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Dallas County Works to Make Voting Equitable and Easy

Texas ranks 46th in the nation for voter access, making it one of the hardest states to vote in. Dallas County has been working to increase accessibility, but there is only so much local officials can do.

(TNS) — The DART bus stop was a short walk around the corner for 81-year-old Delmira Esquivel after she voted last week at Oak Cliff Government Center. The retired Dallas native uses a rolling walker to get around, its base stacked with laundry, lists and mail.

An old injury in her leg pains her often. She still likes to vote in person though, using both paratransit and Dallas Area Rapid Transit to help cast her ballot while running errands. Barriers to voting like transportation access and wait times won’t stop her.

“It’s easy if you use your brains,” she said.

But groups focused on election access for all say policy and mindset barriers make participating in democracy harder, especially for eligible voters who live with inequity. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the Legislature’s efforts to reform Texas’ voting systems have only made the process more restrictive.

The public policy nonprofit called Texas’ Senate Bill 1 “one of the cruelest and most aggressive restrictive voting bills to become law.” And in a report released last month, the group’s analysis of March primary data shows “massive disenfranchisement and major racial disparities.”

Texas had the most Black eligible voters in the nation in 2020, the second-largest number of Hispanic eligible voters and the third-largest number of Asian eligible voters, according to Pew Research Center.

Texas is also one of the hardest states in which to vote, according to the 2022 Cost of Voting Index, a nonpartisan, academic study designed to quantify the cost of voting in terms of time and resources. The Lone Star State ranks 46th in the nation for voter access, while Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Hawaii and Colorado rank among the easiest places to vote, the study found.

In the shadow of the state’s changes, Dallas County elections officials say they have worked to make their voting procedures as equitable and easy as possible. But in many ways, the county’s hands are tied, leaving residents the choice to either scale barriers or not vote at all.

The hurdles to voting may prove too high for some, as Dallas County data shows a drop in early voting numbers compared with 2018′s record midterm turnout.

Hurdles from SB 1

In 2021, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law SB 1, which codified several changes for election departments. Voting options like Harris County’s drive-through polling stations and 24-hour voting centers that opened during the pandemic as safety measures were banned.

Voting by mail became more restrictive, requiring that people submit an application at least once a year. The application requires either a Social Security number or driver’s license number, and if approved, the voter must then include the same form of identification on their ballot, or it is rejected.

Early voting centers have to be open for nine hours a day — up from eight hours a day — opening no earlier than 6 a.m. and closing no later than 10 p.m., banning the 24-hour voting centers.

Various voting and civil rights groups have sued the state over the law, saying it is voter suppression. In February, a federal judge blocked a portion of the bill that prevents election offices from soliciting mail-in ballots.

Dallas County Elections Administrator Michael Scarpello said he was eager to find ways to make voting faster, easier and more convenient when he took over the role in December 2020. Aggressive vote-by-mail and early voting programs and highly trained poll workers were at the top of his list.

“I was very excited in 2020 when I was still in California, and I saw some of the very creative things that they were doing in Harris County,” he said. “And when I came to Dallas County, we fully intended on implementing those types of voter-friendly reforms.”

The Houston-area elections administrators pushed for drive-through access and 24-hour voting locations to accommodate people’s accessibility needs and diverse work schedules.

“Unfortunately, the Legislature shut those down with SB 1 and prevented us from implementing those changes,” Scarpello said.

Texas law before SB 1 wasn’t necessarily voter friendly, Scarpello said, especially compared with other states that have online voter registration and universal vote-by-mail practices. But the new law created higher barriers that disproportionately affected eligible voters of color, the Brennan Center report found.

Using Texas’ registered voter file from the March primary and documents from the secretary of state’s office, the report revealed 6,000 mail ballot applications and 20,000 ballots were rejected because of SB 1′s new identifying number requirement.

People of color were more likely to have their ballot applications rejected than white voters; Asian voters were 40 percent more likely to have an application rejected than white voters.

Latino and Asian voters in the March primary were each 50 percent more likely than white voters to face a rejected ballot, the analysis found. Latino, Asian and Black voters were also significantly more likely than white voters to have their mail ballot applications rejected under the new rules.

The legislation’s author, Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes of East Texas, did not respond to requests for comment but previously has defended the bill, saying it will secure elections against voter fraud.

In a blog post on Texas Public Policy Foundation, Hughes touted the bill as “legislation that will make it easier to vote, but harder to cheat in Texas.”

Scarpello told The Dallas Morning News that there are other ways to secure the election without disenfranchising voters.

“We could achieve some of the same goals, and make things more convenient for voters by doing certain things. For instance, simplifying the language on all this documentation. The documentation is just ... it’s red-tape heaven,” he said. “We could simplify things for our elderly, mail-in ballot voters.”

Lens of Equity

Scarpello said he understands the security concerns but wants legislators to work closely with election officials in creating future legislation.

When asked what he believes to be the most equitable way to run an election, Scarpello looked to his former state of Colorado, where there are open and inclusive vote-by-mail laws and many early and Election Day voting centers.

Barbara Larkin, with the League of Women Voters of Dallas, says that Scarpello and Dallas County have done as much as possible within state limitations to run an equitable election.

“They are swimming upstream with the rules that they’re trying to implement,” Larkin said. “So I think they’re trying. They’re working at it. They’re working pretty hard.”

The League of Women Voters of Dallas is the local branch of a national nonpartisan voter advocacy organization. Larkin, the vice president of voter services, said one of the biggest hurdles to a fair election is education.

