One week before the elections, more than 80% of the total votes in 2016 have already voted, despite evident efforts to make it difficult to vote in person amid the pandemic
Texas had already begun mass voting early when the governor, Republican Greg Abbott, desperately ordered on Oct. 1 that counties could only have one mailbox for citizens to cast in person the ballot requested by mail. . The action, launched to “maintain the integrity” of the elections, left Harris County (the greater Houston area, with 4.6 million inhabitants), with only one mailbox to vote of the 12 it had prepared. Although Texas has been a conservative stronghold for decades, both Harris County – with a population of more than 25 states – and the city of Houston are Democrats. They went to court accusing the governor of suppressing the vote in a territory where half the population belongs to a minority, especially Latinos. Despite the obstacles, one week before the elections, almost 7.3 million have already voted, 82% of the total votes in 2016.
Voting difficulties are not new, nor is it unique to Texas. For example, seven states make it mandatory to present a government-issued photo ID, something that seems very obvious but actually leaves out 21 million Americans who do not have it due to its cost. There are other less obvious measures, such as establishing registration deadlines many weeks before the elections, when they are not yet an issue and people can miss the deadline. In these elections, where President Donald Trump has repeated over and over again without evidence that voting by mail favors fraud, states like Wisconsin pulled that thread to limit early voting. The Carolinas insisted on the need for ballot envelopes to be signed by a witness in addition to the voter. In the middle of a pandemic where they recommend lockdown, it can be a difficult requirement to achieve.
It’s Monday, October 19, and a line of cars surrounds the outskirts of Houston’s NRG Stadium. They are not looking forward to entering the venue to watch a rodeo or cheer on the Houston Texans at a football game. This time they have come to deposit their ballot for the November 3 elections. “They can take hours to get there when there is traffic,” explains Isabel Longoria of the Harris County Clerk’s office. To prevent voters from getting out of the car, they pitched huge tents in the parking lots. The voter arrives with his ballot in a sealed envelope, an office employee checks that the name matches his identification card and deposits it in the mailbox. Five volunteers observe that this process is carried out rigorously.
Jill McGregor is one of the observers, the only Democrat. At first he justifies his role because “sometimes you need extra eyes.” But after a few minutes, and removed from the group, she opens up. They called her from the Election Protection organization because they had been alerted that Republican observers were intimidating voters by getting too close to cars, looking through windows. “The truth is, you don’t need that many extra eyes for a simple procedure like this, but the Republicans have four people here checking in,” says McGregor, a former NASA employee. Republican observers declined to comment.
At NRG Stadium in Houston, in addition to receiving ballots in the mailbox, citizens can vote in person or from their car on a machine. This system, first introduced in Texas, is known as “self-service.” In the first two weeks, more than 70,000 Harris County voters used it. Republicans tried to eliminate him through a court battle they lost last week in the State Supreme Court. Jessica Bordy, 65, came over to vote in person for Biden. “The mailbox thing is obviously a move to suppress the vote,” he says. On the mood with which she faces the election, she responds with an idea that is repeated among opponents of Trump: “I am desperately excited.” A 44-year-old Republican voter, who does not want to give his name, confesses that he is “tired” of these elections, and wants them to end now.
The mailbox limitation is just the latest effective move to make participation difficult in Texas. In the second most populous state in the United States (29 million inhabitants), citizens cannot do the entire process to register as voters online. Already having one of the most restrictive voting laws in the country, the coronavirus pandemic failed to make them more flexible. Most territories removed the requirement to provide a reason to vote by mail. But Texas only approved an exception for those over 65 to avoid voting in person for fear of getting infected. The other alternative remains to vote by mail and send it through the postal service, the system battered by Trump. But all these efforts have not slowed down an electorate willing to make history. By Monday night, 1.15 million people in the nation’s third-largest county had already voted, nipping at the heels of the 1.3 million who participated in the 2016 election.
Trump leads Biden by 2.6 points in average polls in Texas, where citizens will also have to vote for state office. From 2010 to 2016, representatives of Trump’s party won in some districts with advantages of up to 38 points. Sri Kulkarni, the Democratic candidate for the 22nd district, the richest in the state, is seeking revenge after losing by five points in 2018. “It is undeniable that the Republicans have made concerted efforts to suppress the vote here,” says Kulkarni. “Texas has never been a red or blue state, we have always been a state without the right to vote,” he says. In the last elections, 46% of voters voted, 10 points less than the national average. Despite the drawbacks he puts on the governor for making the vote difficult, Kulkarni highlights with enthusiasm the high turnout. “Texas is showing what we have always known: it is a key territory.”
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