Five Texas counties rank among the top 10 nationwide for closing the greatest percentage of their polling places since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, according to a new report released less than a week before Election Day.
And taken together, Texas counties have closed more polling places than any other state, the report found.
According to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a civil rights advocacy group, since the high court found Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional — ruling that Texas and other states with history of racial discrimination no longer needed federal pre-clearance when changing election laws — Texas counties have closed at least 403 polling places. This will be the first election in 50 years conducted without the full force of the Voting Rights Act.
Fisher, Medina, Aransas and Coke and Irion counties ranked the highest in polling place reductions, closing more than half of their voting locations.
In terms of total polling places closed, Texas is followed by Arizona, which closed 202 polling places. Louisiana holds third place, with 103 poll closures.
Under Section 5, the federal government had to pre-clear voting changes — such as closing or moving a polling place — in states with a demonstrated history of racial discrimination to make sure the change did not disenfranchise minority voters. After the court threw out that requirement in Shelby County v. Holder, poll closures have gone "unnoticed, unreported, and unchallenged," according to the report.
"The loss of Section 5 means that there is no process to ensure that reductions are disclosed to the public, are conducted with the input of impacted communities, and do not discriminate against voters of color," the report said.
But some Texas county election officials counter that, in many cases, voting has become easier because voters can now cast ballots at any voting location, not just their assigned precinct.
Almost half of all Texas counties closed polling places after the high court's ruling. According to the report, the Texas Secretary of State's office declined to provide 2016 polling place information, so the study was based on the 134 counties that had the information on their websites. Since the sample included only 53 percent of Texas counties, the 403 number is not a complete count.
Shortly after the court's decision, Texas implemented also its new photo ID law, disenfranchising 600,000 registered voters and a million eligible Texas voters, the report said, until the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals said the voter ID rules violated the law against racial discrimination in elections.
According to the report, a survey conducted by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund showed dozens of Texas counties violated the Voting Rights Act by failing to provide information about voting in Spanish. Nueces, Caldwell and Medina were some of these counties, and they have closed a significant number of polling places since the 2013 ruling.
"These are places that didn't even have Spanish-language material in their websites even if the state was giving it away," Scott Simpson, author of the report, said. "If you can't tell your Spanish speaking voters how to register to vote, how are you going to inform them about significant changes in voting practices?"
Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the civil rights group, said decisions to reduce voting locations are made quietly, making pre-election intervention impossible and putting a burden on minority voters that may have less access to transportation once their usual voting place disappears without warning.
"Without the full power of the Voting Rights Act we have no transparency and no idea why polling places have been closed or changed," Zirkin said.
The report uses Galveston County as an example of how voting place closures can disenfranchise minorities. After the 2013 ruling, the county closed 16 percent of voting locations and announced it would bring back its plan of eliminating half of the districts that would allow black and Latino voters to elect justices of the peace and constables, even after the Department of Justice rejected the plan during the pre-clearance requirement.
In many instances, the reductions are a result of a statewide shift form traditional neighborhood polling places to voting centers, reducing the number of polling places and allowing voters to cast their ballots at any available voting site in the county. Michelle Bennett, elections administrator of Aransas County, said this is a positive, not a negative, for the election process.
"It actually makes it easier for voters to vote because they can vote anywhere on Election Day without having to go to a specific poll site," Bennett said. "Previously, if they went to the wrong poll site and they weren't in that precinct, they'd be directed to the precinct they were registered in. Now we don't turn anybody away."
Bennett said the agency posts notice of changes in the newspapers, website and on the doors of recently closed voting sites for voters to understand the new election process.
Bill Sargent, chief deputy clerk for elections in Galveston, said the response has been overwhelmingly positive among voters who can now cast ballots at multiple locations.
"We do everything we can to let people know [about the changes]," Sargent said. "We had one election where you couldn't go to vote centers because of local jurisdictions. We had to be precinct-specific and voters got pretty upset."
But the report says that while vote centers can have real benefits, it's troubling that these changes can be made without federal oversight in counties where there is a history of racial discrimination against voters.
Simpson said that he hopes the report will urge voters to make plans according to these changes and that lawmakers take notice of two bipartisan bills — the Voting Rights Amendment Act and the Voting Rights Advancement Act — currently being held in Congress, which can address the gaps in polling closure transparency.
"Hopefully people will take notice. Truthfully, what we want is the Voting Rights Act restored," Simpson said. "These polling places go unreported, they are unchallenged and people are uninformed."