If the health of a democracy can be measured by how many citizens participate in the political process, Texas has lupus. Voter turnout rates here range from very bad to abysmal. In 2014 just 28 percent of eligible Texas voters cast a ballot, a record low, placing the state forty-eighth in the national ranking. (Thank you, Indiana. Thank you, New York.) Turnout has grown since then, at a rate that has shocked many observers. Yet even the unusually busy 2018 midterms resulted in us soaring . . . to forty-second in the nation.
If that wounds your Texas pride, know that thriving elections have never been of particular concern to state leaders. Rather, dismal participation rates are a feature, not a bug. The system is working just as those in power want it to work. In some nations, elections are sacred, and governments go to great lengths to encourage, and even mandate, voting. In Australia, run by a center-right government, turnout in federal elections is north of 90 percent.
Through their actions, state leaders have long showed that they believe too many Texans are voting rather than too few and that voting is too convenient and safe rather than too burdensome and risky. This long-running attempt to correct for the problem of too much democracy has taken many forms—so many that it can be difficult to keep up with them all. But the activity has intensified in the last few years. Texas Republicans have attempted to purge voter rolls, forced polling places to close, fought to keep voter registration difficult, and punished minor violations of election law with draconian prison sentences.
But most astonishingly, state leaders have worked tirelessly this year to ensure that most voters will have to cast ballots in person, during a once-in-a-century pandemic that has already killed more than 16,000 Texans. Early in the COVID-19 crisis, some local election administrators sought to make mail ballots widely available, in line with the recommendations of all credible public health experts. With months to go, state government could have worked with local officials to figure out how to address the relatively minor issues around ballot security. Instead, Attorney General Ken Paxton and the Republican Party of Texas have fought every step of the way to stop the expansion of mail-in voting beyond the elderly, disabled, and those in jail—knowing that the fall may see another big spike in infections. In good times, Texas government officials seek to make voting difficult. In this very bad year, they’re making it a death-defying act.
All these actions are couched by the GOP as an attempt to keep elections fair and eliminate “voter fraud.” Republicans, of course, have run Texas for almost two decades. If there’s widespread fraud in Texas elections, one would think they’d have found it by now—and fixed it. But they profess to have made no headway in eliminating the threat. As with the chupacabra, voter fraud is greatly feared but rarely seen.
The 2020 election looks to be one of the most severe stress tests American democracy has ever faced—and it’s the most up-in-the-air election Texas has seen in decades, with control of the Legislature and a raft of competitive congressional districts in play and the Democratic presidential nominee polling here within the margin of error. It’s vital that the machinery of democracy isn’t gummed up, that the results can be trusted, and that the popular will is followed. Instead, Texas, like much of the nation, has been buried by an election-year avalanche of legal wrangling, double-talk, and subterfuge that threaten to cloud the results and undermine trust in the process. How the hell did we get here?
The Declaration of Independence avers that a government is legitimate only if it enjoys the “consent of the governed.” But for much of U.S. history, it hasn’t worked that way. Instead, the people have had to seek consent from the political party in power to participate. When consent is denied, we call that voter suppression. Such disenfranchisement can take many forms. It can be overt—a poll tax or a literacy test—or it can be more subtle, such as the way local officials in rural Waller County have curbed voting hours and limited the number of polling places to blunt the influence of students at the historically Black Prairie View A&M University.
We identify voter suppression by its effect, not its exact form: it prevents those at the bottom of this country’s complex social hierarchy—people of color, the working class, the young—from exercising the most important right conferred on them by U.S. citizenship. Voter suppression and other methods of swaying election results, from outright fraud to gerrymandering, aren’t an occasional feature of Texas politics. They form a continuous thread. The state has never been free of them.
You probably know how the story starts. In the years after the Civil War, the Fifteenth Amendment and the Union Army briefly enfranchised Black men. For a time, Abraham Lincoln’s Republican party had the upper hand in Texas, electing African Americans to office in the years after the end of the Civil War. In response, Texas Democrats built a legal regime to disenfranchise freedmen. The blunt instruments of disenfranchisement included poll taxes and the “white primary” laws, which barred African Americans and Hispanics from participating in the all-important Democratic nominating contest.
But by 1965, the party system had undergone a dramatic shift. It was a Texas Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, who presided over the defeat of Jim Crow in the voting booth, or so it was hoped, with the signing of the Voting Rights Act. The bill established something approaching universal suffrage in the United States for the first time in its history, and it gave the federal government the teeth to enforce it. But it wasn’t the clean break with the past that its advocates hoped for. The disease had already mutated, and a new kind of voter suppression had taken shape to replace the one Congress had made illegal.
