Texas Democrats are condemning a GOP-backed bill that bans mobile polling stations that makes it possible for thousands of college students, senior citizens, and low-income residents throughout the state to vote.
The bill, which passed both chambers of the Texas legislature and is awaiting a signature from the state’s Republican Gov. Gregg Abbott, is a form of “voter suppression,” said Glen Maxey, the legislative affairs director for the Texas Democratic Party.
“It is a direct hit on populations that don’t have easy access to a voting location in their neighborhoods or they don’t have access to transportation,” Maxey told ThinkProgress.
Critics say the bill is one of a raft of measures meant to slow recent gains by Democrats in Texas. Those inroads were seen most recently during the 2018 midterm elections, when the party picked up seats in the Texas legislatures and in the U.S. Congress.
Democrats’ challenger for U.S. Senate in 2018, Beto O’Rourke — currently one of more than two dozen contenders for the party’s presidential nomination — narrowly lost his race during that election cycle to Republican incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz.
Despite O’Rourke’s loss, election trends point to a day, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, when ruby red Texas might actually turn purple — or, with its growing population of Latinx voters who tend to vote Democratic, even a purplish shade of blue.
Activists say that’s why Republicans are working so hard to keep ballots out of the hands of Democratic-leaning voters.
“It’s a direct hit on a state that is trending blue, to take away opportunities from people of color, elderly, students to vote,” Maxey said. “It is voter suppression, pure and simple.”
Texas became the first state in the country to adopt early voting in 1986, allowing voters to cast ballots two weeks before an election, according to Secretary of State spokesman Sam Taylor.
However, getting to the polls can be difficult for people with mobility challenges, including the elderly and disabled, or those who might have limited access to transportation, such as college students and people living in remote areas.
During the two-week early voting period, counties throughout Texas have been allowed to use mobile polling locations at college campuses, nursing homes, food banks, public office buildings and other locations, making it easier for people from underrepresented voting blocs to cast a ballot.
But that policy appears poised to become a relic of the past, once Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) signs the bill, which cleared the House in a party line vote earlier this month. The measure was approved in the state Senate earlier this week.
Before passing the bill, Senate Republicans blocked an amendment that would have exempted nursing and retirement homes from the mobile polling location ban.
Republican supporters of the mobile voting ban claim the bill was needed to prevent government officials from making it easier for some people to vote while excluding others of the same convenience.
State Sen. Joan Huffman (R) on the Texas State House floor said the bill would prevent local leaders during school bond elections from placing mobile voting locations at school district headquarters, where voters would most likely support the issue. Critics point out, however, that the law will affect not just votes on local matters like school funding, but congressional, state, and federal races as well.
The measure is the latest voter suppression bill introduced by Texas Republicans, who have rolled out a number of such schemes since the tightly-contested 2018 midterm elections.
Over the past decade, GOP-controlled states have attempted to retain power by passing a number of laws that make it more difficult for minority voters to cast ballots, including new voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting, and imposing new barriers to registering to vote.
In February, a federal judge stopped Secretary of State David Whitley from purging Texas’ voter rolls by questioning the citizenship of 100,000 voters. Only a fraction of those questioned were found ineligible to vote.
And the state Senate passed a separate highly-criticized and wide-ranging voter suppression bill that criminalizes Texans who vote when ineligible, even if they do so unknowingly, and restricts people from helping others vote. That bill died in the state’s House earlier this week.
"My heart is telling me that this bill is voter suppression. Mobile voting is supposed to be flexible. I would love to see the day when the state of Texas is making it easier for people to vote. Someday we're going to get this right— today isn't that day." – @CeliaIsrael #txlege
— Texas House Democratic Caucus (@TexasHDC) May 8, 2019
Among those hardest hit by the impending changes are students on college campuses. Dallas County election officials began rolling out campus polling locations for two days during the 2016 election at the request of students at those schools, according to Toni Pippins-Poole, the county’s elections administrator. The county expanded voting at at those locations to three days in 2018 due to popular demand, she said.
Those on-campus locations made voting assessable for college students and helped increased voter participation for “an age group that really has been failing to participate,” Pippins-Poole told ThinkProgress.
Democrats, who represent some of the state’s larger counties, had hoped to expand the use of mobile voting to increase voter participation. Now they will have find another way to reach those voters.
Republicans “are in desperation mode right now as this state is on the verge of flipping state-wide and democrats winning up and down on the ballot,” said Maxey.
“We will adjust, but they took away the most convenient way for these people to vote.”