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By: Jef Rouner

Photos: Callaghan O’Hare

“If you don’t vote, you’re not heard”

The ability to vote is a right and a civic honour. Sadly, it’s often also an act of bravery. Meet the people making a stand for change in a US state where voters have historically been disillusioned, disenfranchised and actively suppressed.

Main Takeaway

  • Non-voting has a long history in the US, especially in Texas, with many people feeling their votes do not count. But education and outreach are empowering people to vote.

Nobody in Texas remembers a presidential election that felt like this.

Despite the state’s political significance (its 29 million inhabitants have more power to decide the presidency than a dozen other states put together), Texas is not one of the battleground states that typically generate excitement at election time. It has been firmly Republican for decades, and turnouts are famously low.

Not this time. After just one day of early voting, the number of people who had turned up at the polls in Texas was already greater than the entire population of Wyoming (and several other states). Voter turnout has smashed records, and as a result, neither side is counting on Texas in 2020.

Many here had heard of the seven-hour lines in Georgia the previous week. So, they brought folding chairs (like the ones you see at football tailgating parties), snacks, books, batteries for phones and, because it is Texas, drinks to keep cool in the sweltering sun.

Despite the lines, the heat, the omnipresence of the coronavirus outbreak, and the many roadblocks that have stood in the way for them (more on that in a minute), voters were ready to cast their ballots. For some it’s an unquestionable civic duty. For others it’s a newly acquired right that they are eager to exercise.

The scene at an early-voting station in Houston, Texas.

“Finally, I am able to decide my son’s future,” says Julia Keller, who emigrated from Hungary and is voting for the first time since receiving her US citizenship in January. “I feel I get to have some say. Things have changed so much, and I feel like I can be a part of it. I wish the Texas government didn’t make it so hard to vote for people who are less privileged. I’m lucky because I could walk here. A lot of people can’t.”

“I didn’t believe in the system”

Herrbert Grant

Herrbert Grant is not a first-time voter, but he only began at the age of 30. “I didn’t believe in the system,” he says. “I felt like no matter how we voted, they picked who they wanted. After I did some research, I realised that the votes do count. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t keep trying to take it away from us. You should make an effort to have your voice be heard. Now I’m a believer.”

This is his third election, and his goal is no less than to save the planet. He became a voter after seeing once-in-a-lifetime hurricanes hit Houston within five years of each other. “You can live through this only so much before you can’t say it isn’t real,” says Grant. “Mother Nature is really making it known we have to do what we can. I’ve been pushing voting in my local church. In the African-American community, there’s this thinking that you can vote if you want to, but it won’t make a difference. This season, we’ve been pushing the idea that your voice counts. If you do not vote, you’re not heard.”

Texas has already seen record numbers going out to cast their ballot at early-voting stations.

Voters face extra challenges this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing measures.

Grant is right about traditional voter apathy. In the 2014 midterm elections, Texas ranked dead last in voter turnout in the nation, and younger voters were by far the largest non-voting group. A study by the Knight Foundation called the 100 Million Project, attempted to explain why so many Americans do not show up to the polls. In 2016, 43% of the eligible population did not cast a ballot. While the biggest reason cited by voters was a dislike of the available candidates, the idea that their votes did not matter was second (12%). Eight per cent of non-voters said they did not vote because the system was corrupt, and nearly a third said they did not care about politics.

Vidya Muthupillai poses with a friend alongside a cardboard cutout of the Obamas on her 18th birthday, after voting for the first time.

A seismic shift?

The belief that votes don’t count here is prevalent. The state of Texas has not voted for a Democratic president since 1976, and every winning Republican presidential ticket since has contained a Texan on the ballot until Donald Trump. However, the idea that Texas is an unassailable conservative fortress is largely based on illusion.

