By Kendall Quirk
On Election Day 2018, Justice Department officials were sent to Tarrant County (Arlington and Fort Worth), Harris County (Houston), and Waller County (west of Houston). While Tarrant County election officials reassured the public that their presence was nothing to be concerned about, and Harris County said, “It’s just routine,” many voters may be unaware of the reason for the interest in these counties’ election proceedings. At the time of the Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013, the state of Texas was a covered jurisdiction under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required the state to submit any changes in voting procedures or election law to the Department of Justice for federal approval to ensure minority voters were protected at the polls. Since pre-clearance is no longer required, states do not have to submit changes to the Department of Justice for approval, yet federal oversight still exists in the form of visits from Department of Justice officials.
The ACLU of Texas wrote an article in March 2018 titled “The Sorry State of Voting Rights in Texas” highlighting the plethora of issues, many of which are in violation of the Voting Rights Act (Veasey v. Abbott, Organization for Chinese Americans of Greater Houston v. Texas), that still face minority voters in the state.
But why did the Department of Justice target these particular counties? The Department of Justice made a press release the day before the election listing 35 jurisdictions in 19 states that they planned to monitor for “compliance with the federal voting rights law.” Waller County is the home Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college that sued just a month ago over alleged black voter suppression. The history of race and voting rights in Waller County is extensive, particularly with the students. A case with Prairie View A&M and student voting rights made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979 and required that students fill out a questionnaire about their place of residence.
Tarrant County’s recent voting issues include four women accused of being involved in an “organized voter fraud ring” in Fort Worth. The Texas Attorney General’s office states that four women “harvested” voted by forging signatures on applications for mail-in ballots during the 2016 election. The women were indicted by a grand jury less than a week before the election. During early voting, voters in Harris, Tarrant, and other counties reported voting machines changing their vote from O’Rourke to Cruz, causing many voting rights groups to say this is a clear example of a wider breakdown of voting and election systems in the state.
Harris County is the largest county in the state by population. Recently, the county’s Democratic voter registrar mailed letters 83 days before the election challenging the registration of possible ineligible voters from voter rolls. However, the Motor Voter Law (formally known as the National Voter Registration Act), prohibits this within 90 days of the election. The Department of Justice Civil Rights Division stated that the letters were “clearly improper.”
As a formerly-covered jurisdiction, Texas voter rights are still at risk across the state. It is clear that, despite the fact that pre-clearance is no longer required, federal oversight is still common across Texas and other states. Although the Department of Justice did not release a statement specifying why Harris, Tarrant, and Waller counties were the subject of federal scrutiny on Election Day, recent—and not-so-recent—voting history in each county clearly makes these prime candidates. Voters may not have been aware of the reason, or even the presence of the officials at the polls, but it may have made a difference in ensuring the proper proceeding of the election.