A Texas city is bucking the trend and making it easier for people to vote
EL PASO, TEXAS — My Uber driver described El Paso as the “bastard child” of Texas. The people here even live in a different time zone; while the rest of the state runs on central standard time, El Paso’s on mountain standard time.
El Paso is distinct in another way: unlike the rest of Texas, its voting system is set up to encourage residents to vote.
“Historically, people will tell you that Texas is… really challenging to a voter, but El Paso County is kind of on its own — we’re really far from a lot of the main cities in Texas,” said the elections administrator for El Paso County Elections Department, Lisa Wise.
El Paso County added two mobile polling locations for early voting this midterm election. Despite the state’s draconian voter-registration laws, roughly 1,000 deputized volunteers registered 457,966 voters — the highest number of registered voters in El Paso dating back to the 1980s. These efforts proved fruitful, as more than 139,000 residents cast ballots during the 12 days of early voting — almost the same amount who voted early in the 2016 presidential election.
“Our county commissioners are very progressive as far as they really understand voters’ rights,” Wise told ThinkProgress. “I’ve only been in this position about three-and-a-half years, but they have always been encouraging, saying ‘Hey, what’s the best way we can serve voters, that’s really a priority.’”
The Republican party dominates Texas politics by making it difficult for everyone — particularly black and brown people — to vote, wrote Adam Serwer in The Atlantic Monday. The state recently garnered national attention for disenfranchising students at a historically back university in rural Waller County. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund also wrote a letter urging the Texas Secretary of State to take action over reports that at least nine counties 10 hours east of El Paso had voting machine errors.
The border town of El Paso, alternatively, rarely encounters voting problems. This Latinx heavy county also reliably elects Democrats to office. While this county historically struggles with voter turnout, the candidates on the ballot this time around, as well as the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming out of Washington, are driving residents to the ballot box. Perhaps unlike their neighbors, El Pasoans are encouraged to get there.
While El Paso is subjected to the same strict Texas voting laws — severe voter ID requirements, in-person training sessions for volunteer deputy registrars, and requiring that people be registered 30 days before Election Day — the border town does what it can to make the most of it. Officials concentrate on the “sleeping giants” — Latinx and young people, doing their best to make voting accessible.
Understanding that young people’s lives are especially defined by instability, Wise’s office tried to make it as easy as possible for them to vote: polling places were open shifted times at a range of sites during the early voting period. Sites included community colleges, in addition to the University of Texas El Paso. Local groups also went to classes to “promote, promote, promote.”
“Some hours are regulated by the state — that you have to have this many hours at the main early voting location which would be, here, the courthouse… But we usually exceed those,” Wise told ThinkProgress. “So it says basically ‘Hey, you have to be open for four hours.’ We’re open seven hours so we make the minimum, but we usually try to exceed them.”
The spike in turnout during the early voting period was largely fueled by young people. Indeed, more than one in six early voters were under the age of 30.
Officials in El Paso have also gotten creative when it comes to thinking of ways to make voting habitual. Immigrants make up a quarter of the county, meaning that participating in U.S. politics isn’t as ingrained.
“We’ve been in high schools, we’ve been in the middle schools, we go into elementary schools and we’ve got a curriculum that we present now to kids as young as fourth grade — just starting the habit now of the bigger picture of civic engagement,” said Wise. “I think you can make the link between, ‘Hey, this is what I think is important in my community and in order to get that done we need to vote’ and starting at age 10.”
Long lines at the polling stations are a concern come Election Day, as residents might get frustrated or might not have the time to wait, leading them to leave without voting. The El Paso County Elections Department tried to prepare for this, launching a new feature for its mobile app during the March primary. People who download the app can view wait times for every polling location. The department is also having poll workers use iPads to check people in, rather than doing so by hand, to expedite the process.
El Paso has managed to churn out a record-breaking turnout despite Austin’s efforts to curtail voting rights from 600 miles away. Many people are excited because El Paso is Senate Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke’s hometown. High turnout here could make a difference in what looks to be an especially tight race between O’Rourke and incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
The Texas Civil Rights Project agrees El Paso County is doing better than the rest of the state in terms of voting accessibility. They haven’t heard about voter intimidation, like in Dallas County, or machine issues, like in Harris County. Most people calling the Project hotline just requested general voting information.
“Like the rest of the state, El Paso County has smashed voter registration and turnout records,” said Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “We are so excited and heartened to see that, despite barriers thrown up by state policymakers, local officials in El Paso County have made many efforts to ensure that every eligible El Pasoan can cast a ballot that counts. Indeed, voter turnout for just early voting has already tripled compared to the same time in 2014.”