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The Burden of Voter Suppression on Election Administrators

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael O. Adams
September 19, 2022

In response to the largest democratic voter turnout in the 2020 general election in Texas, the Republican-led Texas Legislature passed one of the toughest voter suppression laws in the nation with Senate Bill 1 (SB 1).  The bill both limits where and how Texans vote and also increases criminal penalties for violations by voters and election administrators. The bill was a direct response to the strategies implemented by the Harris County Clerk in 2020 to promote participation. SB 1 provides an important example of how civic institutions can be used to execute partisan objectives that undermine the legitimacy of election administration and the right to vote. In Harris County, key spatial and demographic changes provide critical context for the unique challenges facing election administrators and further solidify why the county provides an important case study for examining 1) how voter suppression is manifesting in Texas 2) the impact of voter suppression on election administrators and 3) how election administrators are mitigating voter suppression while facing increased threats of prosecution.

Demographic and Spatial Shifts

Within the general electorate of the state of Texas, Harris County’s population has a broadening significance. This relates both to its size and the diversity of the metropolitan population centered around the City of Houston and the growing number of unincorporated suburbs. According to the U.S. Census, from 2010 to 2020 both the county and the city experienced significant growth. The population in Harris County increased by 15 percent during this period, from 4,092,459 (2010) to 4,731,145 (2020). Similarly, Houston, the county’s largest and the nation’s 4th largest city, experienced a 10 percent increase, as the population grew from 2,099,451 to 2,304,580 in the same period. This growth played an important part in helping Texas gain two new congressional seats in a state where the population of racialized persons continues to outpace the White population. In 2005 the culmination of 20 years of growth made Houston a majority–minority city. Since then, it has continued to grow more racially and ethnically diverse along with the vast majority of Harris County and the state of Texas, which became majority-minority in 2011. The 2020 census revealed that “White alone” residents account for just 69 percent of the population, while those identifying as “Black or African-American alone” account for 20.3 percent of the population. “Asian alone” accounts for 7.4 percent of the population in Harris County, and “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone,” account for 0.1% of the population, and those identifying as being of “Two or More Races” make up 2 percent of the population. The Hispanic and Latino population, however, adds an entirely new dimension. Among census respondents who also identified their ethnicity on the 2020 Census, 44.4 percent identified as “Hispanic or Latino,” alone while only 27.7 percent identified as “White alone, not as Hispanic or Latino.” Forty-four percent of Census respondents also indicated that a language other than English was spoken in their home.

According to a report by the Harris County Office of Management and Budget, “over 80 percent of the growth in population since 2000 has been in an unincorporated area.” As of 2019, there were over two million Texas residents living in unincorporated areas in Harris County. The county projects that by 2025 the population in unincorporated areas will exceed the population of Houston. For election officials, charged with administering elections amid a changing legal landscape and spatial shifts, there are likely challenges that may arise as election officials attempt to communicate with voters and ensure they are adequately informed within the legal limits of Senate Bill 1.

Voter Suppression: Purging & Voter ID Restrictions

During the 2016 election cycle, rhetoric regarding a widespread issue of voter fraud in U.S elections began rising. Elected officials and lawmakers aligned to the Republican Party used the narrative to gradually build stronger support for election reform in both majority conservative and battleground states. This narrative helped to lay the foundation for both the passing, and in other cases the strengthening, of voter suppression laws across the nation. In Texas, ahead of the 2020 presidential election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, the conflict between state-led voter suppression efforts and local election administrators intensified.

In 2019, Texas Secretary of State, David Whitley, attempted to purge approximately 100,000 naturalized citizens from the state’s voter registration roll—alleging widespread evidence of voter fraud. Since the state relied on the Texas Department of Public Safety’s driving records and the citizenship status of registrants, only at the point of registering for a driver’s license, the Secretary of State effetely used inaccurate data to suggest that non-citizens were attempting to vote. Ultimately, the ACLU, along with other advocacy groups, successfully blocked this effort by then Secretary of State, David Whitley. As part of the settlement the state was required to change the method in which voter purging occurs; however, in 2020 Whitley’s successor, Secretary of State John B. Scott, identified 11,000 registered voters as needing immigration checks and threatened them with removal from voter rolls if proof of citizenship was not provided. It is important to note that when the state suggests that a registered voter is attempting to commit voter fraud, the burden of proof is placed on election administrators to investigate the claim. Due to lack of proof and rising controversy in the case brought by Secretary Whitley, he later admitted to knowing that the list he sent off claiming a mass issue of voter fraud was inaccurate but decidedly proceeded anyway. These actions forced counties across the state to divert resources and human capital away from other tasks and forced them to devote time to confirming the immigration status of voters. No evidence of widespread voter fraud was uncovered.

In Harris County, lawsuits were filed by the state against the county clerk ‘s office, while the clerk’s office and advocacy groups also filed lawsuits against the state citing voting rights and election violation. Despite challenges caused by voter suppression and the added pressure caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, election administrators in Harris County still managed to deploy a voting strategy that expanded voting access and increased safety measures for voters. The strategies brought out a record number of democratic voters. In response, the majority-Republican Texas legislature called a special session and passed Senate Bill 1.

