Pam Johnson Gaskin learned early last week that the election administrator in Fort Bend County, Texas, had decided to add four locations where voters can hand-deliver their absentee ballots, several of which were going to be outside to minimize voters’ chances of being exposed to the coronavirus. “I was like, Oh thank you, Jesus. Protesting does work!” said Gaskin, who lives in the eastern part of the county and had spent the previous several days advocating for the additional drop-off sites.
But by Thursday afternoon, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had invalidated the county’s decision, issuing a statewide proclamation that limits all 254 counties in the state to only a single site where absentee ballots could be dropped off. By the end of the day, the League of Women Voters of Texas, the National League of United Latin American Citizens, and the League of United Latin American Citizens, had sued the governor over the change, charging that it puts an unreasonable burden on voters during the pandemic. “They will have to travel further distances, face longer waits, and risk exposure to COVID-19, in order to use the single ballot return location in their county,” according to the suit.
Gaskin agrees, and she worries about the elderly and people with disabilities who will be dropping off the ballots. With confidence in the U.S. Postal Service undermined by the Trump administration, many Texas residents fear mailing their ballots. But because some counties measure more than 6,000 square miles, a single delivery location would leave some voters having to drive well more than an hour to deliver them.
In Gaskin’s county, which is 855 square miles and has more than 811,000 residents, the only drop-off site is an old Walmart building that has been converted into offices. Rather than having several outdoor drop-off locations allowing voters maximal social distancing and minimal driving, people trying to deliver their ballots in this one location must drive there, show a photo ID, have their temperature checked, and go inside the building.
“This is also where people come in to go to the health department and — who knows? — some of them may be sick,” said Gaskin. “You’re putting an unfair burden on the disabled and the elderly.”
Abbott’s proclamation about the ballot drop-off locations is widely seen as voter suppression — “yet another thinly disguised attempt to stymie the vote,” as the state chapter of the ACLU put it. It’s clear that the most populous counties, which tend to vote Democratic, will be hardest hit. Travis County, where Hillary Clinton received 66 percent of the vote in 2016, had just opened four drive-thru locations where voters could hand-deliver their ballots when Abbott announced his order. Now those sites, which were designed to minimize voters’ health risks, won’t be able to open. And Harris County, which contains Houston and is the most populous in the state, has to reverse its plan to let voters return their ballots at 11 locations.
“There’s no legitimate reason to close satellite drop-off locations,” Wesley Story, communications associate at Progress Texas, said of the governor’s decision. “This is a blatant attempt by Gov. Abbott to suppress voters because the Texas GOP is afraid of the ballot box.”
The change in handling absentee ballots during the pandemic is one of a string of recent decisions that has left some Texans feeling both physically threatened and concerned that their votes will not be counted. Biden has a shot at winning this traditionally red state, but the outcome of the presidential race clearly hinges on turnout.
Over the past several months, as Covid-19 rates have soared throughout Texas, Abbott and the state’s Republican attorney general, Ken Paxton, have fought against efforts to expand mail-in voting during the pandemic. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Texas Democrats’ argument that people concerned about contracting the coronavirus at polling places should be allowed to vote by mail. Texas is one of five states where voters concerned about coronavirus exposure will not be allowed to vote by mail.
At the same time, Texas has been engaged in a legal fight over “straight-ticket voting,” a practice that Paxton opposes and many Democrats in the state support. In 2019, the state also banned temporary and mobile voting sites, a change cheered by Republican lawmakers and expected to depress turnout near college campuses and residents of senior centers.
Photo: Courtesy of Pam Johnson Gaskin and Linda Jann Lewis.
In a state where more than 788,000 people have already tested positive for the coronavirus and 16,000 have died of Covid-19, the pandemic has immeasurably raised the stakes of the fight over voter access. Although Abbott issued a state-wide mask mandate in July, his order specifically exempted polling places. During the primary held later that month, some poll workers left their polling site in Collin County after Republican workers refused to wear masks.
Voting rights advocates fear the phenomenon will be repeated in November, when the state and country may be experiencing a second wave of coronavirus infections. Trump, whose July 29 rally at an oil rig in Midland, Texas, was attended by many maskless supporters, has widely mocked the use of face coverings and social distancing to stop the spread of the virus. He did not wear a mask publicly on his last visit to the state. And it’s unclear whether the fact that Trump has contracted the coronavirus will diminish the disdain his supporters in Texas feel for wearing masks.
