Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the historic voting rights march at Selma and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. There were thousands of dedicated citizens and grassroots organizers who sacrificed their blood, tears, and too often their lives fighting discriminatory tactics like literacy tests, poll taxes, and brutal acts of terrorism in order to ensure that all eligible Americans can participate in our democracy, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic background. Their sacrifice and achievement continues to stand as a lasting reminder that when we the people lock arms, stand up for what is right, and make our voices heard, we can move our nation and the quality of our democracy forward.
The 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights
The right to vote and ensuring every eligible citizen has the freedom and ability to elect leaders who reflect their values are the fundamental foundation of our democratic process. But we are unfortunately reminded on a regular basis that it remains a work in progress to fulfill the constitutional promise that each and every eligible Texan has the right to have their voices heard at the ballot box.
Earlier this month, voters in Harris County and elsewhere around the state were forced to wait in unnecessarily long lines to cast their ballot, the state has continued its efforts to push a discriminatory voter ID law through the courts, and a lawsuit had to be filed against the Texas Department of Public Safety for failure to comply with the Motor Voter Law that allows Texans to register to vote when renewing their driver’s license.
These battles have regrettably become the norm, as we continue to face campaign finance laws that give corporations more of a voice in elections than the people, gerrymandered districts that dilute communities’ voices at the polls, and numerous other tactics to suppress the vote. As a result, Texas often ranks last or near last in the country in voter turnout, and our elected officials too often don’t truly reflect the values of the people.
So the fight continues.
As Vice Chair of the Senate Committee on State Affairs, the committee which handles election-related issues, I sent this letter to the Texas Secretary of State, the state’s chief election officer. In the letter, I asked the Secretary to “begin a dialogue with the legislature, county election officials, and county party officials about the extremely long lines in Harris County” and “investigate what went wrong and provide a list of specific recommendations – both legislative and otherwise – on how best to prevent this from occurring again in the future, including best practices across the country to estimate accurately the likely turnout at a given voting location.”
My letter continued:
I understand that no lines and no wait on Election Day are unrealistic expectations for any election, much less one that captivates the public and turns out thousands of new voters. But as you know, Texas already struggles with voter turnout, often ranking last or near last in the country. Adding long lines to the numerous barriers Texas already puts in place to make voting more difficult threatens to further decrease our disturbingly low levels of civic participation around the state and the overall health of our democracy.
Harris County and the State of Texas have a duty to do everything in their power to ensure the freedom to vote is protected, unnecessary barriers to the ballot box are eliminated, and the voting experience encourages voters to return to the polls in future elections, rather than discourages them.
Throughout my years in public service I have pushed for commonsense solutions to increase access to the ballot box and protect Texans’ freedom to choose elected officials who reflect their values. I authored the amendment that created Texas’ Motor Voter Law. I fought the Texas voter ID law at every stage and argued in court against Texas’ discriminatory redistricting maps. I have consistently pushed legislation for same day voter registration, automatic voter registration, making Election Day a state holiday to encourage voting, ensuring volunteer deputy registrars can operate in multiple counties, and numerous other reforms to advance and protect the right to vote.
It will be an uphill battle to pass these policies, but we owe it to those who sacrificed so much in previous generations to fight for these commonsense election reforms. It’s our responsibility – today and in the future – to honor what millions have fought for by taking meaningful action toward the preservation of a fundamental freedom: access to the ballot box.
I hope you will join me. Our state, nation, and democracy are stronger when all of our voices – regardless of race, gender, or economic status – are included in the political dialogue. Eliminating unnecessary barriers to the vote ensures that public servants like myself are accountable to all Texans’ priorities: high quality education regardless of where you live, an honest and fair justice system, infrastructure investment, and an economy that works for all Texas families, not just a select few.