In 1964 the Republican National Committee organized a nationwide expansion of a poll-watching campaign called Operation Eagle Eye, building on “ballot security” initiatives by the same name run by local Republican parties in the years before. Republicans were convinced, not unreasonably, that the 1960 presidential election had been stolen from Richard Nixon, thanks to Richard Daley’s Chicago political machine and Lyndon Johnson’s under-the-table influence in his home state. This was, after all, the state where a South Texas political boss known as the Duke of Duval helped steal the 1948 Senate election for Johnson.
From this legitimate fear came Eagle Eye—or “Evil Eye,” as Democratic vice president Hubert Humphrey called it. Republicans claimed to put 100,000 poll watchers in precincts across the nation in 1964, focused on large cities with high concentrations of minority and working-class voters. The Indianapolis Star reported that a “pert Republican housewife” was on hand to sternly supervise LBJ’s own vote in Johnson City. The New York Times reported that the director of the operation, Charles Barr, expected to “successfully challenge or to discourage from voting 1,250,000 persons” and quoted Barr as denying that there was “anything discriminatory in ‘Eagle Eye’ against any race, creed or economic status.”
During his U.S. Supreme Court confirmation process, future chief justice William Rehnquist was accused of intimidating voters in Arizona’s Maricopa County as part of Eagle Eye during the 1962 election, where, a federal judge later wrote, “every black or Mexican person” was challenged to read the Constitution in English and then to interpret it. Rehnquist himself reportedly administered the test.
The Republican party organized an estimated 10,000 poll watchers in Texas in 1964, or one in ten of the national number—a remarkable figure, given that the GOP was still virtually irrelevant in Texas. That year, flyers authored by the nonexistent “Harris County Negro Protective Association” warned Black voters they could be arrested for voting if they had been even so much as questioned by the police for any offense, including traffic violations. The chairman of the Harris County GOP charged that the party had found more than a thousand “fictitious” voter registrations. In Travis County, Republicans said they had found a hundred phantom voters, circulating pictures of a cemetery and a vacant lot where they were apparently registered. When the Austin American looked into the allegations, the newspaper found simple clerical errors—in each case, the address was off by a single digit. The pattern set that year would repeat time and again in Texas.
Whenever the Democratic party’s fortunes are on the upswing, fear of voter fraud tends to get whipped up. That was the case in 1964 and again in 2008. The latter year, Texas Democrats nearly took control of the state House and Barack Obama won Harris County by a thin margin, a watershed event for Democrats trying to claw their way back to relevancy.
One of the most worried observers was Catherine Engelbrecht, a white Houston woman who co-owns an oilfield machinery company and founded the King Street Patriots, a tea party group. After Obama’s win, she told the New York Times later, “something clicked,” and she saw a future for the United States that “threaten[ed] the future of our children.” So in the city’s 2009 municipal elections, she and a few dozen like-minded activists volunteered as poll workers, particularly in nonwhite parts of town. Engelbrecht says she witnessed widespread fraud. But many of the activities she claims to have seen were in fact legally required—such as poll workers helping voters fill out their ballots upon request.
Nonetheless, Engelbrecht’s account made her an overnight celebrity. With more volunteers and more backing, the King Street Patriots scoured voter rolls in predominantly Black parts of Houston and came up with a list of what they called fraudulent registration forms. That caught the attention of Harris County tax assessor–collector and voter registrar Leo Vasquez, a Republican. On August 24, 2010, Vasquez held a shocking press conference in a room filled with cheering members of Engelbrecht’s new group, True the Vote. Vasquez announced that the faulty registration forms came from Houston Votes 2010, a nonprofit that was attempting to register 100,000 new voters in Harris County before the November election.
“The integrity of the voter roll of Harris County, Texas, appears to be under an organized and systemic attack” by Houston Votes, Vasquez said. Some five thousand voter registration forms turned in by the group were fraudulent, he claimed. Noncitizens and minors were attempting to register to vote, he said. Crimes may have been committed.
But the explosive claims added up to very little. Houston Votes, as it turned out, was the only real victim. Some of the group’s paid canvassers had been turning in junk work—registration forms that were incomplete or duplicates. Ultimately it was Vasquez’s job to screen out ineligible voters. All he had to do was throw away the faulty applications, which were easy to spot. For instance, consider those applications from noncitizens, which featured so prominently in news coverage. There’s a box on the form that asks if the applicant is a citizen. Applicants had checked “no.” The Duke of Duval they were not.
But with the specter of voter fraud hanging over the 2010 election, armed agents from the office of Greg Abbott, then the state attorney general, raided the headquarters of Houston Votes and seized everything they could—computers, financial records, paperwork. They kneecapped the organization. It fell far short of its registration goals and disbanded soon after, unable to raise money. True the Vote, meanwhile, sent an even larger contingent of poll watchers to minority precincts, where they set about pestering citizens.