In the southernmost points of Texas where Danny Diaz works, people viscerally understand the life-and-death consequences of the changes to the rules around voting. Diaz, an organizer with La Unión del Pueblo Entero, lives in Hidalgo County, where the death rate from Covid-19 is more than 10 times the national average. In nearby Starr County, where more than 99 percent of residents are Latino and 65 percent live in poverty, one in 17 people have already contracted the virus.
“Everyone has been affected here,” said Diaz, who was sick with Covid-19 for a month this summer and has had several people close to him die of the disease, including his uncle and the father of a close friend.
“A lot of people are concerned about voting in these locations, Diaz said of the four counties where he works: Starr, Willacy, Hidalgo, and Cameron. “People don’t want to go out. We know it’s so easy to contract the virus.”
Well-grounded fears about contagion have also led to a shortage of poll workers, Diaz said, since many of the people who usually do the job are elderly. He and his colleagues are now in the process of trying to recruit young people, who may be less concerned about contracting the virus, to replace them.
Locals are also worried about another provision of the proclamation Abbott issued last week, which allows poll watchers “to observe any activity conducted at the early voting clerk’s office location related to the in-person delivery of a marked mail ballot.” The provision seems to be a direct response to a comment Trump made during his debate with Joe Biden last week urging his supporters “to go into the polls and watch very carefully.” One Republican state senator has already made it clear he thinks the restriction on the number of ballot drop-off locations will make it easier for poll watchers to “observe” the voting process.
Diaz fears that, emboldened by both Trump and Abbot, the poll watchers who respond to the recent call will increase the bullying of Biden supporters that he’s witnessed at “Trump train rallies” over the past several weeks. “We don’t have a heavy Republican presence living here. These are people from different parts of the state who come to McAllen and other places with vehicles, honking their horns,” he said. “And if you have a Biden sticker, they’re bullying you. I’m afraid that attitude, the way they behave, their rudeness — all that energy is going to go into this poll watching.”
The fears and uncertainty have inspired Diaz and other voting rights advocates to throw themselves into ensuring that votes are cast and counted throughout Texas, where early voting begins on October 13. In Waco, Linda Jann Lewis, a former county elections administrator who now works with the NAACP, sent a letter with important voting information to residents of several primarily Black precincts in McLennan County, where she lives.
Even before the pandemic, McLennan was facing voter access challenges. The district saw its polling places reduced by 51 percent between 2012 and 2018, according to a report of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Statewide, Texas saw 750 polling places close during this period, a change that disproportionately affected communities of color, according to the report.
Since then, McLennan has grown further — and lost more polling places. “Now we have just 32 for a registered voter population of 143,000,” said Lewis, who fears the turnout on Election Day may lead to long lines. Others in her district seem to share her concern. Lewis has gotten a flurry of calls in response to her mailing.
“The first I got was from a Black man who said, ‘I’m 69 years old. And I can vote by mail, but I don’t trust these SOBs, and I’m going to vote early in person if I have to crawl in there,’” she said.
Lewis had to explain that there was only one location in McLennan County where he could drop off his ballot in person. “It’s in the basement of a building with a horribly constructed handicap access,” she said. “It’s perilous. But that’s where you should go.”
Even successful delivery of a ballot won’t ensure that his vote will be counted. Each absentee ballot can be challenged on several grounds, including if the signature on it doesn’t perfectly match the signature on the application for the ballot. Research shows that white people are much more likely to have their absentee ballots counted, with Black voters accounting for only 10 percent of absentee ballots, but 18 percent of rejected ones, and Hispanic voters accounting for 12 percent of absentee votes and 36 percent of rejections.
The uphill battle to secure the fundamental democratic right to vote in Texas reminds Gaskin, in Fort Bend, of another era. “We are going back to the days when I went to a segregated high school and had 15 pages missing from my geometry book because they didn’t buy new books for the colored school,” said Gaskin, who is 73.
To Gaskin, who was 9 years old when her parents deemed her old enough to leaflet on her own and in college when the Voting Rights Act passed, the current obstacles to voting in Texas are just another bump in this long road. “All it is is a return to trying to make things so difficult that you just throw your hands up and say, ‘I give. I’m not going to do this. OK, Mr. White Man. Have it your way,’” she said.
But Gaskin is not prepared to concede. Instead, she has joined a group that will be distributing water, rain ponchos, portable chairs, sandwiches, and snacks to voters throughout Texas on Election Day. “If you have to get off the line to go to the bathroom, we’re going to stand in your place,” said Gaskin, who is prepared to work as long and hard as necessary to make sure that everyone gets to vote. “We’ll stand in line till we drop dead.”