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Texas Is Among The Most Difficult Places To Vote — And That Could Be Softening Its Historic Turnout

A voter stands at a desk waiting for an election clerk to verify her identification in Houston.
David J. Phillip
Associated Press
A voter, right, shows her identification to a Harris County election clerk before voting, Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Houston.

A new study from Northern Illinois University finds Texas has the most restrictive voting laws in the country.

Stephanie Lugo had just started her senior year of high school when a volunteer came to her economics class to talk about voter registration.

The volunteer focused on students who were already 18, leaving the impression that if you were 17, Lugo said, you could not register.

"I guess I was informed wrong," she said, "because I thought I couldn't register at the time. And so then I turned 18 in July, and so it wasn't on my mind to register until like two weeks ago. So, then I went to go try to register, but like it just wasn't working out, because there wasn't enough time."

Stephanie was upset because she was looking forward to researching the candidates and making up her mind.

"Once I saw I couldn't register, I'm like, ‘Oh, well, dang, I guess that my vote doesn't count, because I cannot vote,'" she said.

Lugo’s is just one example of how misinformation can suppress the vote. In fact, it's harder to vote in Texas than anywhere else in the nation, according to a recent study from Northern Illinois University. And despite record turnout across the state — including Harris County tallies that could break 2016 records — some voting rights advocates argue that’s been blunted by those restrictive laws.

"In Texas, despite many efforts to register many voters, despite efforts to expand access to early voting, to vote by mail, many of those efforts (that) have been successful would be even more successful if these barriers were not in place," Fraga said.

In other words, as high as this year's turnout in Texas appears, it might have been even higher if not for the atmosphere the state creates around voting that keeps some people from even trying.

And when laws make voting harder or more complicated, younger people like Stephanie Lugo are more likely to get discouraged.

"When you throw wrenches in the actual process, when you make changes that they've never heard of before, it's just simpler to not vote, not to worry about it. They become either apathetic or fearful of asking dumb questions," said attorney Eric Cedillo of Dallas.

Those laws include measures reducing the number of polling locations in the state by 50% and requiring a photo ID to vote. And one law in particular that impacted Lugo: a 30-day deadline for in-person voter registration.

“That's the most restrictive law that exists,” said Scot Schraufnagel, a political scientist at Northern Illinois. “Most states now allow you to register the day of the election.”

Schraufnagel recently looked at how easy it is to the vote in all 50 states, tracking 39 separate factors, and found that Texas has the most restrictive set of laws in the country.

Such laws have proliferated across the southern U.S. since 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act – the formula which bars certain jurisdictions from making changes affecting voting without prior approval by the U.S. attorney general or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

In fact, Schraufnagel found eight of the most difficult states in which to vote lie within the former Confederacy.

Voting rights activists call Gov. Greg Abbott's recent order limiting each county to a single drop-off location for mail-in ballots a blatant example of voter suppression, something League of United Latin American Citizens regional director Al Maldonado stressed at a recent demonstration in Midtown Houston.

"This is pre-1965 all over again," Maldonado said, "and we cannot afford to continue with this along this road, so we're going to do all we can to ensure that every voter here does not have his vote suppressed, and we're going to get out there and we're working very hard to ensure that that occurs."

Houston Public Media provided this story.

Andrew Schneider