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Is Texas Going To Invalidate an Entire Election in Democratic-Leaning Houston?
The only way Republicans can hold onto power is with their phony proclamations of “voter fraud” as the excuse to restrict the franchise to white people through restrictions, purges, and intimidation
Two years ago, Texas Republicans set out to rig the 2022 election, passing into law Senate Bill 1 over the objection of Democratic legislators who left the state to try to block its passage. That law, among other things:
— Bans Harris County (Houston) from keeping polls open overnight for shift workers, while expanding early voting in rural white counties.
— Lets the state throw out any absentee ballots that don’t come in with the voter’s driver’s license number attached.
— Makes it a felony for any state employee to mail out an unsolicited absentee ballot.
— Requires election officials to do monthly purges of voting rolls without notifying voters they’ll no longer be able to vote.
— Provides new legal protections for so-called “partisan poll watchers” when voters believe they’re being intimidated by same, making it a 1-year-in-prison offense to stop possibly Proud Boy “poll watchers.”
— Maintains the state’s lack of convenient online voter registration, making it the most difficult state in the union to vote in..
This follows a decade of similar attempts to suppress the vote of anybody who isn’t white and middle aged/middle class.
As the Texas Civil Rights Project noted, in just the first 4 years after corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 2013, Texas Republicans closed 1,173 polling places in counties — predominantly Black and Hispanic — that had previously been protected from manipulation by the VRA.
But none of that was enough for Texas Republicans to feel comfortable they could continue to win elections. After all, the state’s largest county — Harris County, the home of Houston and 4.7 million residents — is now reliably Democratic. In 2020, Joe Biden won the county by 13 points.
As The Houston Chronicle noted two days ago:
“Harris County was a Republican stronghold as recently as 2014. Since then, though, Democrats have won the majority of county commission seats, the county judge's office, and swept nearly every judicial seat. Statewide candidates like [Governor Greg] Abbott, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who all have deep ties to Harris County, won the county in 2014. But all three have lost the county in recent years, narrowing the margins in their statewide re-elections.”
So, this week the Texas Senate approved a new law that will let the Secretary of State invalidate an entire election in Harris County — and, out of Texas’ 254 counties, only in Harris County — if the Republican Secretary of State declares he has “good cause” to suspect something went wrong, like running out of paper for voting machines for more than one hour in even one of the polling locations in that county.
Once the election is declared void and the results are subtracted from statewide totals, the County will have to put on an entirely new election at its own expense, requiring voters to take another day off work and try to show up.
Such special elections, Republicans know, always lean heavily toward the GOP with its larger pool of salaried workers and retirees who can show up for every election without difficulty or financial penalty.
The Attorney for Harris County, Christian Menefee, was blunt in his assessment of the legislative efforts:
“They are not about making elections better,” Menefee said. “They are about targeting the largest county in the state, which is led by people of color.”
As my radio colleague Joe Madison would say, “Meet James Crow Esq.”
This is a continuation of the GOP strategy that first took shape in the election of 1980, when Heritage Foundation co-founder and Reagan strategist Paul Weyrich famously told a group of Republicans in a large Dallas church:
“Now many of our Christians have what I call the ‘goo goo’ syndrome. Good Government. They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Four years ago, I wrote The Hidden History of the War on Voting, noting at that time that Republican secretaries of state across the nation were vigorously purging voters from the rolls (over 17 million, more than 10 percent of America’s active voters, in just the 2016–2018 period, according to NBC News[i]).
After five Republican appointees on the US Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, 14 GOP-controlled states moved, within a year (some within days), to restrict access to the vote, particularly for communities of color, students, and retired people.
In North Carolina, for example, 158 polling places were permanently closed in the 40 counties with the most African American voters just before the 2016 election, leading to a 16 percent decline in African American early voting in that state. An MIT study found that, nationwide, Hispanic voters wait 150 percent longer in line than white voters, and Black voters can expect to wait 200 percent longer in line to vote.
In Indiana, then-Governor Mike Pence’s new rigorous voter ID law caused an 11.5 percent drop in African American voting. Students are suing for their right to vote, and retired people who no longer drive but care passionately about their Social Security and Medicare are being turned away at the polls by the hundreds of thousands because their driver’s licenses have expired.
Voter suppression became the foundational and primary go-to tactic for the GOP in the 2000 election, although they’d been practicing it since the 1960s.
Newspapers in 2000 talked about how the GOP attacked Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore with smear and innuendo (ridiculing him for helping write the legislation that created the modern internet, for example), but the main thing that got George W. Bush into the White House was voter suppression.
His brother, Florida governor Jeb Bush, and Bush’s secretary of state, Katherine Harris, threw somewhere between 20,000 and 90,000 African American voters off the rolls. They were able to get the vote close enough that five Republican appointees to the Supreme Court functionally awarded Bush the presidency. (The BBC covered this in 2001 in two major investigative reports by Greg Palast that were seen all over the world — except not on any American media.)[ii]
By 2016, the Republican Party had fine-tuned its voter suppression and intimidation systems to the point that they ran like well-oiled machines in nearly 30 states. Between the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, for example, Ohio had purged more than two million voters from its rolls, the vast majority (more than two to one) in heavily African American and Hispanic counties.
The five Republican appointees on the Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that they could keep the purges up, and other states have since adopted their new tactic of caging voters (challenging their registration status by mailing them postcards and then striking them from the voter rolls if the postcards aren’t returned).
