If you are looking for evidence that democracy is in trouble at the local level as well as nationally, look no further than the disagreement among county election and party officials over how to get out the vote.
Voting is a constitutional right, not a privilege, as some assert. Yet a majority of eligible voters in Bexar County, historically speaking, do not vote. And now, little is being done to try to change that. If anything, the county, like the country, is heading in the opposite direction. That should bother everyone who cares about protecting democracy.
The differences came into sharp focus at Tuesday’s meeting of the Bexar County Commissioners Court, but the shadow looming over the arguments was the one cast by the Republican Party — and its stranglehold on state government and election laws.
A well-managed election is a challenge under any circumstances. Getting out the vote is hard enough work without people being confused by disinformation campaigns and false claims of election fraud in President Joe Biden’s 2020 defeat of former President Donald Trump, a new state law, a climate of voter intimidation and toxic politics that have divided the country into two camps that share little trust in the other side.
Voting in Bexar County peaked at 65% turnout of registered voters for the 2020 ballot that led to the defeat of incumbent President Trump by former Vice President Biden. Just under 50% of the electorate turned out for the 2018 midterms in Bexar County, and moving down to local elections, an anemic 17% participated in the 2021 city elections. That last figure, believe it or not, is actually above average for city elections.
The sweeping new law, known as Senate Bill 1, restricting voting rights passed by the Texas Legislature after three rancorous special sessions and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in September 2021 is having exactly the effect Republican lawmakers and party activists hope for, according to my conversations with officials.
County election officials are intimidated by threats from state officials and worn down by political interference. Volunteer poll workers, threatened with the specter of prosecution for missteps, are an endangered species. Vote by mail is complicated enough to befuddle any homebound senior, as intended. Overnight and drive-through voting sites have been outlawed, while efforts by county election officials in Harris County and other metro areas to innovate have been attacked.
And now, county officials cannot agree on the number of polling sites necessary to serve inner city neighborhoods, where fewer adults vote, without contributing to further suppression of the turnout.
Welcome to the Nov. 8, 2022, general election. Early voting starts Oct. 24 and runs until Nov. 4.
The situation in Bexar County is further complicated by the looming departure from public life of Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen. Both remain in office, but both are on their way out, leaving significant vacuums in their wake.
The race to succeed Wolff between former Bexar County District Court Judge Peter Sakai, a Democrat, and former Precinct 3 County Commissioner Trish DeBerry, a Republican, is one of the marquee contests on the November ballot.
In the last midterm election, about 40% of voters from both parties elected to vote the straight party line. That option has now been eliminated. Many voters will be surprised the county judge race appears so far down-ballot. Look over the 2018 county ballot to get an idea.
Callanen, who has been in her job for more than two decades and working local elections for more than 40 years, announced in 2020 that the bitterly contested presidential election that year would be her last. Many took that to mean her exit was not far off, and recruitment of a new elections administrator with a penchant for thankless hard work interspersed with periodic political interference would be necessary.
Two years later, Callanen remains on the job. In Tuesday’s exchange with the Democratic majority on the commission, it was obvious that she and elected officials do not see eye-to-eye on the number of poll sites need to conduct a fair and orderly election. Callanen favors the change made in the last election that now allows registered voters to vote at any poll site, a convenience previously limited to early voting periods.
Her position is undoubtedly influenced at least in part by the growing difficulty recruiting competent, unbiased poll workers willing to work for peanuts and ensure that partisan disrupters do not intimidate people waiting to vote.
Others argue that removing poll sites — even lightly used poll sites — from the total mix suppresses inner-city voters accustomed to voting at the same conveniently located neighborhood site election after election.
Both sides might be right in this argument, but the larger truth is that some people are going to tire of the pre-election noise and decide to stay home.
In the coming 60 days left before Election Day, I’ll explain the ridiculous hoops Hilde Maeckle, my wife Monika’s 90-year-old mother who lives with us, has to jump through to exercise her right to vote without leaving home.