During a mid-October drizzle, I pulled into a Houston church parking lot to cast a ballot from my car—a pandemic-inspired option meant to help voters avoid congested lines. A poll worker stepped out from under a canopy, exposing herself to the rain, and explained the procedure: I would have to turn off my cellphone, show my ID, and relinquish the blank ballot that had been mailed to me, before recording my votes on a device handed through my car window. Minutes after affixing an “I voted” sticker to my shirt, I reflected that this process established by then–Harris County clerk Chris Hollins was convenient, safe, and efficient.
It was also illegal, according to a lawsuit filed by Republican activists who contended that the state’s election code didn’t permit drive-through voting. Their efforts in state and federal courts to halt the practice—and then, days before the election, to invalidate the 127,000 early votes cast at drive-through locations—were ultimately unsuccessful. But the litigation prompted county officials to close all but one drive-through site on Election Day, and while the effects of this decision on turnout are unknown, “it was unfortunate if any of that drama took away anyone’s opportunity to vote,” Hollins said.
The drive-through voting case was but one of numerous lawsuits and policy disputes over access to the voting booth this year in Texas, where, according to one recent study, it’s harder to register and cast a ballot than in any other state in the country. In the months ahead of an election conducted amid a pandemic, Governor Greg Abbott limited each county to one site where voters could drop off their mail-in ballots rather than trust a U.S. Postal Service suffering from budget shortfalls as President Trump tried to delay its funding for political advantage. Abbott’s move forced Harris County, with nearly 2.5 million registered voters, to close eleven such sites. Attorney General Ken Paxton argued that preexisting conditions such as heart disease and diabetes that made some voters more vulnerable to COVID-19 did not count as disabilities that would permit them to vote by mail. He later persuaded the Texas Supreme Court to block Hollins from sending mail ballot applications to all registered voters. And the state Republican Party chair joined an unsuccessful effort to rescind the extra week of early voting that Abbott had authorized.
The flurry of lawsuits and orders didn’t prevent Texans from voting at historic levels: about 66 percent of the state’s registered voters cast ballots, the highest share since 73 percent turned out in 1992. That amounts to 60.3 percent of the voting-eligible population—near the bottom of state rankings, according to one analysis, but high by Texas standards. In many counties outside Texas urban areas, this turnout boosted the GOP. In Montgomery County, just north of Houston, for example, 73.3 percent of registered voters cast ballots, up 7.7 percentage points from 2016, increasing Donald Trump’s margin of victory by almost 45,000. Texas Democrats across the state watched one dream after another crumble to dust. Their party failed to capture a coveted U.S. Senate seat, to gain control of the Texas House, or to increase its number of seats in the state’s congressional delegation. President Trump carried the state with almost 650,000 more votes than rival Joe Biden.
The results raised doubts about an enduring bit of political orthodoxy: that higher turnout inevitably works against Republican interests. “Higher turnout was not the blue wave that the Democrats expected it to be,” said state senator Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican whose website is replete with news releases criticizing various Harris County voting initiatives. “Someone can bring that up as a counterpoint to higher turnout being a partisan issue.”
But when I asked Renée Cross, senior director of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs, if she thought Republican zeal for voting restrictions would fade given this realization, her response was clear: “I doubt it.”
Indeed, just weeks after the election, state Republicans have shown they are continuing their efforts to make it more difficult for Texans to vote. In mid-November, the same day I talked to Cross, news broke that Bettencourt and three GOP Senate colleagues had prefiled a bill, ahead of the legislative session that begins January 21, that would forbid election officials to send mail ballot applications to all voters, regardless of eligibility. (Despite Paxton and the GOP’s victory in court on this issue, Bettencourt told me he saw a need to clarify the law.) Other legislators have prefiled an assortment of bills affecting voting, including one by Representative Briscoe Cain, a Deer Park Republican, that would require the Secretary of State to use a federal database to identify “noncitizens whose voter registrations should be canceled.” A bill prefiled by GOP representative Greg Bonnen of Friendswood would increase criminal penalties for, and broaden the definition of, election fraud. And Houston attorney Jared Woodfill, who represented the plaintiffs in the suit challenging drive-through voting in Harris County, said he hopes to see a bill filed that would explicitly ban the practice: “This needs to be abundantly clear,” he said.
While sponsors justify such measures as necessary to prevent fraud, studies and recent court cases show it is extremely rare. Occasionally a GOP leader will acknowledge other motives. Trump stated flatly in March that funding to boost voting participation during the pandemic would lead to “levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Bettencourt, though, told me his bill is more about process than partisan outcomes: “We shouldn’t be mailing ballot applications to people who don’t qualify.” He acknowledged that this problem could also be solved by lifting the restrictions on voting by mail so that everyone qualifies—Texas is one of only sixteen states that limits the practice based on factors such as age or disability.
Why are Republicans continuing to use a tactic that, judging by this year’s results, might not be in their interest? Part of the answer is simply habit, analysts say. The idea that high turnout helps Democrats is deeply entrenched. The framing of the question is also a bit simplistic: each party wants turnout to be high among groups of voters likely to support its candidates, and Republican-supported restrictions such as Texas’s strict voter identification law or Abbott’s ballot drop-off location limit, tend to affect cohorts that trend Democratic. Studies show that the poor and people of color are less likely to possess acceptable forms of identification, such as driver’s licenses and handgun licenses, and limiting drop-off locations places the biggest burden on densely populated, Democratic-leaning urban areas. But it’s not clear that all the new Republican-backed measures, and in particular limits on mail voting, will work in the party’s favor. GOP gains in Texas this year followed “a surge of people who didn’t have much voting history and an increase in voting by mail” because of the pandemic, noted Houston-based Democratic consultant Keir Murray.
Two years before the next statewide election, and weeks before the start of the 2021 legislative session, it’s a bit early to predict just how any prospective measure would play out if adopted. But Cross suggested that Republicans should consider their dwindling margins of victory in the last two presidential elections, and the changing attitudes of an electorate that’s growing younger and more diverse, before they become too aggressive with restrictions. “We know that Republicans have the majority, but I would certainly say they need to tread lightly there, because more and more people seemingly are open to some of these voting reforms, Republicans included,” Cross said. She noted that about two thirds of likely voters who responded to a recent Hobby School survey expressed strong support for online voter registration in Texas, which is currently prohibited. “If they come down too hard, trying to be more restrictive, I think that will eventually backfire.” Indeed, some Democratic voters say they were driven to the polls this year by their anger over restrictions.
Already, state Democrats are preparing a response. Democrats in the Lege have prefiled measures that would make registration automatic with any driver’s license change, authorize universal mail-in early voting, ease voter identification requirements, and reinstitute straight-ticket voting, which was eliminated in the last session and has been cited, in part, as a driver of split ticket votes for Biden and Republicans down ballot. And efforts to make voting easier in Harris County continue. Isabel Longoria, who was sworn in November 18 as the county’s new elections administrator, told me she wants to continue many of the steps developed this year in response to the pandemic—including drive-through voting. “COVID allowed us to really explore some innovations, and these are things that people want to continue in the future,” Longoria said, noting that she and her colleagues will be “keeping an eye on what the Legislature says.”