My options are limited. No matter the wait times, going to the polls in person is an unnecessary health risk during a pandemic — especially for seniors. Mailing my ballot felt like taking another kind of risk, after everything I’d read about changes at the U.S. Postal Service, delivery delays and late ballots getting discarded. Harris County, where I live, set up 12 different drop-off points, so I decided to hand-deliver my ballot. The nearest location was about 16 miles from my home — not especially close, but manageable.
Then Gov. Greg Abbott (R) shut it down. He limited each county to one drop-off site on “ballot security” grounds, claiming that it would “help stop attempts at illegal voting.” This past week, an appeals court upheld his executive order, writing that “one strains to see how it burdens voting at all.”
Our leaders must not have spoken with many elderly people or people with disabilities before making this decision. I’m facing a 90-minute drive, round-trip, to submit my ballot in downtown Houston (assuming that the traffic gods smile down on me). That’s not even factoring in the possible wait times, now that the governor has drastically reduced capacity. Before, Harris County had a drop-off location for every 190,000 voters. Now, a lone drop-off site has to serve 2.3 million voters, in a county that stretches across 1,777 square miles. At the other extreme, Loving County in West Texas has an area of 677 square miles and one absentee ballot drop-off location serving 121 registered voters.
In the past, I’ve volunteered as a poll worker; I understand the importance of election integrity. But there’s no reason to think drop-off boxes are vulnerable to fraud: You have to show a valid ID and sign in when dropping off your ballot, and the governor has allowed poll watchers to observe in-person delivery. People sometimes point to isolated cases of voter fraud to justify aggressive, last-minute actions like Abbott’s — but those incidents are extremely rare, not evidence of systemic issues. According to an analysis by the National Vote at Home Institute and MIT, out of the hundreds of millions of votes cast by mail nationwide over the past 20 years, there have been only 143 criminal convictions for fraud — amounting to a fraud rate of 0.00006 percent.
The governor’s order has such an uneven impact that it’s hard to see how this could make our elections safer or fairer. Insisting that each county get one drop-off site, no matter its size or population, mostly burdens the larger urban counties — which just so happen to have more non-White people and lean Democratic.
The three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit panel apparently think that anyone who protests this act of voter suppression is just being whiny. Their decision pointed out that the governor had already extended early voting and the window to deliver absentee ballots. In a way, they wrote, Abbott had already expanded access to the vote; his order was just “a partial refinement” of that expansion, not a “restriction.” Despite the crazy, twisted logic, the message was clear: The governor made some efforts, so what are you moaning about? The government isn’t obliged to make things easier for you. It’s your job to jump through the hoops and not complain.
It seems like Republicans in our state will take any opportunity, no matter how small, to put up barriers to voting. Texas used to be one of a few states that offered one-punch or “straight ticket” voting, allowing voters to check one box at the top of the ballot to select all the candidates from a single party. Though the state doesn’t gather these statistics, a survey of the 10 largest counties in Texas found that 64 percent of voters took that option. Then the legislature banned the practice. It may seem like a small thing to outsiders — but in Harris County, our ballots can go on for pages and pages. Longer ballots mean longer lines at the polls. Inconveniences like that add up, especially if you’re a low-income voter already short on time. (The 5th Circuit upheld that ban, too.)
A healthy democracy would make it as easy as possible to vote, so long as our elections remained secure. It says a hell of a lot that one party is trying to prevent or discourage people from voting, and that some politicians see lower turnout as desirable. No elected leader should base their victory on silencing people’s voices. It’s beyond sad.
As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen.