Houstonians worry new laws will deter voters who don’t recall the hard-won fight for voting rights

Aug 20, 2023, 8:10 AM

Palwasha Sharwani, executive director of Emgage Texas, left, and A.J. Durrani, right, a Harris Coun...

Palwasha Sharwani, executive director of Emgage Texas, left, and A.J. Durrani, right, a Harris County elections judge, pose for a photo on Wednesday, July 26, 2023, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

(AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

HOUSTON (AP) — Sylvia Ann Miller-Scarborough remembers when people of color had to pay a poll tax to vote in Houston. She recalls her grandmother, undeterred by such obstacles, reminding her how important it was to be heard at the ballot box.

Miller-Scarborough worries that much of the hard-won progress she’s seen in more than a half-century of voting in the largest county in Texas could be erased by Republican lawmakers. And she says it’s gotten harder to convince her own grandchildren that it matters.

“They don’t believe in voting,” she said. “They are all in their thirties, but they don’t vote. They won’t go to a political rally with me. They say what’s the use? Nothing has changed, as far as they can see.”

Harris County, a Democratic stronghold in a state long dominated by Republicans, is one of the most diverse places in Texas, where the minority population has been growing for decades. Democrats have long predicted the state would turn in their favor, but those dreams have been dashed repeatedly.

Still, when the Republican-controlled legislature passed two measures this year to eliminate Harris County’s top election job and give the Republican secretary of state power to take oversight of the county’s elections, political operatives understood the stakes. They also knew that with a mayor’s race looming in Houston in November, the changes will be tested early if they survive a legal challenge.

The question of how voters of color in Houston will respond is more complicated.

Miller-Scarborough, 79, lives in Kashmere Gardens, a historically Black neighborhood in Houston. She thinks the legislature’s actions will fuel cynicism that already exists among voters who don’t remember the struggle for the right to vote.

“I hear my grandkids already saying, ‘See that, granny? I told you that didn’t do any good to vote, didn’t I?’”

Houston Republican Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who authored the bill abolishing the elections office, said the changes will improve transparency and clean up recent stumbles in county elections, including paper ballot shortages and delayed openings at some poll locations last November. More than 20 Republicans are still challenging their defeats last year in Houston-area races.

“Harris County had too many issues to ignore,” Bettencourt said.

The law he sponsored, meanwhile, is hung up in court. Harris County last month sued Texas, its Republican attorney general and the secretary of state, claiming the law violated the state Constitution, which bars the legislature from meddling in certain local affairs. The law prohibits counties with a population of 3.5 million or greater from creating an elections administration office, but Harris is the only county that qualifies.

A state judge put things on hold Aug. 14, but the state’s Republican attorney general has appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. The laws would take effect Sept. 1 if the court rules in his favor.

Around Houston, it is easy to find voters who say the political implications of constant legislative meddling in Harris County elections are obvious.

Rita Robles said ever-changing rules confuse people in places like Denver Harbor, the mostly Hispanic neighborhood where she lives.

“It seems like it’s been going this way for a while,” said Robles, 53. “The only way it’s going to get any better is if they make more options.”

In recent years, the Republican legislature has been heading in the opposite direction. It passed a measure in 2021 stripping 24-hour polling places and drive-thru voting, both initiated locally to improve voter access during the pandemic.

To voters of color, Robles said, the message is clear: “It just seems that they’re being silenced.”

Harris County, home to Houston, has more than 4 million people and over 2.5 million registered voters. While Donald Trump won Texas by under 6 percentage points in the 2020 presidential election, President Joe Biden won Harris by a 13-point margin

Just four years earlier, Republicans controlled the county; their slipping grip reflects the shifting population trends.

The non-Hispanic white population of Texas fell below 50% for the first time between 2000 and 2010, when it made up 45% of the total, and continued to decline through 2020 to 41%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The changing demographics have cut into Republicans’ typically wide margins of victory and made Democrats, who have consistently won substantial majorities among both Black and Latino voters for decades, more competitive in Texas’ booming suburbs.

In Houston, where the population shift to majority-minority status happened earlier, new voting maps also drew an outcry in 2021 after Republicans lawmakers created no new congressional districts where minority residents hold a majority — even though Hispanic residents are driving Texas’ surging growth.

That adds to a wariness among voters of color that’s deeply rooted in Texas history. White leaders of both parties employed numerous tactics to suppress the minority vote, from the poll tax to literacy tests, for at least a century. Texas was one of five states that still allowed poll taxes when they were outlawed by the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1964, and while the tax went away, Texas didn’t ratify the change until 2009.

That history motivates former Democratic Senator Rodney Ellis, who sponsored the Senate resolution to abolish the poll tax and remove the old stigma. He said the problems of the past should inspire apathetic voters.

“Knowing that my ancestors had to count jellybeans, had to try and recite the Constitution by memory — I’ve got three degrees, including a law degree — I can’t do that,” said Ellis, now a Harris County commissioner. “Yet somehow, they had to make a way.”

Keith Downey, president of the Kashmere Gardens Super Neighborhood Council, a planning forum in Houston, said the legislature’s heavy-handed tactics are about control.

“It discourages the voter,” he said. “It discourages a resident. The resident wants to have taxation with representation. What they’re getting is taxation and no representation.”

“How can you control a community you don’t live in, and you never visited?” Downey asked.

Palwasha Sharwani, executive director of Emgage Texas, a group that works to increase political engagement by American Muslims, Muslim voters won a hard-fought victory in 2020 when the local election administration office increased the number of Islamic Centers to be used as polling places.

“I don’t know if we will have the same kind of audience and the same kind of understanding because the future is in the air,” she said.

The first test of the new laws will come quickly, when Houston voters elect a new mayor. The laws take effect two months before the November election — a compressed time frame that Democrats and local election officials fear could cause problems that would trigger intervention by the state. The last time Texas rushed to enact a new voting law close to an election, in 2022, 23,000 ballots were thrown out.

Tana Pradia, a 63-year-old poll watcher in a mostly Black and Latino neighborhood, applauded Harris County’s decision to sue.

“Closed mouths don’t get fed,” she said. “If you want to make a change, you have to be the change.”

Ellis, the Harris County commissioner, said voting should be free of partisan politics.

“I want everybody to vote,” he said. “I want you to have the right to vote against me just as much as I want people to have the right to vote for me. And I’ll take my chances. I’ll roll the dice, so to speak, with the voters.”


Associated Press writers Paul Weber in Austin, Texas; and Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida, contributed to this report.


Associated Press coverage of race and voting receives support from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Houstonians worry new laws will deter voters who don’t recall the hard-won fight for voting rights