Voting activists share the challenges underserved communities face at the voting polls

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- With the 2022 Texas primaries in the rearview mirror, leaders from six activist voting groups came together Thursday morning for a virtual roundtable hosted by Houston in Action. The panelists shared what their teams experienced while working with people in underserved communities after the passage of S.B. 1.

"Voting has always been intimidating and really hard. Not everyone has a family member that can go with them and help them at the polls. Not knowing if a polling location is going to give you a difficult time, it can make someone really nervous to even go out and vote," said Megan Joy Macias, Texas 4 All Campaign Coordinator at Texas Organizing Project.

According to Houston in Action, 30% of the 24,000 mail-in ballots that Harris County received were flagged for rejection, a rate higher than in 2018 and 2020.

"Voters only have until March 7 to cure their ballots in-person," said Juan Cardoza-Oquendo, director of Public Policy at Houston in Action. "We're talking about thousands of voters, whose votes may not be counted in the end because of administrative procedures that they had to go through to get their ballot counted.

Cardoza-Oquendo also said that early voting turnout was low, citing only 13% of first-time voters cast their ballot in the Republican primary and 12.2% in the Democratic primary. In total, 4.2% of registered voters voted in the Republican primary and 3.9% in the Democratic primary.

He posed a question to the panel, asking them what some of the biggest challenges they saw among the people they serve.

"One of the biggest challenges for the HIV community was the mail-in ballot, because a lot of us are disabled. A lot of us didn't understand what was on that ballot," said Tana Pradia, co-chair at Positive Women's Network.

"We're talking about trans, gender-diverse, LGBTQ+ in our community. They wonder, 'Am I going to be able to vote if I don't look like my ID?'" said Pradia

"We work with a lot of homeless people and people who have been incarcerated. Just because you've been incarcerated, doesn't mean that you can't vote and a lot of them don't realize that. When some people get out of jail, they have lost their IDs. But that's a huge process and can sometimes go around in circles. There's not a lot of time to sit and talk to them about the other side of it about why they need to go vote," said Karen Hasan, Texas ID Connect director at Houston Justice.

Speakers said the new guidelines in S.B. 1 exacerbated the barriers that already existed for the populations they serve, adding confusion in the voting process for those who are still learning English or those who relied on the option to vote by mail.

"We serve multilingual communities that speak like Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu, and Arabic. A lot of these languages don't meet the census thresholds for translation and so they are not served adequately," said Amatullah Contractor, team lead at Emgage. "They're from immigrant communities, who don't quite know the laws and what all the offices are. In the end, they usually end up skipping races or voting in races they don't understand."

"We've spoken to several callers on our hotline, people that didn't realize until it was too late that they didn't get their application because they were expecting to get it. People who are not sure if their application was received, because they didn't get their ballot. Then folks who aren't even sure if their ballot was received," said Angelica Razo, Texas State director for Mi Familia Vota.

Panelists also discussed the new requirements for people who assist voters in person at the polls, which they believe may be deterring volunteers.

"It also adds a very big component of fear into witnesses, because they're required to take an expanded oath. Even if they mistakenly violated it anyways, it's a misdemeanor offense, which prevents good Samaritans from actually coming forward to help other voters with their ballot," said Contractor.

Republican lawmakers and Gov. Greg Abbott said that S.B. 1 helps improve election integrity, although there has been no substantial evidence to prove widespread voting fraud.

Contractor believes that the new voting law is designed to keep marginalized communities away from the polls with the uptick in state legislation and policies centered around LGBTQ+ communities, abortion, and racial equity.

"I think that folks realize there's a very intentional reason for why they're stopping us from voting because they are trying to enact even worse politics. We're not able to represent ourselves at the ballot box. So they can actually pass these bills without difficulty," said Contractor.

As voting activists now prepare for the general election in November, they said their number one priority is to educate as many people as possible about the required steps to vote. They also said it's crucial to collaborate with other community leaders, such as leading faith-based organizations to empower their groups to vote.

"It's really about not tuning in a month before an election. But actually having year-round organizers to actually help develop leaders," said Contractor.

"We need to make sure people have access to information and create empowerment around community celebration. People need to feel like they are part of the voting process and they're not going through it alone," said Razo.

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