I am a deputy voter registrar for Harris Co. (Houston area) Texas. The article I recently read, titled Texas Voter Registration Laws are Straight Out of the Jim Crow Playbook is 100% accurate, at least as far as Texas is concerned. Oregon, on the other hand, offers far more fair and democratic opportunities for the majority of its voters. Oregon encourages voting whereas Texas does everything in its power to discourage the process.
In a red state like Texas there is a reason why the Party in power, the GOP, makes it difficult to register to vote and actually vote. As well as why national organizations that register voters are run out of Texas on a rail. For the Texas GOP, also known as the Tea Party Taliban, is fearful of the democratic process for everyone. I guess because the TX GOP Tea Party Taliban knows, deep down inside, that it totally sucks as a whored out Party for bigots and rich guys who play the bigots for fools.
It’s only a thought experiment at this point, but automatic registration would make a bigger difference in Texas than in virtually any other state. “If you got millions of unregistered Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans registered, that alone makes it a competitive state,” Bird points out. “There would be a fundamental shift immediately.”
In order to be able to officially register voters I had to attend a training class that lasted approximately one and a half hours. I’ll never forget when our instructor said “it is the quality of the registration that matters.” This was essentially a veiled threat that if we were to register someone in error (a voter doesn’t live in Harris Co.) or for some other reason, we could be charged with a crime. And if we completed a certain amount of inaccurate registrations (incomplete addresses, etc.) we would lose our status as voter deputy registrars (VDRs).
The County Clerk’s office (now run by Mike Sullivan, a Republican who lobbied against on-line voter registration) sufficiently inflicted a fair amount of fear among my classmates and me. During my first registration event I made sure that I attended one in which there were experienced VDRs. I watched my fellow activists for half an hour before I registered voters on my own.
Gradually, the fear turned into determination; “by God I am going to register as many voters as I can so we can throw out the stinking trash that controls and corrupts the state.”
My husband and I are moving out of Texas in May but we will do everything we can to help turn this sucker purple, at least, until the day we leave. We raised our one child here, who attended Houston’s K-12 public schools and graduated from Rice University. My husband and I have worked and lived in Houston for over 30 years. We served on various PTA boards and have participated in our local civic club efforts. We bought into our new state/city, one year after we married in Seattle, WA. We are sustaining members of the Harris County Democratic Party. We love and are proud of the rich diversity of Houston.
We elect the worst in Texas because so few of us vote. The majority of us that do are tea party/Republican primary voters. Cynical and self-serving Republicans that hold the power intend to keep this process alive, well and thriving. The goal? Keep as many moderate and Democratic voters away from the polls as possible.
Texas treats voter registration like a criminal offense and makes it as difficult as possible to do.
Before he could register anyone, however, Tunde had to navigate Texas’s draconian voter-registration laws, beginning with this course. The state has no online registration, and anyone who registers voters must be deputized by the county at a training session that typically occurs once a month, sometimes less. The volunteer deputy registrars (VDRs), as they’re known, must be deputized on a county-by-county basis, and they can only be deputized in counties adjacent to their own, which makes statewide drives practically impossible in a massive state like Texas, with its 254 counties.
If we want to register voters in other counties we have to deputized in those counties as well. As one who lives in Harris County I can be deputized to register voters only in Montgomery Co. (North), Ft. Bend Co. (SW) and Brazoria Co. (SE). If I am on vacation in Corpus Christi, or Galveston, I cannot not register voters in either place.
“It’s a big barrier,” Tunde says. “We already have low turnout. By having all these new restrictions in place, it further draws down the number of people who vote.” In 2014, Texas ranked 45th in voter registration and dead last in voter turnout. Tunde was the 908th person deputized in Bexar County as of mid-September, which means there are roughly 1,000 people who can register voters in America’s seventh-biggest city during a critical presidential election.
The restrictions don’t end there. Only US citizens with Texas residency can become VDRs, which prohibits out-of-state workers, legal permanent residents, or undocumented immigrants from helping. All VDRs must deliver voter-registration forms to the county election office in person within five days of receiving them. They can’t photocopy the documents to keep track of new registrants, and must personally input all of the registration data. Failure to comply with any of these provisions can lead to criminal prosecution.
VDRs can be terminated at any time by the county registrar, and their appointments expire at the end of even-numbered years, which means that Tunde will have to do this training all over again if he wants to register voters in 2017 or 2018. “You have to have a PhD in voter-obstacle-ology to navigate the system,” says Lydia Bean, executive director of Faith in Texas, which registers voters in the Dallas–Fort Worth area.
My appointment expires at the end of December, 2016. If I want to continue as VDR until we move in May, I will have to attend another training class.
The Texas Republican Party obviously wants to keep voting down to a minimum. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently struck down the Texas Voter Photo ID Law (for violating the Voting Rights Act) but it was in place for the 2014 election. This harsh law disenfranchised over 600,000 registered Texans. Voters without one of seven forms of photo ID could not vote. The state refused to accept student photo IDs but it did accept concealed weapons IDs. Most of the disenfranchised voters included minorities, people of color, the poor, elderly, homeless and students. The Texas Republican Party fears these groups because many among them tend to vote for Democrats.
VDRs were established in 1985, but the restrictions on voter registration were significantly toughened by the Texas legislature in 2011 to require county trainings, ban non-Texans, and prohibit VDRs from being compensated based on the number of people they register. As a result, “Texas is the most restrictive state in the union when it comes to voter registration,” according to the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Though the Voter Photo ID Law has been struck down, the restrictions on registering voters still stand. The Texas GOP is obviously terrified of big voter turnouts.
After the 2012 election, Bird founded Battleground Texas to help long-suffering Democratic candidates in this deep-red state. The group deputized 9,000 people and registered nearly 100,000 voters during the 2014 cycle. But they were threatened with prosecution by the state after right-wing activist James O’Keefe filmed an undercover video showing an organizer copying phone numbers from voter-registration forms so that Battleground Texas could follow up with the voters, which opponents of the group claimed violated the Texas election code. A judge dismissed the charges, but the threat of criminal prosecution had a chilling effect on registration efforts. In 2016, Battleground Texas has a fraction of its staff from 2014 and plans to register just a fourth of the voters it did that year.
When now Governor Greg Abbott served as the state’s Attorney General he sent armed guards to raid a progressive group, Houston Votes’ office because the group registered 25,000 minority voters in 2010. I registered voters for this organization. Our drive took place in a mostly minority neighborhood at a shopping center. There were a few white Tea Party people there who stopped by to chat with us while we sat at a table outside of Big Lots. Some grilled us: why are you doing this? (My fellow VDR and I are white middle-aged women). Why? Because it is the right thing to do. Others accused us of working for Acorn. We ignored them and continued to register voters. Little did we know what would follow ahead.