After it had driven a stake through the heart of Houston Votes, the AG’s office quietly determined that no one had committed any crimes at all. Rather than issue a heartfelt apology, the investigators destroyed all of the group’s seized property—voter lists, computers, financial records. Abbott’s attorneys also neglected to tell the group’s leaders that they had been cleared.
The Houston Votes saga received little attention at the time. As with this year, there were simply too many election shenanigans going on at once for the episode to get much attention. But it was a particularly egregious case even for Texas: if the episode had happened in Ukraine, the U.S. State Department (at least before 2017) would have loudly condemned it. In the years since, True the Vote has prospered, receiving millions of dollars in funding from right-wing donors to expand its operations.
This year, Engelbrecht aims to mobilize 10,000 poll watchers—with a special emphasis on recruiting military veterans. Her poll watchers have often been accused of harassment. As she explained behind closed doors at a recent gathering of the religious right in Orange County, California, she wants intimidating-looking volunteers. “You get some [Navy] SEALs in those polls, and they’re going to say, ‘No, no, this is what it says. This is how we’re going to play this show,’ ” she said.
Engelbrecht and those like her are behaving in a rational way. In a state that has rarely celebrated or protected the act of voting, it makes sense to prevent your enemies from exercising their franchise. They are also following tradition. At a 1980 gathering of Christian conservatives in Dallas, at which future president Ronald Reagan spoke, prominent activist and organizer Paul Weyrich ridiculed Christians who were infected with what he called “goo-goo syndrome,” which is to say they believed in “good government” ideals such as getting more Americans to vote.
“I don’t want everybody to vote,” he said. “Our leverage in the election goes up as the voting populace goes down.” Weyrich wasn’t some crank: he was a cofounder of the Moral Majority, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, among other groups. ALEC later became instrumental in helping state legislatures put up new impediments to voting, including Texas’s 2011 voter ID law, one of the strictest in the nation. The Heritage Foundation maintains a database of what it calls “proven instances of election fraud.” It totals 1,298 cases over two decades—many of which concern improper handling of a single ballot or non-voting-related offenses like petition-gathering—a laughably small number in a country where 130 million ballots are cast in each presidential election.
Many conservative activists feel as Weyrich did. In 2013 Texas tea party leader Ken Emanuelson was asked at a Dallas County GOP event how the Republican party was reaching out to Black voters. “I’m going to be real honest with you,” Emanuelson said. “The Republican party doesn’t want Black people to vote if they are going to vote nine to one for Democrats.” (In 2017 President-elect Donald Trump told a group of civil rights leaders that “many Blacks didn’t go out and vote for Hillary, ’cause they liked me. That was almost as good as getting the vote.”)
On August 10, 2006, a 69-year-old Black woman named Gloria Meeks was toweling off after taking a bath at her home in Fort Worth when she said two men “peeped into my bathroom window not once but twice.” In time, she would learn that the men staking out her house were investigators from Texas attorney general Abbott’s office, part of a team looking into what Abbott billed as an “epidemic” of voter fraud. Meeks’s crime? She had helped a homebound 79-year-old neighbor fill out her mail-in ballot and then walked it to the post box two blocks away. By mailing the ballot for her neighbor without signing on the back of the envelope, Meeks had violated the law. In the course of the investigation, which never led to any charges, Meeks had a stroke, which her friends blamed partly on stress.
That year, as Republican poll numbers were slipping, Abbott’s team, funded by a $1.5 million federal grant disbursed by then-governor Rick Perry, went after dozens of alleged mail-ballot fraudsters, primarily Democrats and people of color. And they were often senior citizens born in the age of the “white primary” and the poll tax.
Was that by design? A PowerPoint presentation that Abbott’s office used to brief officeholders on “electoral fraud” included a picture of Black voters in line under the heading “Poll Place Violations.” Fraud detectives, the PowerPoint said, should look out for “unique stamps” accompanying mail-in ballots. The example given is a 2004 stamp with the words “Test Early for Sickle Cell,” over a picture of a Black woman kissing an infant. (Sickle cell anemia is disproportionately common among people of African ancestry.)
It’s enough to make one wonder if the fear of voter fraud is sincere.
The past few years have seen, once again, the fortunes of the Democratic party rising relative to those of the Republican party in Texas. Part of the reason is increased voter turnout. So, naturally, fears of “voter fraud” and attempts to depress turnout are on the upswing. In 2019 Texas secretary of state David Whitley instructed local officials to investigate some 100,000 Texans who his office suggested had voted illegally. (The purge fell apart when it turned out the list was junk and included many naturalized citizens who had every right to vote.) The state has fought to keep voter registration harder than it needs to be, sometimes in contravention of federal law. In August a federal judge rebuked Texas—yet again—for violating federal “motor voter” laws, which requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to offer voter registration when driver’s licenses are renewed.
