris nor Fort Bend counties have used mobile voting sites in the most recent election cycles. However, both counties have multiple early voting locations within their borders. This year, Fort Bend County residents can choose from more than 20 locations to cast a ballot early. Harris County has more than 50 early voting locations.
Waller County, on the other hand, will have seven early voting locations this year. Although there won’t be an early voting location on Prairie View A&M’s campus, there will be one at the Waller County Community Center — which is half a mile away.