Stacey Abrams Talks Voter Suppression at Texas Tribune Festival

On Tuesday, Sept. 22, voting rights activist and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams joined Alexa Ura of the Texas Tribune to discuss voter suppression and the upcoming election. The event, held on National Voter Registration Day, was part of this year’s all-virtual Texas Tribune Festival. 

“We have seen a renewed commitment to limiting access for eligible citizens to cast their ballots,” warned Abrams, stressing that voter suppression tactics overwhelmingly target voters of color. Yet, she added, “I’m also very strongly encouraged by the responses we’ve seen around the country. Voters who are now aware of the challenges to their right to vote who are taking up the mantle and the charge of saying this is power and I will not let it be taken away.”

According to Abrams, who founded the voting rights organization Fair Fight to combat voter suppression, there are three key components to the architecture of voter suppression: “One, do you make it difficult for people to register and to stay on the rolls? Two, is it hard to cast a ballot, and three, is it hard to get that ballot counted?” 

In Texas, Abrams points to the state government’s resistance to online voter registration, poll closures and ongoing barriers to vote-by-mail as examples of voter suppression tactics currently at work. 

More recent actions by Texas officials also fit Abram’s definition of voter suppression. In August, Texas Secretary of State Ruth Ruggero Hughs directed Attorney General Ken Paxton to file legal action against Harris County after Harris County officials refused to cease efforts to proactively send out applications to vote by mail. Harris County officials said they sent out these applications in order to make it easier for voters to vote by mail in the midst of the pandemic. 

However, state officials worked to block these efforts, arguing the effort could confuse voters and infringe on voter rights. Advocates and County officials rejected that claim, asserting that the state’s action to block their absentee registration efforts will make it harder for residents to vote.  

On Oct.1, Gov. Greg Abbot issued an order reducing absentee ballot drop off sites to no more than one per county and requiring that all additional drop off sites in each county be closed. Almost immediately, voter rights groups sued the governor. Activists described this move as another example of voter suppression tactics and argued that reducing drop off sites would make voting safely during the pandemic more difficult. 

In addition to structural barriers, Abrams points out that when voter suppression does occur, the ensuing confusion and shame make fighting back even harder. 

“One of the most insidious parts of voter suppression is it looks like user error,” she explained. “That is an absurdity in a democratized nation. The responsibility belongs to the government. It is a fundamental right.” 

Concerning election outcomes, Ura and Abrams discussed how Texas’ changing population might make it a future battleground state. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, Texas’ Hispanic population continues to rise, with experts anticipating that Hispanics will represent the largest population group in the state within the next few years. 

Texans younger than 18 are more racially diverse than any generation before, but Abrams warns,  “demography is not destiny.” She argues that for Texas to become competitive in progressive races, candidates need to do more to reach out, register and educate new and previously disenfranchised voters. 

As the November election draws near — and voter suppression tactics continue — Abrams offers this simple advice: make a plan and don’t panic.  Ultimately, she encouraged those listening to ensure that friends and family are registered and know when and how to vote. 

If something goes wrong, share your experience, says Abrams.

“Unless we call out what’s occurred, then the disinformation and the misinformation and the distrust of our system flourishes because there’s no counterweight,” she said.

The voter registration deadline for Texans was Monday, Oct. 5 and early voting runs from Oct. 13 to Oct. 30. Information on registering to vote in Travis county can be found here. To get involved in voter registration and education efforts at the University of Texas, check out the Annette Strauss Center Institute for Civic Life’s TX Votes Project.

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