In their largest stronghold in the country, Republicans are increasing the barriers to voting to maintain their power. The first day of early voting, Tuesday, was however marked by an unprecedented mobilization, especially in the Democratic counties.
An unprecedented participation, hours of waiting and rare technical problems: the early voting began on Tuesday in Texas, the second most populous state and the largest conservative bastion in the United States. The demographic evolution of the Lone Star State, the strong mobilization of the anti-Trump electorate and the coronavirus epidemic could however reshuffle the cards. And in this impregnable Republican fortress for forty years, the Texan Democrats want to believe at worst in notable breakthroughs, at best in a resounding twist.
“This year, Republicans fear a massive turnout that could tip Texas into the Democratic camp”, summarizes Jeronimo Cortina, associate professor of political science at the University of Houston. Faced with this threat, and while the polls show on average 4,4 points d’avance à Donald Trump (he had won by 9 points against Hillary Clinton in 2016), Republican officials have therefore intensified the strategy they have been pursuing for many years: hinder access to the vote to preserve their power. Texas is therefore one of the five American states not to have substantially extended postal voting, despite the coronavirus epidemic.
While many activities, including education, take place largely at a distance, “Many Republican elected officials are pushing for voters to be forced to vote in person”, continues Jeronimo Cortina. Their speech is well established: it would be to prevent electoral fraud, repeatedly denounced by Donald Trump. An argument that ticks the academic: “Since 2004, the number of lawsuits for electoral fraud in Texas has risen to 457. Barely 0.003% of the number of voters. And yet these are often blunders rather than fraudulent intentions. “
In recent years, several Hispanic and African-American women have received sentences of five to eight years in prison for having voted without the right to vote. According to the civil rights organization Aclu, but also many associations that help register voters, the severity of the penalties serves a political reason: to intimidate the more democratic minorities and instill in them fear of voting.
In the same vein of intimidation, ultraconservative activists have invested polling stations since 2009 as scrutineers, especially in non-white neighborhoods of Houston. This year, the organization True the Vote, based in the largest city in Texas, claims to have trained at least 10,000 Republican volunteers, especially former soldiers, to send them to polling stations across the country.
“Everyone should be able to vote”
Denouncing fake voters and purging the voters lists are common practices in Texas. And the victims, more often than not, are Hispanic or black. Like this octogenarian grandmother who never moved in her life, but was taken off the lists and had to justify her residence. Or Joy Davis, an African-American progressive activist who discovered, while checking on the Internet, that the administration required proof that she had not changed her address. “Everyone should be able to vote. But people think black people, people of color, poor people should have a harder time doing it., she regrets in front of a polling station in downtown Houston. It is incredible all these measures taken to restrict access to the vote. ”
In times of pandemic, the electoral war in which the two camps are engaged, the Democrats seeking to maximize participation and the Republicans to keep the barriers in place, has taken on an unprecedented dimension. Republican elected officials have taken legal action against a whole series of decisions aimed at facilitating the exercise of the right to vote, in particular by mail. This summer, Houston Election Officer Chris Hollins began mailing ballots to all voters. A decision challenged by the governor and the Republican state attorney, who won the case. In Texas, voting by mail is therefore reserved for people over 65, the sick, the disabled, and those who justify an absence from their county during the vote. The epidemic and fear of being exposed to a virus that has claimed more than 17,000 lives in the state is not a valid reason.
Then there was the controversy over the place of filing of postal votes. Those who doubt the ability of the post to deliver their ballot on time can drop it off at a collection center. Authorities in Harris County, including Houston, the third most populous in the United States with nearly five million inhabitants, had forecast a dozen. But Gov. Greg Abbott chose to only allow one for each of Texas’ 254 counties.
This decision, which will force some voters to drive up to an hour – when they have one – to file their ballot, was challenged in court, but confirmed Sunday by the regional court of appeal. “It is a decision which aims voluntarily to suppress a number of voters”, laments Chris Hollins. A decision “Deeply unfair” and “Unworthy of our democracy”, denounced the Democratic leader of the county, Lina Hidalgo.
In this judicial guerrilla war, the Republican Party intends to multiply the attacks to the end in Texas, while the voting operations have already begun. On Tuesday, he filed a complaint against the establishment in Harris County of ten offices offering the possibility of voting by drive. Arguing that the coronavirus epidemic was not a sufficient reason not to get out of his car and go to a polling station.
Republicans aren’t just looking to impede access to the vote, “They also make voting operations more and more complicated”, notes Jeronimo Cortina. This year in Texas, in addition to the president, we also vote for senators, representatives in the House, local elected officials, sheriffs, judges, not to mention local referendums. Consequence: some ballot papers can reach 20 pages. Since 2017, voters could choose to fill out everything or simply check the “Republican” or “Democrat” box, which then applied to the entire ballot. Attacked in court by the Republicans, this practice was conveniently banned two weeks ago. And who says more time spent in the voting booth to check off those 20 pages says long queues and fewer voters able to vote.
The only exception to this widespread offensive: in mid-July, Governor Abbott decided to extend early voting by six days, in particular to facilitate the in-person vote of the elderly Republican base. The most right-wing Republicans, including the party leader in Texas, have sued the decision, which was taken by one of their own. They were dismissed by the State Supreme Court.
What if finally, the attitude of the conservative camp had had the opposite effect, by mobilizing the Democratic opposition even more? Voter register registrations have broken records, with 1.8 million more registrations than four years ago. And on Tuesday, long lines formed outside most polling stations in Texas. There were certainly many Republican voters there, like Alina, without a mask but with a Trump flag worn as a cape: “I was very excited to come on this first day to show that everyone is behind Donald Trump”, she confides in front of a polling station on the outskirts of Houston.
But in several counties that vote majority Democrats, eat El Paso or Harris, mobilization records were broken on this first day of early voting, fueling Conservative fears. In the Houston area, more than 128,000 voters voted Tuesday, twice as much as in the previous presidential election. Despite the health risk and the long hours of waiting, activist Joy Davis did not hesitate: “We don’t want to risk our lives because of this pandemic to exercise our right to vote. These restrictions make the tails longer, and the chances of transmission of the virus higher. But I had to vote in advance, even with the Covid. It is the most important vote of our life. ”