Democrats believe they have a shot at making gains this year in Republican-dominated Texas, including winning control of one house of the Legislature for the first time in nearly two decades.
Persuading voters isn't their only challenge. Voting and registration rules crafted by Republicans in recent years also could prove to be a big obstacle.
In a state that's growing rapidly in population and diversity, officials have closed hundreds of polling places, taken steps toward removing thousands of registered voters from the rolls, imposed strict voter identification requirements and made it more expensive to put early voting sites on college campuses — all in the name of election integrity.
“The bottom line in Texas is Republicans are scared to death of demographic changes,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause in Texas, “and are doing anything and everything they can think of to keep those changing demographics from affecting elections."
Nationally, Democrats say strict voter ID laws, purging of voter rolls, reduction in polling places, limits on early voting and other restrictive steps are Republican attempts to suppress their voters. Republicans counter that they are merely trying to maintain the integrity of elections and close off potential avenues for voter fraud.
It's an argument playing out across the country, and one that is leading to lawsuits in numerous battleground states.
In North Carolina, litigation over a voter ID requirement passed by Republicans has created uncertainty over whether it will be in place for the November elections. In Georgia and Wisconsin, voter advocacy groups have sued over efforts to revoke the registrations of voters who have not participated in recent elections. And in Texas, Democrats are suing over a ban on mobile polling places.
Attention on state efforts to expand or restrict voting access has been heightened since 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated some key protections of the Voting Rights Act. Before that ruling, Texas was among nine states with a history of racial discrimination that needed clearance from the federal government before making significant changes to their voting laws.
All nine now have laws that ask voters to show IDs at polling places, laws that often have led to confusion on Election Day. The Texas law, for example, allows a handgun license to vote, but not a college ID.
Voter roll purging also has accelerated in some states in recent years. Election administrators are supposed to remove people who have died or moved out of their voting jurisdiction, or in some places have failed to vote during the last several elections. How those purges are done is at the heart of legal battles across the country.
Georgia officials removed 313,000 people from voter rolls last year. Fair Fight Action, a group founded by 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who has become a major voter rights advocate nationally, has been pushing to have about 120,000 of them restored.
Fights over access to balloting on college campuses, restoring the right to vote for felons and whether interest groups should be allowed to collect voters' completed ballots are playing out in numerous states.
If voting restrictions reduce turnout, they can make the difference in races decided by narrow margins.
Many of these fights are playing out in Texas, the nation's second most populous state and one that has been a Republican stronghold for much of this century. New arrivals from other states, an expanding Hispanic population and urban centers with an increasing leftward tilt have given Democrats hope that they can rise from the political graveyard.
Yet in recent elections, Texas has had among the lowest voter turnout rates in the country. In 2016, with a presidential race on the ballot, barely half of registered voters participated. There was a surge of voting — by non-presidential year standards — in 2018, when Democrat Beto O'Rourke came close to unseating GOP Sen. Ted Cruz.
Last year, a variety of civil rights and voter advocacy groups opposed efforts from the Republican-controlled state government that could have had a chilling effect on voting. A judge forced the acting secretary of state to drop an effort to call into question the citizenship of 95,000 voters in a step toward removing them from voter rolls. The list of possible non-citizen voters turned out to be full of errors.
The Legislature ultimately rejected a bill that would have made it a felony to put incorrect information on a voter registration form — even by accident. Opponents say it could have stopped voter registration campaigns in their tracks. But its sponsor, Republican state Sen. Brian Hughes, said bad information entered by voters on their registration forms is a problem that's known but not often prosecuted, largely because it's a lower-level offense.
“I understand folks try to characterize this as being something else,” Hughes said. ”But this is simply about making sure the rules are fair and that people follow the rules.”
The Texas Legislature has adopted other restrictions, including a 2017 ban on straight-ticket voting, a process in which voters can opt to have their ballot marked for all candidates of one party. Common Cause's Gutierrez said the ban can have an out-sized effect in major cities where the ballot has dozens of candidates. If voters have to wade through every office, it could create excessively long wait times on Election Day, discouraging voters, he said.
That's especially true if the state or counties have closed traditional polling places. States and counties that used to have to submit voting law changes to the federal government closed nearly 1,700 polling places from 2012 to 2018, according to a report issued last year by the Leadership Conference Education Fund. Of those, 750 were in Texas, where a law that allows counties to test countywide voting centers also lets them close existing sites.
The story lines are similar in other states. The leadership fund, a civil rights organization, is monitoring bills in legislatures this year to impose more voter ID requirements as well as state and local actions to remove voters from the rolls. It’s all part of a pattern that goes back to Reconstruction after the Civil War, said LaShawn Warren, the fund’s senior vice president for campaigns and programs.
“You have advancements and you have efforts to undermine the advancements,” she said.
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State voting, registration laws vary and change frequently
GEOFF MULVIHILL | Associated Press
The rules of elections are always changing.
In the states and the District of Columbia, lawmakers last year considered more than 2,900 bills dealing with elections and voting, and enacted more than 350, according to a tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The changes include deadlines for registration, pay for election workers and many other details. But the overarching story is that there are simultaneous pushes across the country to make it easier or harder to register and vote.
