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The New Poll Tax? Long Lines, Closed Polling Stations Hurt Black, Latinx & Student Voters in TX, CA

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Image Credit: Twitter: @christofspieler

Long wait times plagued polling places in Texas throughout Super Tuesday, especially in districts with high numbers of black and Latinx voters and college students. Many voters reported waiting in line for more than three hours to cast a ballot. At least 750 Texas polling sites have been shuttered since 2013, when the Supreme Court slashed federal oversight of Texas and other Southern states under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. There were long lines, too, in Los Angeles, where many polling places reported problems with a brand-new $300 million voting system. The Sanders campaign sued to keep polling places open an extra two hours, saying voters were denied their constitutional right. The county registrar denied that request. For more, we speak with Ari Berman, senior writer at Mother Jones magazine and author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Long wait times plagued polling places in Texas throughout Super Tuesday, especially in districts with high numbers of black and Latinx voters and college students. Many voters reported waiting in line for more than three hours to cast a ballot. At least 750 Texas polling sites have been shuttered since 2013, when the Supreme Court slashed federal oversight of Texas and other Southern states under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In one case, CNN correspondent Ed Lavandera tweeted a photo of Hervis Rogers, an African-American voter who waited nearly seven hours to cast his vote at a polling site at Texas Southern University in Houston, one of the nation’s largest historically black colleges. Rogers brought his own chair with him so he could sit while waiting in line. He finally voted at 1:30 a.m., before heading off for work — late — to his overnight shift.

AMY GOODMAN: There were long lines, too, in Los Angeles, where election officials acknowledged problems with the brand-new $300 million voting system. Bernie Sanders’ campaign asked a federal court for an emergency order to keep polls open an extra two hours Tuesday night, saying people were denied their constitutional right to vote. L.A. County Registrar Dean Logan denied the request but apologized to people who waited in line for up to four hours.

For more, we’re turning to Ari Berman, a senior writer at Mother Jones, reporting fellow at Type Media Center, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. His latest piece for Mother Jones, “Here’s Why Texans Had to Wait Six Hours to Vote.” Why?

ARI BERMAN: Well, there are a number of reasons. There weren’t enough poll workers. There were voting machines that were 20 years old and shut down. But a major contributing factor in Texas to the very long lines was the fact that Texas closed 650 polling places after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and said that states like Texas no longer had to approve their voting changes with the federal government. In all of the Southern states previously subject to the Voting Rights Act, they closed 1,688 polling places. But Texas closed more than any other state. So the long lines we saw in Texas were a direct result of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. It disproportionately hurt Democratic and minority voters, because 70% of the polling places were closed in the 50 counties in the state with the largest growth of black and Latino voters. So, in places like Dallas and Houston and San Antonio, that’s where you saw disproportionate lines. They were not the same lines in wealthy white neighborhoods that there were in black and Latino and neighborhoods where a lot of young people voted.

AMY GOODMAN: So, and let’s remember, Texas was called for Joe Biden, who beat Bernie Sanders. It was a tightly — and it was a surprise for many that that’s what happened. Do you think it influenced the outcome of the Texas results?

ARI BERMAN: I think the long lines hurt both candidates. I think there were elderly African Americans that had to wait a long time who voted for Joe Biden. And I think there were a lot of young people that voted, and it hurt Bernie Sanders. But there’s no doubt that people left. It’s absolutely unconscionable in America that it should take six hours and 20 minutes to vote. And there were anecdotal stories all across the state of people saying, “I can’t wait that long.” I mean, you go to vote, you think maybe it’ll take half an hour, an hour if the lines are long. You can’t budget five or six hours of your time. Hervis Rogers, the guy that waited six hours and 20 minutes to vote in Texas, right after he finished voting, he had to go work a night shift. So, these long lines are a form of a poll tax.

AMY GOODMAN: And let’s remember, they’re standing.

