By Caitlin Turner-Lafving
On September 7, Judge Jason Pulliam dismissed Mi Familia Vota v. Abbott after determining that the case presented a nonjusticiable political question. The plaintiffs’ complaint argued that Texas’s election laws impose an undue burden on the right to vote in violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as applied to elections held during the COVID-19 pandemic: “Because Defendants have closed hundreds of polling places over the last eight years, voters will have to travel further to vote in person and vote in locations that service a higher number of voters, burdening the exercise of the franchise and the risk of person-to-person transmission of the virus.” Part of the relief sought was that the court order Governor Greg Abbott and Secretary of State Ruth Hughs to open additional polling places for the November election.
Texas counties have closed polling places at an alarming rate. This year, concerns about COVID-19 are driving some of the closures. In July, eleven polling places were announced as closed the day before the runoff election due to a lack of poll workers. But the pandemic cannot be blamed for the 750 locations across the state that were closed between 2013 and 2019.
Since the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, Texas has initiated widespread polling place closures. The Lone Star State is not alone in this respect. A 2019 study by the Leadership Conference Education Fund found that thirteen states closed 1,688 polling places in the six years following Shelby. Texas is the worst offender.
One piece of the puzzle is that many Texas counties participate in the state’s Countywide Polling Place Program, which allows voters of participating counties to cast their ballots at any polling location countywide. Proponents of the program say these “vote centers” allow for less Election Day confusion and greater convenience. The program also addresses some disenfranchisement, as thousands of Texans’ votes from the 2016 and 2018 elections were thrown out because they were cast at the wrong polling place.
However, the transition from voting precincts to countywide vote centers often leads to polling location closures that disproportionately affect Black and Latinx communities. Polling places are consolidated, based on past voter turnout, after counties switch to the vote center method. Counties with large minority populations – Dallas, Travis, Harris, and Brazoria – have made the most cuts. An analysis by The Guardian found that the 50 Texas counties that experienced the most growth in Black and Latinx residents between 2012 and 2018 closed 542 polling locations, while the 50 counties that gained the fewest Black and Latinx residents closed only 34 locations.
On Super Tuesday, before COVID-19 was a factor in polling place closures, voters in San Antonio and Houston reported extremely long lines. Most San Antonio counties – Atascosa, Bexar, Comal, Guadalupe, Kendall, and Medina – and many Houston counties – Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston, and Harris – participate in the Countywide Polling Place Program. At Texas Southern University, a historically Black university in Houston, a voter reportedly waited six hours to cast their vote.
With the November election fast approaching, Texas’s reduction in number of polling locations raises serious concerns about voter disenfranchisement and safety. Neither poll workers nor voters are required to wear face masks in November, which will likely impact poll workers’ willingness to volunteer and voters’ willingness to endure long wait times at crowded polling places.
These concerns, and Texas’s unwillingness to address them, do not ring on deaf ears. In his order dismissing Mi Familia Vota, Judge Pulliam wrote, “[T]he requests for relief do not appear unreasonable and can easily be implemented to ensure all citizens in the State of Texas feel safe and are provided the opportunity to cast their vote in the 2020 election.”