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How Texas went from low voter turnout to nation's top early voting state

The Guardian logo The Guardian 10/26/2020 Alexandra Villarreal in Austin

“Donald Trump needs to be goin’ bye-bye,” Ann Wolfe said as she approached one of Austin’s Holiday Inn hotels, now doubling as a polling place.

Although the man in the White House claims he’s pro-life like her, she said, “under his watch, over 200,000 people are dead”. So while Wolfe was open to candidates from both parties down ballot, she planned to throw her support behind Democratic nominee Joe Biden, whom she thought was at least “a normal human being”.

“It seems like it’s the most important vote that we’ll ever have to have in this lifetime,” she said.

In a tidal wave of political engagement, more than 7 million Texans have already cast a ballot during the general election, the vast majority in-person. The numbers are propelling what is historically one of the lowest voter turnout states to the top of the nation’s leaderboard in terms of the sheer number of people who have voted thus far. That groundswell of participation is even more striking in context, as democratic hurdles remain ever-present at the polls while fears of Covid-19 also loom large.

“What we’re seeing is that Texans will crawl through broken glass to be able to make sure their voices are heard this election,” said Abhi Rahman, communications director for the Texas Democratic party.

In the midst of the early voting period, extended by Governor Greg Abbott amid the coronavirus pandemic, approximately 43% of registered voters statewide had voted as of Sunday, logging more than 80% of the total turnout from four years ago with over a week left in the election.

It seems like it’s the most important vote that we’ll ever have to have in this lifetime

Ann Wolfe

“It is really quite something that people are turning out in the numbers that they are. And that they’re standing in line for hours when this is early voting, this is not Election Day, and many Texans have never done that before because it is such a low voter turnout state,” said Brittany Perry, an instructional associate professor in political science at Texas A&M University.

In Harris and El Paso counties, more than two-fifths and roughly a third of registered voters respectively had cast ballots by Sunday, despite sometimes encountering three-hour-long waits, according to Election Protection. Broken machines thwarted residents in Travis and Fort Bend counties on the first day of early voting, yet both have already experienced turnout around 50% of registered voters as of last weekend. And, while there have been curbside voting issues in Bexar and Hidalgo counties, that hasn’t stopped more than 600,000 people from participating in the electoral process, long before 3 November.

Donald Trump and his broader agenda are likely at least part of what’s driving so many voters to the polls, said Emily M Farris, an associate professor of political science at Texas Christian University. “Trump’s path to the White House is basically impossible without winning Texas’ 38 electoral votes,” she said.

And the president’s handling of the coronavirus crisis is weighing on people’s minds in the state, where cases persist and 17,700 people have died. “Obviously, the way, you know, this whole pandemic has panned out, I think it’s important for us to have support from our government. I just don’t feel that,” said Ileanna Mercado, a school counselor on her way to vote for Biden in Austin. “I just would like for our country to go in a very different direction.”


Video: What does larger early voter turnout from Democrats mean for the 2020 election? (FOX News)

a group of people that are standing in the water: People wait in line to cast their ballots in early voting in Houston, Texas, on 13 October. Photograph: Go Nakamura/Reuters © Provided by The Guardian People wait in line to cast their ballots in early voting in Houston, Texas, on 13 October. Photograph: Go Nakamura/Reuters

Both Perry and Farris said that when they voted, it was their first experience ever having to stand in lines during an election in Texas – a sign of enthusiasm, but also of failing systems. Perry visited multiple polling places across two separate days before she finally voted.

At her last destination, she called out a man who wasn’t wearing a mask, only to have him drape one across his chin in defiance after a poll worker offered it to him. Face coverings aren’t required at Texas polls, and despite the public health crisis, the Republican-dominated state government has refused to expand narrow vote-by-mail eligibility criteria.

“In Texas, there’s still significant risk to voting in-person,” said Gabrielle Velasco, a national coordinator for Election Protection. Concerns around pandemic safety have become a recurring theme at her hotline, where uncomfortable callers describe voters or even election officials forgoing masks. “What we’re seeing is there’s still a number of challenges and obstacles of voter suppression that exist in Texas, even with an extended early vote period,” Velasco said.

But Chairman Allen West, a Georgia native, retired Army lieutenant colonel and one-term Florida congressman who is the new head of the Republican party of Texas, insisted that he hadn’t heard of anyone who was unable to vote.

“Of course there are long lines,” he quipped. “But then there are long lines to get on a ride at Disneyland or Six Flags Over Texas.”

But there’s also a surge of new voters to account for – voters who are challenging the idea that Texas is always a red state.

Constituents with a recent history of only voting in Republican primaries represent 31% of Texas’s general share of early votes in 2020 so far, compared to 25.8% for Democrats, according to Republican-focused political consulting company Ryan Data and Research. That leaves over 43% of the state’s vote broadly unaccounted for, with higher voter turnout rates usually favoring Democrats.

Texans will crawl through broken glass to be able to make sure their voices are heard this election

Abhi Rahman

“Texas has never been a red state, it’s been a non-voting state,” Rahman said. “Now that it is voting, all bets are off. And if we do the work, if we continue to push, we will flip the state.”

With a skyrocketing Hispanic population and a surge of around 1.9 million more registered voters since 2016, Texas’s electorate is evolving quickly. But the election is “still very much a toss-up”, and turning the state completely blue would come as a “huge shock”, Perry said. A Democratic presidential nominee hasn’t tasted victory there since 1976; as of now, Trump is slightly favored to win, while Biden is favored to take the election in its entirety.

West still believed Trump would be successful – in Texas and nationally. If self-proclaimed Republicans vote for Biden, “I would question whether or not they’re a Republican truthfully because their principles and values lead me to believe that they’re quite conflicted,” he said. But even prominent Texans from his party such as Senator John Cornyn have started to distance themselves from the polarizing president during this election year.

Other politicos, from former Texas Republican representatives Steve Bartlett and Alan Steelman to former Trump Hispanic advisor Jacob Monty, have vocally championed Biden. During a recent virtual press conference, they projected confidence that Trump is shedding sizable Republican support in Texas.

“I’ve not changed my philosophy,” Monty said. “I’ve just determined that Donald Trump is an existential threat to America, and a threat to the GOP.”

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