The New York Times reported in 2017 that just in Wisconsin about 17,000 registered voters may have been turned away at the polls in November 2016 because, even though registered as voters, they didn’t have the particular types of ID necessitated by Scott Walker’s new voter ID law (and Ari Berman reported in the Nation in 2016 that as many as 300,000 Wisconsinites lacked the ability to even register to vote because of the law).[iii] [iv]
In 2018, investigative reporter Greg Palast sued[v] a number of Republican secretaries of state and got his hands on purge lists that included more than 90,000 people in largely Democratic parts of Nevada, 769,436 voters purged in Colorado, 340,134 in Georgia, a large but then-as-yet-uncounted list from Nebraska, and 469,000 purged in Indiana.
Without these major voter purges, and without the disenfranchisement of young people, old people, and poor people by voter ID laws, it’s a virtual certainty that America would have had President Al Gore and President Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic Party would have a six-to-three or larger majority on the US Supreme Court.
In 2018, in Husted v. Randolph,[vi] Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion allowing John Husted, Ohio’s secretary of state, to continue with an aggressive purge of voters from that state’s rolls heading toward the 2018 election.
In his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out that around 4 percent of Americans move out of their county every year. Yet “[t]he record shows that in 2012 Ohio identified about 1.5 million registered voters—nearly 20% of its 8 million registered voters—as ineligible to remain on the federal voter roll because they changed their residences.”
The Brennan Center found that just between 2014 and 2016, in the two years leading up to the Hillary/Trump presidential election, over 14 million people were purged from voter rolls, largely in Republican-controlled states. Brian Kemp purged over a million in Georgia alone.
Calling the findings “disturbing,” the Brennan Center noted, “Almost 4 million more names were purged from the rolls between 2014 and 2016 than between 2006 and 2008. This growth in the number of removed voters represented an increase of 33 percent—far outstripping growth in both total registered voters (18 percent) and total population (6 percent).”[vii]
When races often are won by small percentages, such kinds of changes in the pool of voters will swing elections. Just ask Beto O’Rourke.
In the minority voting precincts that had been overseen by the DOJ back when the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision stopped the feds from looking over the shoulders of state officials in those places with a long history of race-based voter suppression, Republicans totally closed 868 polling places between the 2013 Shelby County decision and the 2016 election.[viii] The result is that between the 2012 and 2016 elections, Black voting participation nationwide fell nearly 7 percent.[ix]
In 1982, a federal court signed a consent decree prohibiting the Republican National Committee from “poll watcher” voter-intimidation schemes (including William Rehnquist’s old 1960s tactic of loudly challenging voters of color on the spot), and the GOP practice of armed “watchers” confronting Black voters as they approached polling places.
Although the consent decree was renewed in 1987 and 1990 — in both cases because Republican abuses continued — it was allowed to expire in 2017 during the Trump presidency. Since then, the GOP has started a program to field an “army” of 50,000 “poll watchers,” including interviewing candidates from among white supremacist militia groups.
Meanwhile, we just learned, the GOP in Texas is quietly recruiting 10,000 white volunteers “courageous” enough to go into Black and Hispanic polling places and confront people trying to vote. As Jessica Corbett reported for Common Dreams:
“Common Cause Texas on Thursday shared a leaked video of a Harris County GOP official discussing plans to ‘build an army’ of 10,000 election workers and poll watchers, including some who ‘will have the confidence and courage’ to go into Black and Brown communities to address alleged voter fraud that analyses show does not actually exist.”
And lording over the entire enterprise is a network of rightwing billionaires that has more employees, more offices, and a larger budget than the GOP itself. The media almost never mentions them and they operate largely invisibly, but they are the dark-matter mass that deforms the orbit of American politics.
The rightwing billionaires don’t much care about race, but gleefully have their think tanks and media outlets like Fox “News” use lies about CRT and other racial issues (“Replacement Theory”) to get people out to vote for Republicans who will then give the billionaires more tax cuts and deregulation.
And they’re serious about holding onto power, no matter what.
Last month, Republican attorney Cleta Mitchell told a group of GOP high-dollar donors about their plans to prevent college students from voting by moving polling places off-campus and changing ID and residency requirements. She told the fundraiser:
“What is this young people effort that they do? They basically put the polling place next to the student dorm so they just have to roll out of bed, vote, and go back to bed.”
Between their war on women, fascistic attacks on trans and queer people, demagoguing so-called Critical Race Theory, book bans, blocking efforts to mitigate climate change, defunding public schools in favor of all-white “Christian” academies, recurrent tax cuts for billionaires, and efforts to destroy union and voting rights, the GOP is widely unpopular across large parts of America.
The only way they believe they can hold onto power in the face of this unpopularity is with their phony proclamations of “voter fraud” as the excuse to restrict the franchise to white people, using the shutdown of polling places, purges, and intimidation.
Will it work in 2024? The answer will depend on how determined we are to push through, past, and around all the roadblocks they throw up so we can regain a large enough majority to put an absolute “right to vote” into law.
Between now and then, we all must work to get as many people registered to vote as possible. And, if they’re in a Red state, to keep them registered in the face of the now-monthly voter roll purges.
We can do this. The alternative — the loss of democracy and rise of fascism in this country — is simply unthinkable.
[vii] Jonathan Brater, Kevin Morris, Myrna Pérez, Christopher Deluzio, “Purges: A Growing Threat to the Right to Vote, Brennan Center for Justice, July 20, 2018, https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/purges-growing-threat-right-vote.
[viii] German Lopez, “Southern States Have Closed Down at Least 868 Polling Places for the 2016 Election,” Vox, November 4, 2016, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/4/13501120/vote-polling-places-elections-2016.
[ix] Reid Wilson, “Voter Turnout Dipped in 2016, Led by Decline among Blacks,” Hill, May 11, 2017, https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/332970-voter-turnout-dipped-in-2016-led-by-decline-among-blacks.