Though the impact of voter suppression was felt across the state of Texas throughout the 2020 election cycle, some of the most explicit examples were seen in Harris County where the Secretary of State also blocked, and subsequently, directed Attorney General Ken Paxton to sue Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins on multiple occasions to prevent his office’s effort to increase access to the ballot for Texans. In one instance, Hollins sought to expand voter access by sending mail-in-ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in Harris County, as opposed to only those who automatically qualified. This effort was eventually blocked by the Texas Supreme Court while other attempts to make voting accessible were also threatened. These included 24-hour polling stations and drive through voting—two additional methods piloted during the 2020 primaries and later deployed across Harris County during the 2020 general election. These measures were very popular among black and brown voters and significantly contributed to the record-breaking turnout for early voting. According to figures from the Texas Secretary of State, approximately 1,633,557 Texans voted during the 2020 general election cycle and 87.8 percent of those votes were cast during early voting. This figure more than doubled voter turnout from the 2016 primaries.

Since the passing of Senate Bill 1, the Texas State Legislature has focused its attention on removing efforts at the county-level to expand voter access while also increasing the penalty for election fraud offenses for voters and election administrators. Following these legislative interventions, voter turnout has been down across the board.  Figures from the Harris County Elections Administrator’s Office illustrate that in the May 2022 runoff elections, voter turnout among Republican Party identifiers were up and down among Democratic Party identifiers. Republican Party identifiers cast 76 percent more votes than in the July 2020 primary runoff election—up from 66,191 in July 2020 to 116,542 last May. Among Democratic Party identifiers, 72,809 voters cast ballots in the 2022 primary runoff election while 162,469 voters casts ballots in the July 2020 primary runoff election—a 55 percent decrease in votes.

Historically, primary elections in Texas result in low turnout. As a result of the new voter ID law enacted as part of SB 1, the March 2022 primaries were adversely impacted.  A news report by Houston Public Media revealed that the new law led to 6,888 (19 percent) mail-in-ballots being rejected from the 36,878 ballots cast in Harris County—only 31 were rejected for non-ID related issues. As part of the new law, voters are required to provide either a driver’s license number or part of their Social Security Number (SSN) in order to summit a complete mail-in-ballot. However, if a voter registered initially with a driver’s license and now wanted to use their partial SSN on their ballot to confirm identity, the voter’s ballot would be rejected.  Also, if a person voting by mail failed to write his/her name on both the ballot envelope and ballot form, this would also be grounds for rejection. Sec. 84.0011. (10-13) of SB 1 indicates that an election administrator may not petition a constituent to “complete an application for an early voting ballot by mail, whether directly or through a third party.” A consequence of this provision is that election administrators are restricted from proactively educating voters around the mail-in-ballot process and its link to the new voter ID law. Instead, officials are forced to dedicate human capital on the backend to notifying and then instructing voters, including longtime voters, on how to rectify and recast their ballot to avoid a complete rejection. According to SB 1 Sec. 86.001(f-1), once a ballot is flagged for rejection, election administrators must notify voters and then voters must re-cast their ballots, no later than the 11th day prior to election day, to avoid having the ballot thrown out completely. In the case of Harris County, 19 percent of voters were rejected in the March 2022 primary election in comparison to 0.3 percent in 2018—representing a percent increase of 6233 percent for Harris County alone.

The Future of Election Administration

In 2013, the US Supreme Court ruled in Shelby v. Holder that Section 4b of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, requiring preclearance for southern states, would be removed. On the same day, Texas announced its intention to enforce its 2011 voter ID law—previously blocked by the Department of Justice under the Obama Administration. Since the announcement, the state has introduced even stricter voter ID laws, and has also increased efforts to purge eligible voters from voter rolls, increased efforts to limit voting locations and voting timeframes and increased criminalization of registered voters and election administrators.

Election administrators must expect that voter suppression through the application of SB 1 will become harsher. Election administrators must figure out ways to leverage technologies and implement processes and procedures that streamline administrative duties especially those related to voter ID laws and rejected ballots that will likely increase exponentially due to larger voter participation during the general election. Election administrators should also dedicate resources and/or increase partnerships with academic institutions to assist in collecting data on the experience of election administrators as it relates to navigating SB 1. Finally, election administrators must continue to engage in general communication campaigns that are data driven—to ensure that advocacy groups and voters can monitor how SB 1 is impacting the voting process and can build transparency back into the election administration process even where SB 1 restricts communication via mail with voters.

Though election administrators are not responsible for mitigating voter suppression efforts by the state, a byproduct of creating a safe and secure environment for voters to cast their ballots without deterrents is ultimately what contributes to a better democracy. For this reason, election administrators are forced into defensive positions as they merely carryout their responsibilities to guarantee that all citizens are able to exercise the right to vote—one of the basic fundamentals of democracy government. All too often these public servants face the possibility of prosecution from recently instituted legislative measures of voter suppression and this further reveals the abuse of power by the state and practice of using public resources to execute partisan ambitions. Therefore, it is incumbent upon legislators to return the responsibility of administration of elections to the non-partisan officials who have performed these functions so successfully and efficiently over the years. It is these administrators who have made the management of elections the envy of many other countries around the world. 


Author: Adams is a tenured Professor of Political Science and Public Administration and the former dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.

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