Big Super Tuesday prizes a study in contrasts over voting

U.S. & World

In this photo taken Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, Wesley McCandless cast his ballot at one of the voting centers in Sacramento, Calif. Sacramento County is among the 15 counties in the state that have replaced traditional polling places with multi-purpose “vote centers” where people who live anywhere in the county can vote early, drop off ballots or register to vote. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

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The two biggest states participating in Super Tuesday represent another story aside from what happens in the Democratic primary: Voting rights.

California and Texas are the most populous states in the nation and the biggest delegate prizes on Tuesday for the presidential contestants. They also present a stark contrast in voting laws.

Deeply Democratic California has taken several steps in recent years to make it easier to register and vote, including pre-registration for teenagers, community drop-off centers for early voting and the ability to register on Election Day.

While Texas has early voting, the Republican-controlled state also has policies that make voting more challenging. Those include a voter ID law that allows handgun licenses but not college IDs, and restrictions on how and when people can register. Last year, Texas officials also sent letters to 95,000 registered voters to tell them they may not be eligible because they’re not citizens — only to find serious flaws in the list.

The two Super Tuesday giants illustrate how the ability to easily register and cast a ballot depends in many ways on where voters live. In the last presidential election four years ago, 75% of registered California voters participated. In Texas, it was 59%.

“You have America moving in two very distinct directions. On one hand, you have these states that fully embrace and believe in democracy,” said Carol Anderson, an Emory University professor who has written a book on voter suppression. “On the other hand, you have states that treat it as a privilege that only those who can jump through a maze of tunnels, obstacles and bridges … can vote.”

California is one of 16 states with a version of automatic voter registration, in which those who are eligible to vote and do business with the state Department of Motor Vehicles also get registered unless they opt out.

The program, in place since 2018, has caused some headaches; an error in the system in its first year caused about 23,000 people to be registered with the wrong party affiliation, for instance. But it also has been credited with leading to a surge in voter registration.

California also is one of 14 states where teenagers can pre-register to vote once they turn 16. Texas is among the most restrictive, allowing teens to sign up only two months before they turn 18, the national voting age.

And if elections arrive and California residents still haven’t registered, they can sign up that day at a vote center. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing Election Day registration.

In Texas, voters must be registered 30 days before an election.

The result has been a dramatic spike in voter registrations in California. The number of registered voters has grown 21% since 2012 while the state’s population has budged only slightly, growing 4%. Voter registration also has grown in Texas as its population has exploded, but not as much relatively as California. The state has grown by 11% since 2012 while the voter rolls have increased by 19%.

James Slattery, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said much of the voter growth in Texas is due to the work of civil rights groups, which file lawsuits over policies and inform residents about their voting rights. He said the state’s political leadership has made that work necessary.

“To the extent they’ve worked on Texas elections at all in the last generation, they’ve made it harder for people to vote at every step,” he said.

Officials in Texas, as in other states with policies that make voting more difficult, say the changes are intended to address voter fraud, a problem much discussed but with relatively few actual cases. Many of the Texas measures also have been put in place since a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that undid a key provision of the 1964 Voting Rights Act. Until the ruling, states and counties on a list of places with histories of discrimination, like Texas, had to first get voting law changes approved by the U.S. Justice Department. Voting advocates say the impact of voter ID and other laws is that they make it harder to vote, especially for minority, young and lower-income people.

California is among states that have gone in the opposite direction. This year’s primary, for example, is the first time California has allowed voters to register on Election Day at any polling place in designated counties. Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, said one possible problem is a rush of people signing up at the last minute could make for long lines at vote centers. Still, she praised the state for trying to making voting accessible to as many people as possible.

“California has made some great progress in expanding voting rights to more people,” Alexander said. “We are in a state of experimentation right now with different voting models.”

Texas is one of 11 states that does not offer online registration, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Volunteers who want to register voters must first go through a process that requires a training session or taking a test at a government office. They must go through the same process in each county where they intend to sign up voters.

Last year, the Legislature considered a bill that would have made it a crime to put incorrect information on a voting application, even by accident. The bill passed the Senate, but never got a vote in the House. Charlie Bonner, a spokesman for MOVE Texas, which focuses on registering young voters, said the measure would have been a major deterrent to groups like his if it had been signed into law.

“My greatest fear was we were going to suppress people who wanted to help their friends and neighbors get registered,” he said.

Texas and California offer ways to vote ahead of Election Day, but in very different ways.

In Texas, every county must have at least one place where voters can cast ballots in person from 17 days to four days before the election. A new law in effect this year eliminated mobile voting centers, which offered voting in limited hours in rural communities, on college campuses and elsewhere.

Under the new rules, only sites open for the entire two-week run are allowed. In some cases, the result has actually been greater voting access. That includes Tarrant County, home of Fort Worth, where officials opened nine full-time early voting locations on college campuses where they had previously used only temporary ones.

The effect statewide is unclear. Voting rights groups do not yet have data to see how the number of voting places compares to past primaries.

To vote by mail in Texas, voters have to be 65 or older, disabled or declare a reason they can’t vote in person. Their ballots must be postmarked no later than Election Day and received by the day after.

California is among a growing number of states with no-excuse mail-in voting. Like in Texas, ballots must be mailed back by Election Day, but they will still count if they’re received up to three days later.

Under a recent reform, 14 California counties now send every voter a ballot in the mail. Voters can mail them back in envelopes with prepaid postage, drop them off at a community vote center or have someone else drop them off.

“I’m glad that we have changed our laws in a number of ways that will make voting a lot easier for a lot more people, and hopefully a satisfying experience, ” Alexander of the California Voter Foundation said.

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