by Lina Hidalgo
I will never forget hearing last fall about a Texas Medical Center nurse, a front-line health-care hero, who cried tears of joy when she found out that, because of 24-hour voting, the polls in Harris County would still be open after she left her late shift. I still remember the reports from our elections staff about the excitement of people from both parties during their first drive-through voting experience.
Now, both of those voting options that we instituted in Harris County, which includes Houston, for the 2020 election have been targeted by the Texas state legislature as part of a larger Republican effort to suppress the vote in many states across the nation.
Access to the ballot box is the ultimate vehicle for self-determination and for social and economic justice. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his 1957 “Give Us the Ballot” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in D.C., “The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition.”
Yet nearly 64 years after that speech, especially in the South, attacks on voting rights are back in vogue. The players and the justifications have changed, but the intent behind vote suppression — and the effects on the vulnerable — remains largely the same.
Past generations used “revenue collection” to justify poll taxes. They used the need for an “educated electorate” to justify literacy tests. Today, as recently witnessed both here in Texas and in the Georgia legislature, those seeking to keep voters from the ballot box use the Big Lie of widespread “voting fraud” to justify their anti-democratic measures.
The results then and now are obstacles to voting. More than 360 restrictive election bills have been introduced in 47 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. A good number of these attacks on voting rights have been filed by Republican state legislators right here in Texas, and many of them are aimed squarely at Harris County.
In 2020, Harris County became a national model for how to run safe, secure and convenient elections. We tripled early voting locations, extended voting hours to 10 p.m. on three early-voting days and had a day of 24-hour voting. We implemented drive-through voting. The result: Record voter turnout, as 68 percent of registered voters went to the polls — the greatest participation Harris County had seen since 1992.
The response to this beautiful display of democracy is Texas Senate Bill 7, among other measures. The bill would ban 24-hour voting and do away with drive-through voting. It would also limit the number of polling places, a sure way to discourage voting by causing delays and long lines. The Senate has approved the bill, which has the general support of Gov. Greg Abbott (R). Another version, House Bill 6, was approved Thursday by the House Elections Committee.
Alarmingly, the bill would also allow partisan “poll watchers” free access to polling places and authorize them to take videos of voters. That evokes the suppression efforts of the 1950s and 1960s, when voter intimidation at the polls was a regular practice. Men with guns would linger outside polling sites in minority neighborhoods, some dressed so they appeared to be in law enforcement.
The Texas Civil Rights Project recently commissioned a study of the potential human costs that would be imposed by Texas’s voter-suppression efforts. The study, by the economic and systems analysis firm the Perryman Group, found that diminishing political power leads to economic losses in communities whose votes are suppressed. Voter suppression leads to less political power for the targeted communities which in turn leads to lower wages, less public sector employment and decreased educational opportunities. Those losses, and losses from reduced tourism and event revenue, would be enormous.
According to the study, the voter-suppression bills could cost Texas 223,000 jobs by 2025. Gross state product would decline by $31.4 billion over that same period. Texas would lose $1.8 billion and local governments $1.25 billion in tax revenue. The numbers reflect job losses, wage losses, losses in tourism and event dollars as sponsors shrink from doing business in a state that marginalizes people of color. American Airlines, AT&T and Dell Corp. have already gone public with criticism of the legislature’s plans.
It shouldn’t surprise even the most ardent conservative backers of voter suppression that diminished democracy results in a diminished economy. Haven’t the many blessings that flow from democracy been one of America’s most important messages to the world?
This latest attack on voting rights is widespread, and demands a response in kind. Millions of Americans today would almost certainly say that they would have joined King during the civil rights movement. Now they have an opportunity to step up in defense of voting rights that were so hard-won. Many major corporations, government leaders and advocacy groups are joining the movement. We need everyone.
Lina Hidalgo is the chief executive of Harris County, Tex.