A look at some of the common issues playing out in the states:
VOTER ID REQUIREMENTS
Thirty-four states require voters to show identification at polling places; several others require IDs of voters the first time they vote. A North Carolina voter ID law is on hold pending the outcome of a lawsuit.
To voters with driver's licenses, the requirements typically are not a big deal. For others — disproportionately the young, old, disabled, poor and minority — gathering the documents for a valid ID can be a barrier to voting. To get a valid government-issued ID, a person may need to go through the process of getting a reissued birth certificate or Social Security card, which can take months.
Voter ID laws have become more common and more restrictive since a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned a key piece of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Nine states that had a history of racial discrimination no longer have to submit voting changes to the federal government for review before they become law. All nine of those states now ask voters to show some form of ID at polling places. Some of the ID laws were adopted before the 2013 ruling but had been blocked from taking effect.
The stated reason for voting ID requirements is preventing fraud by voters. It does happen, but not often.
Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, has been trying to track voter impersonation cases that could have been stopped with tougher voter identification requirements. He said he’s aware of fewer than 50 incidents over the last two decades, out of more than 1 billion of votes cast in federal elections alone. He said such efforts are rare in part because they aren’t likely to swing elections.
“Fraud by voters nets you a few incremental votes,” Levitt said. “What’s the point?”
The Heritage Foundation keeps a database of election fraud cases of all kinds going back to the 1990s. While the list is not comprehensive, it has fewer than 1,000 incidents over a span of more than two decades, including charges such as vote-buying, where candidates rather than voters were the wrongdoers.
Some recent cases that have gotten attention had nothing to do with IDs.
Terri Lynn Rote of Des Moines, Iowa, pleaded guilty of trying to vote twice by absentee ballot in 2016 and was fined $750. Rote said she wanted an extra vote for then-candidate Donald Trump because she believed the system was rigged against him.
Last year, a Sacramento man, Gustavo Araujo Lerma, was sentenced to nearly four years in prison after being convicted of voting fraud. A judge found the Mexican citizen impersonated an American citizen so he could vote over a period of two decades. At trial, he testified that he was a Trump supporter.
In December, the Democratic governors of Kentucky and New Jersey took action to expand voting to people who have served time after felony convictions, continuing a national trend of restoring rights of people after they are released from prison.
In New Jersey, 80,000 people who have completed prison sentences but remain on parole or probation will be able to vote in elections starting in March under a law passed and signed in December.
In Kentucky, 140,000 people who have completed sentences for non-violent offenses can vote under an executive order signed by in December by newly elected Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.
People convicted of crimes are disproportionately black men, a demographic with low election participation. The Sentencing Project says that 1 in 13 black adults is ineligible to vote because they’re in prison, on parole or probation, or have been convicted of a crime that bars them from voting in their state.
But restored voting rights remain in flux in one important presidential battleground state. In 2018, Florida voters amended the state constitution to allow 500,000 people who have completed sentences for felony convictions to have the right to vote.
The GOP-controlled Legislature last year passed a law creating a caveat: The rights would be restored only to those who had paid all their fines and court costs. To proponents of the change, the idea is that those payments are part of the punishment.
Opponents called it the equivalent of a poll tax and sued. The Florida Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion this past week siding with Republicans and Gov. Ron DeSantis.
A lot of election access battles are over voter registration.
Most states allow voters to sign up online, and several let them register on Election Day. In California, voter registrations are now updated automatically when people interact with the state Department of Motor Vehicles — unless they opt out.
But the practice, which launched in 2018, has been riddled with errors, including people being registered with the wrong party and some non-citizens being added to voter rolls.
At least 16 states have some version of automatic registration, most involving motor vehicle agencies. In other places, pruning of registration lists has become controversial.
Election administrators are supposed to take out the registrations of people who have died or moved out of the jurisdiction -- or in some places, failed to vote in the last several elections.
How it’s done is at the heart of legal battles playing out in some states, including Wisconsin and Georgia.
Georgia officials removed 313,000 people from voter rolls last year. Fair Fight Action, a group founded by Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who narrowly lost the 2018 election for governor there, objected.
The group said that 120,000 people were taken off the rolls because they did not respond to postcards that said they had not voted or had other contact with election officials for three years. The state agreed that about 22,000 of those should not have been taken off the list.
But the fight continued regarding the remaining 98,000, with Fair Fight arguing that the state should have followed its new law and sought to remove only people who had no contact with voting officials for five years. In late December, a judge disagreed and found the state could remove voters from the list.
At the same time, a conservative group has taken legal action in a handful of places to try to force voter-roll pruning. The Public Interest Legal Foundation sued Detroit officials in December for not properly maintaining voter lists. It said the rolls there included more than 2,500 deceased people who were born at least 85 years ago -- including one with a listed birth year of 1823.
“Dead people aren’t the problem. It’s the fact that no one is catching it. What is getting overlooked?” said the group’s spokesman, Logan Churchwell.
Churchwell said that when voter registration rolls are sloppy, they can also be vulnerable to hacking and other interference.
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