Voting Rights Advocates Search for Openings to “Go Local” in Texas
Clerk candidates in the March primary wrestle with a new Republican law that targets local election officials who expand the franchise.
Michael Barajas, | February 9, 2022
During the first months of the deadly pandemic in 2020, advocates for voting rights in Texas urged local election administrators to expand safe options for casting a ballot. Public officials in some of the state’s biggest cities added drive-thru locations for voters to drop off mail ballots—until Republican Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order limiting drop-off sites to one per county. Houston’s Harris County rolled out the boldest voter-friendly initiatives in the state over objections from conservatives, opening 24-hour and drive-thru polling places, which fueled record turnout.
Kurt Lockhart says the actions taken by Houston’s elections officials prompted him to run for the same job at home in Austin this year. Lockhart, one of two candidates in next month’s Democratic primary for Travis County Clerk, which oversees elections in the state’s left-leaning capital city, argues the office should have done more in 2020 to help voters.
“I was really inspired to run because of what happened in Harris County and the innovative things they did, like 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting, that frankly we should have done here in Travis County,” Lockhart told Bolts. “I think we missed out on that opportunity to enfranchise more folks.”
Local elections offices have become a hotly-disputed battleground in the longstanding fight over voting rights in Texas. After fighting to uphold restrictions on mail ballots and suing to block expanded voting options ahead of the 2020 election, last year Republicans passed Senate Bill 1, a sweeping new set of voting restrictions. Among other provisions, SB 1 bans local elections officials from implementing drive-thru or around-the-clock voting. It also threatens local officials and elections administrators with a felony if they encourage eligible voters to cast mail ballots, with a mandatory minimum punishment of six months imprisonment.
Republicans followed up their success with a special legislative session where they churned out new gerrymandered maps that safeguard their legislative majorities for years to come by continuing to dilute the political power of the state’s fast-growing Black, Hispanic and Asian communities.
Advocates for voting rights say local elections officials in Texas still have a critical role to play in the face of new barriers to voting.
“Because of gerrymandering, it’s going to be challenging to get to legislative majorities for visions we have on the progressive side about how we can run elections better—things like automatic voter registration, online voter registration, allowing student IDs for voter ID and mandatory campus polling locations,” said Alex Birnel, advocacy director with the progressive group MOVE Texas, which has pushed to boost voter participation in a state with historically low turnout.
“The other option is to go local and explore where there is still room in the election code,” he added.
Birnel points to the success of innovations spearheaded in 2020 by Harris County election officials. “These sorts of small policy tweaks are super consequential in diversifying the electorate,” Birnel told Bolts. He points to stories of “welders being able to vote without cutting into their work schedule, moms being able to vote without having to worry about wrangling their kids out of the back seat of the van.” Even though SB 1 narrowed options for election administrators, Birnel hopes that sympathetic local officials will keep innovating and working with voter outreach groups to help boost turnout.
Dyana Limon-Mercado, the other Democrat running for Travis County Clerk, says local elections officials in Texas must push back against state barriers while expanding access to the ballot. “Our local elected officials are having to fight against state officials to guarantee people’s constitutional right to vote in an easy and accessible way,” she told Bolts. “The fight for voting rights is as critical as ever at this moment.”
Lockhart echoes her assessment. “Senate Bill 1 may ban great ideas like 24-hour voting, but there’s no law banning an elections information app to send folks updates about upcoming elections,” he said. “There’s no law banning us from adding additional languages to our election materials, there’s nothing banning us from increasing our social media presence for community outreach,” he said. “There’s still so much that can be done.”
Both Limon-Mercado and Lockhart have vowed to expand voting options, including by extending polling to 10 p.m., the new legal limit set by SB 1. Whoever wins could also face pressure to address barriers to voting imposed by mass incarceration. As pretrial detention has ballooned, people who are eligible to vote but stuck in jail during an election period are often unable to cast a ballot. After facing years of organizing, Harris County officials were the first in the state to put a polling place in the local jail last year.
Lockhart commits to pushing for a similar polling place at Travis County jail if elected. “As County Clerk, my job will be to expand access to ensure that every eligible voter can exercise their right to vote simply, safely, and securely,” he told Bolts. “That means making sure the Travis County Jail has a polling location available for eligible voters in every election.” Asked about a voting location at the jail, Limon-Mercado replied, “I am definitely open to talking to our county sheriff to find a way for that to happen, I am definitely in support of it.”
The winner of the March 1 primary between Limon-Mercado and Lockhart will be heavily favored in the general election, and will probably be responsible for administering the 2024 elections in Texas’ most Democratic county.
Like much of the rest of the country, elections in Texas are run by a dizzying patchwork of offices that take different forms across counties. In some counties, such as Travis, voters directly elect clerks who administer elections in addition to other responsibilities, such as overseeing misdemeanor court records, while an elected tax collector-assessor handles voter registration. Elsewhere in the state, county commissioners have created independent election administrators who are appointed by a board of local officials, rather than elected themselves. Last year, Harris County abandoned the clerk model in favor of setting up an appointed election administrator, who has since joined civil rights groups and the U.S. Justice Department in suing to stop parts of SB 1, including the provision that criminalizes officials who promote mail voting.
Harris County commissioners pointed to the racist roots of the old system to justify the change. Tax collectors were given control of voter registration during a time when poll taxes were used to suppress Black voters.
Birnel says Texas counties should also shift toward unified and appointed election administrators, calling the old model “a residue of Jim Crow.” Elected clerks who directly oversee elections may be more vulnerable to the kind of polarizing political swings that have turned some election offices into bright red targets for conservative activists pushing Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen election.
Travis County splits election administration between its county clerk and its tax assessor-collector, who oversees voter registration. The sitting tax assessor-collector, Bruce Elfant, is a Democrat last elected in 2020 who is appreciated by voting rights advocates for helping ease voter registration in Travis County, where nearly all eligible voters registered ahead of the 2020 election.
Lockhart says that, if elected, he’d lobby for Travis County officials to follow the same path as Harris County and create a unified and appointed office; Limon-Mercado hasn’t committed either way.
Limon-Mercado frames the clerk’s office as part of a larger fight for political change in Texas. She recalls feeling so distraught by her first government job fresh out of college, a court clerk inside a detention center in downtown Austin, that she quit and turned to the state legislature, where she interned with a lawmaker who helped pass criminal justice reforms. She eventually went on to other jobs at the intersection of politics and policy—including working for a disability rights group and most recently as executive director for Planned Parenthood Texas Votes.
She says election administration and voting rights are a cornerstone for all those issues she cares about. “We can’t change the policies unless we have the elected officials, and we can’t have the elected officials if we don’t have fair access to the ballot,” she told Bolts.