Her organization visits college campuses and takes daily calls from the public about the voting process, and Larkin said it’s surprising how many people do not know their rights.

For example, people without photo identification in Texas can still vote, but they have to fill out a Reasonable Impediment form. Those who have moved from out-of-state just need proof of residence to register. If something goes wrong on Election Day and a potential voter can’t go back home to get a document, Larkin recommends they cast a provisional ballot.

“Then there is a chance they can find you later when you can produce the ID later. There is a process that you can then get the ballot to be counted,” Larkin said. “Don’t just leave. It felt like in 2020 a lot of people just gave up.”

Elizabeth Markowitz, who works as a communications professional in politics, moved to Texas months ago from Alaska, where there’s automatic voter registration.

“This was just so crazy to me,” she said. “I’ve always heard that like, ‘Oh, it’s confusing knowing how to register to vote,’ and, like, now I actually get it.”

Markowitz read through the site and felt overwhelmed by trying to find out if her Alaska ID would be accepted.

“This is some of the hurdles that people are facing, like not knowing the right information,” Markowitz said.

Markowtiz’s application for a mail-in ballot also was rejected after an official misread a letter of her last name and spelled it incorrectly. She was told to vote in person instead.

Markowitz, who shares a car with her husband, was eventually able to go to the polls last week before picking up her toddler from day care.

Inequities’ Impact on Voter Turnout

Election access experts say hurdles like a lack of reliable transportation, child or family care and an inability to afford time off work illustrate how structural inequities contribute to decreased voter turnout.

Academic studies have linked the relationship between states with greater income inequality and lower voter turnout. In Texas, white residents have a higher median income than any other race or ethnic group and are less likely to face economic inequities, according to U.S. Census data.

Comadres Unidas de Dallas is a nonpartisan community group that educates the Latino community about local issues. For this election, its members were registering people to vote. Since early voting started they have been going to events to encourage residents to vote in Dallas, Oak Cliff, Pleasant Grove, Richardson and Garland.

“We get a mix of answers of why they do not want to vote, but the most common ones are: ‘I don’t have time,’ and ‘My vote doesn’t count anyways,’” said Myrna Méndez, president of the Comadres Unidas de Dallas. “And that is when we explain to them about early voting, locations and hours, and why their vote matters.”

Méndez said that people who work from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. in jobs like construction or restaurants are less likely to vote because they come home tired. All they want to do is eat, rest and get ready for the next day.

“We tell them about voting on the weekend or that the polls close at 7 p.m., but they think their vote is not important, their voice will not be heard, so why take time from their day to vote?” Méndez said.

Méndez said that Latinos could feel like their vote doesn’t count because many local candidates might not make a great effort to reach out to them or stop by their neighborhoods and ask them what issues matter most.

Aj Majd is a field manager with Texas Rising, an organization that empowers Texans of color under 30 years old to vote.

Majd said young people of color have reported the closing of more polling locations on college campuses, as with the Texas A&M early voting location in College Station.

“Texas keeps making it harder for young people of color to vote, which is their civil right. Usually, these folks go to school and then to work or vice versa, so voting in school was their only option. But with fewer options, this discourages them from voting,” he said.

Mental Barriers

Mental hurdles, like a lack of trust in elected officials or faith in democracy itself, can affect people’s decisions to vote, much like structural barriers.

Jim Sherry was working from his Oak Cliff home on Tuesday when he stopped by a polling station on Jefferson Street to vote. Sherry, a lawyer, was able to squeeze in the trip that morning, a five-minute drive from his house.

He said he didn’t face structural hurdles to get to the polls. But Sherry says he still feels mental barriers when voting.

“I’m sometimes a little despairing about whether my candidates, Democratic candidates, have a realistic shot in Texas,” Sherry said. “I usually feel like my presidential vote is erased in Texas.”

A 2020 poll conducted by the data-driven journalism site FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos, a market research and polling company, found that one mental barrier among people of color is the belief that states don’t want them to vote. About 54 percent of Black people believed Republicans didn’t want them to vote, 35 percent of Hispanic people agreed with that statement while just 26 percent of white people agreed.

Of the more than 8,000 respondents in the poll, those who said they rarely or never voted were more likely to have lower incomes, to be young and have lower levels of education.

Majd, with Texas Rising, said young people of color often don’t see any candidates who care about the issues they do.

“We know that young people are very interested in policies for climate change and are worried about the planet’s future, so when they do not see any candidate that aligns with what they believe, they just decide not to vote,” Majd said.

Dallas County’s Work Ahead

Elections officials like Dallas County’s Scarpello know the road to more equitable elections is a tough one that requires cooperation among all levels of government. One of the areas where Scarpello sees room to grow is in the county’s vote center advisory committee.

The group was responsible for turning precinct-based voting into countywide voting centers in 2019, which allowed any eligible voter to cast their ballot at any location.

But Scarpello says the challenge ahead will be determining the number of voting locations, where they’re located and the quality of the facilities.

After the election this year, the committee plans to study three years of data to determine the best locations to put vote centers that have expanded parking and better accommodations for people with disabilities.

“I think it’s critically important that people who don’t have access to transportation, for instance, have a convenient location that’s near them,” Scarpello said. “And so we will take into account social and economic factors. And we will provide that data for the vote center advisory committee to consider.”

Esquivel pushed her walker on the bus outside Oak Cliff Government Center after voting, a special stop this morning in between her errands that was worth wait, she said.

“I enjoy living. I don’t like to be negative. I always like to be positive,” Esquivel said. “Yesterday, forget it. Tomorrow, I’m not even thinking about it. I’m thinking about right now.”

©2022 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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