Voting Rights Advocates in Texas Fear Suppression in Covid Era

Screenshot of NAACP Texas President Gary Bledsoe.

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — The 2020 elections will bring “the greatest voter-suppression effort in the history of our country,” the president of the Texas NAACP said during a panel on the second day of the Texas Democratic Party’s virtual convention, where a group of voting rights advocates highlighted the legal battles spurred by Covid-19.

During Tuesday’s panel, Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe said the state has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the country, and with the pandemic ongoing and affecting minority communities at higher rates, efforts to increase voter turnout are being hindered by Republican officials, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton.

“I think the Covid-19 pandemic is going to become an offensive tool, and that offensive tool is going to be used as an attempt to try to suppress votes,” Bledsoe said. “We can continue to push good legislation, we continue to push our officials … to make some changes to make it easier for people to vote, but we have not been responded to.”

The second day of the Texas Democratic Party’s virtual convention focused heavily on recruitment and registration efforts, a key multi-part strategy that party leaders and Democratic candidates hope will result in 2 million new voters by Election Day. In addition to a handful of competitive congressional seats on the ballot, Texas Democrats also have their sights set on taking back the State House and are within nine seats of flipping it for the first time in two decades.

“Our responsibility is to find those voters, register them to vote, and turn them out,” said former state senator Wendy Davis, who is currently running for Congress. “And if we can do that, we will win not just two or three of these seats, I truly believe that we have the opportunity to flip five or six, maybe even seven congressional seats in Texas this fall.”

Davis, who was selected for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” program earlier this year, said during the panel that she is optimistic she will unseat Republican Congressman Chip Roy. She said the Central Texas-based district had the largest turnout of Democratic primary voters in the state, a sign she attributes to voters fed up with attacks on health care and women’s reproductive rights.

Screenshot of former Texas state Senator and current congressional candidate Wendy Davis.

But the voter participation rate in the Lone Star State isn’t likely to increase during the 2020 election cycle without a massive voter protection force, said voting rights attorney Jose Garza.

“I think there’s been now a number of years where you see one tactic after another – the voter ID law, for example, was one of those efforts to tamp down on voter turnout. And now we have the fight over whether mail-in ballots should be used during this terrible health crisis that we have,” Garza said.

The battle over mail-in ballots spilled into state and federal courts in March after the Texas Democratic Party sued state officials over the state’s strict mail-in ballot eligibility rules. In a win for Paxton, the state Supreme Court ruled last week that a Texan’s lack of immunity to Covid-19 does not constitute a “disability” permitting eligible voters to vote by mail.

Other legal actions still pending in the state include disputes over how elections officials can administer mobile polling locations, as well as challenges to straight-party ticket voting and signature verification disputes, which involve an election judge’s ability to disqualify a voter’s ballot based on his or her signature.

But that has not stopped Texas Democrats from taking on new efforts to up the number of voters by November. Party leaders partnered with former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and her organization “Fair Fight” to challenge voter-suppression attempts, hired, recruited, and trained voter protection volunteers across the state, and launched a year-long voter protection hotline, according to Texas Democratic Party Voter Protection Director Rose Clouston.

They also set up a voter registration website that gives a potential voter the ability to fill out their personal information on a voting application, which is then printed out and mailed to them with a postage-paid, pre-addressed envelope included.

“So all the voter has to do is sign, put it in the envelope, and mail it in,” said Luke Warford, voter expansion director at the Texas Democratic Party. “It makes it super easy for the voter, and it’s all taken care of.”

Party leaders in Texas picked San Antonio to host this year’s convention but moved the week of training, speeches, panels, and caucus meeting entirely online in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. One day after kicking off what they billed as the largest virtual state convention in the country, organizers say their approach is leading to huge audiences and an increase in fundraising.

“Our online convention is already a massive success and we are just getting started,” said Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “Yesterday, our convention streams had over 100,000 views and record-breaking single-day grassroots fundraising contributions.”

While former Congressman Beto O’Rourke came within three percentage points of unseating U.S. Senator Ted Cruz in 2018, no Texas Democrat has won a statewide office since the 1990s.

But in a year of historic abnormal outcomes, party leaders in Texas are hopeful that their rollout of voter registration and protection efforts, and increased interest from national committees, will result in massive gains for Democrats for the first time in a generation.

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