Since 2011, the state has been minority-majority, meaning the long stranglehold of white supremacy on power has been on the wane. It is also home to many large cities, most of which have gone consistently Democrat over the last decade. Despite its large rural population, the Republican hegemony has been chipped away significantly. In 2016, more Texans voted for Hillary Clinton than voted at all in 44 other states. In 2020, Joe Biden has done the impossible and pulled neck-and-neck with an incumbent Republican president in many polls. Opinion poll platform FiveThirtyEight gives Trump only a 65% chance of holding the state.

Dr Annie Johnson Benifield, vice president of voter services for the League of Women Voters of Houston.

One person who has watched the tides turn both on a professional and personal level is Dr Annie Johnson Benifield, professor of political science at Lone Star College-Tomball and the vice president of voter services with the League of Women Voters of Houston. She saw change when her 55-year-old father voted for the first time after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Like many Black people, he had been drafted to fight in the Second World War and defend democracy and freedom only to come home and have it denied to him personally because of his race.

“Economic empowerment comes from voting. It can transform your community”

Dr Annie Johnson Benifield

“Voting in the south has not been encouraged for the poor and the marginalised,” says Benifield. “There have been various tactics to facilitate them not voting, like poll taxes and literacy tests. We’re not all that far from that. I try to give young people some historical context. I show them video clips of John Lewis crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge and being beaten senseless with billy clubs. They don’t have the context of growing up in a family where people have been regularly voting for hundreds of years. It’s not that they are misinformed, it’s that they are ill-informed.”

Against the disconnect

Much of her work as an educator and member of the League is breaking through the intimidation and apathy. The League held voter registration drives in October. They also post instructional videos on their website on how to use voting machines. Bit by bit, she believes that the voting population of the state can be inspired to change. She sees evidence of this in Harris County – where the city of Houston is located.

“Voter suppression makes everything we’re doing all the more essential”

Joey Gidseg

“In the 1990s every judge in Harris County was a Republican,” she says. “Now 19 Black women are judges. People changed that by voting. Did the old people all move? No. No one can assume Texas will always be [Republican]. Failure of individuals to understand they can change the political process has caused this disconnect on the effect we can have. I see Harris County as indicative of what can happen in the state and the country. Economic empowerment comes from voting. It can transform your community. I never want young people to feel like they didn’t have a say like my dad didn’t.”

Extra obstacles

Of course, part of the problem is that Texas is actively making it harder to vote. According to recent research from Northern Illinois University, Jacksonville University and Wuhan University, published in the Election Law Journal, Texas ranks last in voting ease. There are restrictive pre-registration laws and this year, Governor Greg Abbot reduced drop-off locations for absentee ballots to one per county, something that seems meant to affect larger counties like Harris, where four million people live. The Texas Supreme Court also ruled that fear of contracting Covid-19 does not count as a reason to request voting by mail. Sometimes the voter suppression is more sinister, such as when Harris County Republican Party ballot security committee chairman Alan Vera used a voter roll challenge in 2018 to attack homeless people’s voting rights. Those who could not confirm their addresses within 30 days risked losing their eligibility to vote.

In Texas, even a cowboy hat can be used for campaigning.

The disabled are at risk as well, even though they technically are eligible for mail-in ballots. However, Joey Gidseg, the president of the Texas Democrats with Disabilities Caucus, points out that the state has never actually defined a disability for voting purposes. “Voter suppression makes everything we’re doing all the more essential,” says Gidseg. “People have ambulatory and mobility issues. I think disabled voters feel left behind.”

Brave new dawn

Like Benifield, though, Gidseg sees some hope in the fight. Their caucus recently fought and won a budget for disability rights outreach for their party. With nearly 12% of the state’s population having some form of disability, Gidseg finally feels a community is coming together to speak. “I would consider voting while disabled as an act of bravery, but I don’t want it to have to be that way,” Gidseg says. “They should not be able to make people doubt their disability.”

Despite the risks of infection and the multiple roadblocks, the lines around the block all across the state tell a story of newly empowered and educated Texans taking an interest in voting. None of us knows yet if that will translate into political change.

But as dawn breaks, the folks still here waiting in line clearly know that change is possible, if you show up.

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