And in 2019, the Legislature effectively prohibited the use of temporary voting sites during early voting, which were of particular use on college campuses. Lawmakers have also kept up an aggressive campaign to punish minor violations of election law with severe sentences. The most infamous of these cases involves Crystal Mason, a Black mother of three from Fort Worth, who was on supervised release for a felony tax fraud charge when she cast a provisional ballot in the 2016 presidential election. Unbeknownst to her, that was illegal—she had to wait until the end of supervised release to vote. Her ballot was rejected and never counted. Yet she was nonetheless convicted of voting illegally and sentenced to five years in jail.
Here’s the bad news: a 150-year-old habit is going to be tough for Texans to kick. But there’s good news too. Unlike lupus, voter suppression is curable.
Even the one concession Governor Abbott made to facilitate voting during COVID-19—extending early voting by a week—was too much for the Republican party. Together with a long list of Republican officeholders, the party sued to prevent polls from opening up early, arguing that the governor was required to consult the Legislature before giving voters more time to cast their ballots. Perhaps in response, on October 1, Abbott ordered Texas counties to limit themselves to one drop-off location for mail-in ballots, making it harder, especially in urban counties, for voters who are wary of Trump’s tampering with the U.S. Post Office to turn in their ballots in person. While the Republican party can at least claim that mail-in ballots are vulnerable to voter fraud, there’s no justification for preventing in-person early voting other than to drive down turnout.
With one hand, the state GOP is fighting in the courts to prevent local election officials from sending mail-in ballot applications to the public. With the other, it is sending mail-in ballot applications to its own voters, accompanied by campaign literature featuring a big picture of President Trump. Around the time the applications started to go out, Trump encouraged his own supporters to try voting twice—once by mail, and once in person—to see if their mail-in ballot had been “counted.” (Don’t try this, folks; it’s illegal.) In other words, there’s precisely one major elected official in America who has endorsed voter fraud this year, and it’s the president.
Here’s the bad news: a 150-year-old habit is going to be tough for Texans to kick. We certainly won’t be giving it up before the November election, and that’s worrying. But there’s good news too. Unlike lupus, voter suppression is curable. Obstacles intended to suppress voting can be overcome by those determined to exercise their rights—those willing to stand in long lines in bad weather and risk catching COVID-19. Turnout is surging in Texas—it did in 2016 and 2018, and there’s reason to believe that 2020 will break records too. Voter suppression efforts tend to target the working class and people of color. There are fewer impediments to voting in the suburbs, the kinds of places that broke big for Mitt Romney in 2012. Many of those neighborhoods have swung toward the Democratic party in recent years.
That’s not the only way that voter suppression might backfire for the GOP. Once it becomes possible to win every election by appealing only to your own voters, there’s no reason to go about politics the traditional way—winning the hearts and minds of those who don’t already agree with you. The muscles of persuasion atrophy. Once they’re gone, they’re not so easy to toughen up again. Governor George W. Bush called himself a “compassionate conservative”; by contrast, the key image of Dan Patrick’s border-focused 2014 campaign for lieutenant governor was a padlock on a white picket fence. Every current statewide elected official got there by dishing out red meat. But that leaves the party with thin defenses as the state’s politics become more genuinely competitive.
The ability of the Republican majority to suppress turnout and influence election results should lessen, bit by bit. If Democrats take control of the state House, they’ll have a seat at the table in the 2021 round of redistricting, perhaps the most consequential way the Legislature shapes election outcomes. (Although they’ll have much less power than they’d like: the Texas Constitution contains a way for state leaders to override the House and draw legislative districts themselves.) Perhaps more important is what is happening at the local level. As the state’s most populous counties turn bluer, Democrats are being put in charge of administering elections for more and more of the state’s population. Local election officials like interim county clerk Chris Hollins in Harris County, who has been pushing to expand access to mail ballots, have a lot of discretion. (Expect the state to try and rein it in more and more.)
Can the GOP make a course correction? In 2019 Republican donors funded a massive new political action committee called Engage Texas. It was the first time in recent history that any kind of GOP organization had been created to register new voters. Democratic groups such as the Texas Organizing Project have been chasing new voters for years, successfully, in a state that makes it very difficult for them to do so. Of course, that’s because Democrats in Texas, unlike their Republican counterparts, simply haven’t had enough of a base to win; they’ve had no choice but to go looking for new voters. Engage Texas raised almost $13 million and hired hundreds of employees. It was an admission that the landscape had changed and that the old tricks weren’t enough anymore.
In May, Engage Texas shut down. The group said the coronavirus had made it too hard to engage Texans. But that didn’t stop Democratic groups from doing so. It seemed much more likely that the project had met with little success and that the party had waited too long to begin doing outreach to nonvoters. Persuading people to vote for you, it turns out, is harder than keeping them from voting at all.
This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “What if They Held an Election and Everyone Came?” Subscribe today.