SAN ANTONIO – Millions of Americans will head to the polls in the coming weeks to exercise their right to vote, but the ease and accessibility of that process varies significantly from state to state.
Many people vote in one state their entire life and may not realize the differences between their election system and another.
Texas remains one of the few states to balk at these and other tools that are proven to increase voter access and turnout.
Voting rights advocates say Texas' voting laws are antiquated and intended to make it difficult for many eligible voters — often racial minority groups and young voters — to participate in the democratic process and therefore maintain the status quo.
Historians like Dr. Carey Latimore, a professor at Trinity University, say unequal access to the voting booth for Americans of color is nothing new in Texas and the South. Latimore says policies that limit access to the polls are remnants of Jim Crow-era laws that circumvented federal rights, including those provided by the Constitution, to limit the voting strength of non-white communities in Texas and other Southern states.
Decades of voter suppression in Texas have made the Lone Star State notorious for being one of the most stringent states for voting rights and access. A report published in 2018 in the Election Law Journal ranked Texas as the 5th most difficult state to cast a ballot. Scientists from Northern Illinois University used data from 1996 to 2016 to determine their rankings.
Here are nine reasons why it’s more difficult to vote in Texas than in other states.
Online voter registration
Texas is one of only nine states to not offer online voter registration.
In the majority of states, a resident’s application can be submitted online and is then reviewed electronically.
Most states' online registration systems work for people who have state-issued driver’s licenses or identification cards.
If confirmed to be valid, the new registration is added to the state’s voter list.
In Texas, residents have to fill out a voter registration application online, print it out and mail it to the voter registrar in their county of residence.
Same-day voter registration
This allows any qualified resident of a state to register to vote and cast a ballot all in the same day.
North Carolina allows same-day registration during early voting, but not on Election Day.
In Texas, residents must fill out an application that has to be mailed weeks before the election date.
This year’s deadline to register to vote in Texas for the Nov. 3 presidential election is Oct. 5.
Evidence shows same-day registration increases voter turnout. Multiple studies show there is anywhere from a 5 to 7% increase in turnout with no conclusive evidence that same-day registration benefits any political party.
No automatic voter registration
A total of 19 states and the District of Columbia have shifted to a more streamlined registration process known as automatic voter registration or AVR. Texas is not one of them.
Oregon became the first state to implement AVR in January 2016. When an eligible voter interacts or does business at a DMV or other government agency, they are generally automatically registered to vote.
The voter receives a notification and they can opt-out if they choose to do so.
A 2019 report by the Brennan Center showed significant gains in voter rolls everywhere AVR had been implemented.
The report showed an increase in the number of registrants ranging from 9 to 94 percent in big and small states. These increases were also in states with different partisan makeups.
Polling sites closed
Despite massive population growth, Texas led the nation in the number of polling sites that were closed from 2012 to 2018.
According to the Leadership Conference Education Fund, Texas closed 750 polling sites, more than double the next closest state, Arizona, which closed 320 over the same time period.
“Many of those are in poor and minority neighborhoods. And if that happens, then they’re going to go to a place that they’re going to be longer election lines and maybe they will not go through the process,” said Latimore.
Voting rights advocates say a majority of these sites were closed after a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down part of the Voting Rights Act that required federal pre-clearance for any changes to state election code.
Pre-clearance forced Texas and other states with a history of racial discrimination and voter suppression practices to get U.S. Department of Justice approval for all changes related to voting and was a pillar of the Civil Rights Act.
Like many other states, Texas has also shifted to creating more centralized voting centers.
They are generally more convenient and have been supported by both parties, but it has not necessarily been beneficial to all groups especially those in underserved and rural communities.
Political scientists at the University of Houston published a report last year that showed the transition to voting centers in their county led to the closure of more voting sites in Latin neighborhoods compared to non-Latin neighborhoods.
Deputy registrar difficulty
The process of simply having enough people to register voters in Texas is difficult.
Volunteers who are deputized in Texas can not go county-to-county to register voters.
They must be deputized in each individual county and in Texas, many congressional districts span multiple counties meaning several registrars would be needed to cover a single district.
“Texas makes it very hard to become a volunteer deputy registrar. You do go through a large process and you have to go through a process in every county,” said Latimore. “We don’t have enough deputy registrars who can really register people to vote. That’s a barrier.”
The state also has no online registration for volunteer deputy registrars. They must be deputized at a county training session and their term expires at the end of every even-numbered year.
Texas has traditionally ranked near the bottom of states in voter registration, ranking 45th in 2014. Many states automatically register any resident who obtains a driver’s license or a state ID.
Mail-in voting or casting absentee ballots has made headlines throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
A majority of states have expanded mail-in voting in an effort to adjust to the circumstances surrounding the pandemic. Texas is not one of them.
As of late August, Texas was one of only six states that required voters to give a reason beyond the coronavirus to cast a ballot by mail.
But it goes further. Texas mail-in ballots are only available to people who are outside their home county on election day, those 65 years or older or who claim to have a disability.
A person confined in jail, but otherwise eligible, can also apply for a ballot by mail.
Before the pandemic, 34 states already allowed anyone to vote by mail and five states had universal vote by mail.
Texas state leaders cite the potential for widespread voter fraud as the primary concern to not expand the mail-in voting, but studies show there is little evidence to support those claims. Studies have also shown mail-in voting does not help a specific party during an election.
Voter ID law
Texas’ voter ID law went into effect in 2013. A year later, when the state’s voter turnout plummeted to 28.9 percent during the 2014 midterm elections, critics blamed the controversial law.
Since then, the voter ID law has been through years of legal wrangling and caused confusion over who can vote at the polls, especially for voters in Latino and poor communities who generally have a more difficult time obtaining a legal form of identification.
“The use of fear and the discussions about illegality may lead people who may not be exactly sure whether they should or are allowed to vote or not. Questions about ‘am I actually registered’ may keep a person away from the polls,” said Latimore. “When you hear all of this discussion about voter fraud and if you’re in a community that’s compromised as many minority communities are, you may be afraid of going to that polling place.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 17 states currently do not require a document to vote. Another 15 states allow residents to cast their ballots without photo identification.
To vote in Texas, residents must provide one of seven forms of an acceptable photo ID.
Voters who do not possess an acceptable form of photo ID and cannot obtain one may present a supporting form of ID such as a utility bill and sign what’s known as a reasonable impediment declaration.
Early voting access and removal of temporary voting sites
Texas is one of 39 states that allows in-person early voting, but the state on average has a shorter window for residents to vote.
Early voting periods among states range in length from four to 45 days with the average length being 19 days.
Texas’s early voting period headed into the November election was scheduled from Oct. 19-30, but Gov. Greg Abbott added six more days due to the pandemic.
Last September, Abbott signed a new law that effectively banned the use of mobile polling places during early voting.
The law requires that all early voting locations must remain open for the full early voting period.
That wiped out temporary early voting sites at senior living facilities, colleges and community centers in rural areas.
Felony voting rights vary from state-to-state. Felons never lose the right to vote in Maine or Vermont.
In Texas and several other states, felons lose their voting rights during incarceration and for a period of time after, typically while they are on parole and/or probation.
Voting rights are automatically restored to convicted felons in Texas after this time period.
“We’re not as bad as some Southern states, but it does restrict some people for the long period of voting,” said Latimore. “People who have access to the best lawyers and other things, they sometimes escape prison a lot easier and felonies than other people.”