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The Feds Aren’t Watching Local Election Officials In Texas Anymore. So Non-Profits Are.

Election Day is Saturday for several Central Texas cities and school districts.
Photo by KUT News

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a major part of the Voting Rights Act a couple of years ago, states like Texas haven’t had federal oversight in elections.

As a result, civil rights groups have had to flag and sometimes sue state official over violations of federal voting laws ahead of this year’s election.

The latest example has to do with whether counties are providing bilingual voting information on their websites.

Part of the Voting Rights Act says officials have to provide bilingual election information if more than five percent of the population they serve isn’t proficient in English. It turns out dozens of Texas counties fall into that category, but they weren’t following that rule.

So, a few weeks ago Nina Perales with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (or MALDEF) sent a letter telling county election officials they needed to provide bilingual voting info on their websites.

“So we have had a good response,” she says. “We have had a number of counties contact us right away and tell us that they are working on getting a button on their websites to direct to the Secretary of State’s Spanish language materials.”

Perales is happy she hasn’t gotten pushback on this, but this whole situation points to a bigger problem, she says. And the problem is that if MALDEF hadn't flagged this issue for county officials, dozens of county websites around the state would have been in violation of important voting rights laws. 

Part of the reason this is happening is because the federal government is not required to watch over Texas anymore – and state government hasn’t picked up that work, either.

“It should be something that the Secretary of State is looking at,” Perales says. “Their staff should be looking at county websites.”

State officials don’t see it that way, though.

“The Secretary of State’s office is not an investigative or an enforcement agency,” explains Alicia Pierce, with the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

Pierce says the state can advise county administrators, but they can’t control what they do with their websites. She says that’s just not their job.

“Texas has a very decentralized election system,” she says. “Most of the power of actually conducting the election is with the county elections office.”

Perales, with MALDEF,  says the state should make that their job – especially since the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act. She says the work of ensuring voting rights are protected is still important in Texas.

“We still have the remnants of the past discrimination and having lost federal oversight over election changes means that private organizations like MALDEF are stretched thinner because we have to be covering more issues related to voting rights than ever before,” she says.

Bills aimed at amending the Voting Rights Act have been held up in Congress for the past couple of years.

Ashley Lopez covers politics and health care. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.
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