Richard Salame, The Guardian, March 2, 2020
Last year, Texas led the US south in an unenviable statistic: closing down the most polling stations, making it more difficult for people to vote and arguably benefiting Republicans.
A report by civil rights group The Leadership Conference Education Fund found that 750 polls had been closed statewide since 2012.
Long considered a Republican bastion, changing racial demographics in the state have caused leading Democrats to recast Texas as a potential swing state. Texas Democratic party official Manny Garcia has called it “the biggest battleground state in the country”.
The closures could exacerbate Texas’s already chronically low voter turnout rates, to the advantage of incumbent Republicans. Ongoing research by University of Houston political scientists Jeronimo Cortina and Brandon Rottinghaus indicates that people are less likely to vote if they have to travel farther to do so, and the effect is disproportionately greater for some groups of voters, such as Latinxs.
“The fact of the matter is that Texas is not a red state,” said Antonio Arellano of Jolt, a progressive Latino political organization. “Texas is a nonvoting state.”
On a local level, the changes can be stark. McLennan county, home to Waco, Texas, closed 44% of its polling places from 2012 to 2018, despite the fact that its population grew by more than 15,000 people during the same time period, with more than two-thirds of that growth coming from Black and Latinx residents.
In 2012, there was one polling place for every 4,000 residents. By 2018 that figure had dropped to one polling place per 7,700 residents. A 2019 paper by University of Houston political scientists found that after the county’s transition to vote centers, more voting locations were closed in Latinx neighborhoods than in non-Latinx neighborhoods, and that Latinx people had to travel farther to vote than non-Hispanic whites.
Some counties closed enough polling locations to violate Texas state law. Brazoria county, south of Houston, closed almost 60% of its polling locations between 2012 and 2018, causing it to fall below the statutory minimum, along with another county. In a statement, Brazoria county clerk Joyce Hudman said the closures were inadvertent, and that this would not happen again in 2020.
A Guardian analysis based on that report confirms what many activists have suspected: the places where the black and Latinx population is growing by the largest numbers have experienced the vast majority of the state’s poll site closures.
The analysis finds that the 50 counties that gained the most Black and Latinx residents between 2012 and 2018 closed 542 polling sites, compared to just 34 closures in the 50 counties that have gained the fewest black and Latinx residents. This is despite the fact that the population in the former group of counties has risen by 2.5 million people, whereas in the latter category the total population has fallen by over 13,000.
‘Turned out to be a nightmare’
Until 2013, hundreds of counties and nine states, including Texas, with a history of severe voter suppression had to submit any changes they wanted to make to their election systems to the Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act. The department sought to ensure that the changes did not hurt minority voters. But seven years ago, a supreme court ruling gutted this law and allowed these jurisdictions to operate without oversight, and now the previously mandatory racial-impact analysis is no longer performed.
The rush of poll closures in Texas cannot be attributed to any one policy. Just over half of the closures are part of a push toward centralized, countywide polling places, called “vote centers”, which exist in almost a third of US states. Under countywide voting schemes, voters are no longer assigned to a polling place in their local precinct and can instead cast their ballot at any polling location in the county.
Voting rights advocates and both Republican and Democratic leaders have largely been in favor of vote centers because they can make it more convenient to vote – by allowing people to vote near work, for instance – and because they can reduce the number of people whose votes are thrown out because they went to the wrong polling place.
But Texas state law allows a county that transitions to vote centers to operate with half as many locations as they would otherwise have needed under a traditional precinct-based system.
When deciding whether to close a polling station, elected officials typically consider how many people used it, as well as factors like public transportation accessibility. Some elections administrators who agree on the importance of protecting minority voters warn against assuming that closures are automatically a bad thing.
“I’d be curious to know how many of the consolidation efforts were good faith efforts [to] … increase the number of options for a voter but also improve the kind of polling place that a particular voter may have voted in,” said Chris Davis, the Williamson County elections administrator and former president of the Texas Association of Election Administrators. He pointed out that some precinct polling places were ADA-inaccessible.
McLennan county GOP chair Jon Ker called concerns about closures impacting turnout “hogwash,” saying that turnout was actually higher in his county after the number of voting locations dropped from 59 to 33. The 2018 midterm elections did indeed have higher turnout than the 2014 midterms in McLennan county, though voting also surged more broadly across the state and nation.
Mary Duty, chair of the McLennan County Democratic party, has soured on the centralization program since the county entered it in 2014. “It turned out to be kind of a nightmare,” she said, pointing to large areas of the county without a voting location. And activists argue that low turnout at a particular polling place is not a reason to close it – it is a sign that the turnout itself, which is typically lower in Latinx neighborhoods, must be addressed. Closing a polling station for reasons of low turnout can have a discriminatory impact, activists say.
The 334 poll closures between 2012 and 2018 that took place outside the vote center program would by themselves still rank Texas among the biggest poll closers in the country, ahead of Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Elections officials have cited tight budgets and difficulty recruiting poll workers as among the reasons for the reductions.
The upshot is that for many Texas voters, the ballot box is ever further away.