ARI BERMAN: They’re standing. And the long lines are a form of a poll tax, because they keep people from being able to work. They keep people from getting to their kids or their families. And it’s disproportionately hurting Democratic communities. It’s disproportionately hurting young people. It’s disproportionately hurting Latinos, African Americans, other people, that are already struggling to vote in states like Texas that have other forms of voter suppression, as well.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: There’s also another aspect of voting in America which distinguishes it from a lot of countries in the world, the majority, which is that voting takes place on a workday, and that workday is not declared a national holiday. So that’s another way in which I think many people are not able to vote, the combination of having to get to work and then often having to wait hours in order to cast a vote.

ARI BERMAN: Absolutely. I mean, many other countries choose to hold voting on the weekend.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: On the weekend.

ARI BERMAN: They make Election Day a national holiday. They have polling places at every school, for example. So there’s many, many, many few polling places. You look at Texas. They’re voting on a weekday. People are not getting time off. That have a very restrictive voter ID law that prevents people from voting. Then they close 750 polling places, and you start to see why there are six-hour lines for people to vote.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go from Texas to California.

ARI BERMAN: It was a slightly different story in California. There was very high turnout that was unexpected. A lot of people waited a long time to vote. They voted on Election Day instead of early. What happened in L.A. in particular is they were rolling out an entirely new voting system, and basically it crashed. It didn’t work. People couldn’t check in properly. The poll books weren’t working. The voting machines weren’t working. And then, you could vote at any polling place, which theoretically is a good thing, but there weren’t enough polling places. So, like at UCLA, for example, there was one polling place for 40,000 students. So, I don’t think we saw the same intentional voter suppression in California that we saw in Texas, but there’s no doubt that a lot of things were messed up in California. And again, we don’t know how many people just decided to not go through the process because the lines were so long.

AMY GOODMAN: Ultimately, on Election Day, who does this serve?

ARI BERMAN: It’s going to help Donald Trump on Election Day, because Democrats, no matter who the campaign is, no matter who the nominee is, they’re going to need a large turnout to beat Donald Trump. They’re going to need big turnout from young people, from African Americans, from Latinos, for Asian Americans. Those are the people that have to work longer. So, Donald Trump is sitting there seeing the six-hour lines in black and Latino areas and thinking, “This helps me.” There were no lines in white Republican parts of Houston, Texas. The lines were in black and Latino parts that, no matter who they’re voting for, they’re voting for Democrats over Republicans.

AMY GOODMAN: Can they open more polling places in Texas before Election Day?

ARI BERMAN: I certainly hope they do. I certainly hope Democratic officials in Texas, in the counties they control, in places like Houston and Dallas —

AMY GOODMAN: And California.

ARI BERMAN: Exactly. I hope they’re much better prepared, because we saw 25% turnout in Texas, and the lines were this long. Imagine if we see 50, 60, 70% turnout in the general election.

AMY GOODMAN: Can we switch to a different issue?

ARI BERMAN: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of census and coronavirus.

ARI BERMAN: I’m very concerned about the census. There were already so many difficulties facing this census, which, by the way, starts next week. And now you have a situation where people don’t want to open their doors. They don’t want to talk to strangers. Census workers are going to be uncomfortable going into certain communities. So, I think there have to be some real contingency plans. I think we need to think about the fact that the census might have to take longer to complete, that there might have to be some sort of way to count people that aren’t opening their doors.

AMY GOODMAN: And why does the census matter?

ARI BERMAN: The census matters because it forms the basis for democracy in America. It forms the basis for how political districts are drawn. It forms the basis for how $880 billion in federal funding is spent, for things like healthcare and roads and education. If we screw up the census, we screw up all of American democracy. And right now we’re beginning the census in the midst of a potentially massive pandemic. And so, we need to get this right, if it means that the census takes longer, if we push back the dates a little bit. The most important thing is to count everyone in America and to overcome whatever obstacles there might be. And this is now the latest obstacle in a long line of obstacles facing the census.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, we want to thank you for being with us, senior writer at Mother Jones, reporting fellow at Type Media Center, latest piece, we’ll link to, “Here’s Why Texans Had to Wait Six Hours to Vote.”

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is hiring for a number of positions here in our New York City studio, from our newsroom to outreach and development teams. Information for jobs at democracynow.org.

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