Harris County, Texas, leads the state and the nation in systematic, official vote suppression.
We are the benchmark: Hundreds of thousands of voters are impeded, tens of thousands ore obstructed, nearly a million are demoralized and self-excluded. Perpetual incumbents of both parties are indifferent to this. Elected Democratic public and party officials immediately responsible for and complicit in it are not held accountable for their ineffectuality.
Exploiting the complexity of state and federal law, as well as poor design and unreliable operation of three (call them 'overlapping') voter registration database systems, tens of thousands of applicants routinely encounter rejections and data-entry errors that make it hard to get in the poll book on election day. Basically the burden of an unreliable “kludge” falls on the voter. Neither party -- deferential to incumbents with a vested interest in low-participation politics -- is much interested in these problems because they are “Too Technical!”
Further complicating matters, maintaining registration is very hard for those who move frequently; any combination of a young, poor, or non-white person most obviously. So, hundreds of thousands of registrants are in the book somewhere but chronically in a limbo status of “Suspense” or “ID” voter. Moreover, re-registering or completing a “Statement of Residence” form can actually make things worse by introducing more opportunity for data-entry error by the voter registrar or data retrieval error by the election clerks. This is especially acute for suburban voters who move between and among various counties in Texas. They can update their registration at the polls. Their update will go on the statewide voter roll. They will be dropped from the old county, but they will not be registered in the new county despite the new technology.
The only recourse running up to the election has been to “swamp and sweep”: Neither the Obama campaign nor the Harris County party has the right technical tools or enough legal recourse to do that well But, they have both used every resource they do have (a) to raise political participation and awareness generally, (b) to expose and discourage any clever, new or ad hoc vote suppression and (c) to expose and untangle whatever they can for motivated and patient voters. Hundreds of voters have gotten a full, limited, or provisional ballot that will count despite all the obstacles. Registration is up somewhat and turnout is way up.
That is as good as it is going to get in the absence of fundamental change to what is still, after 134 years, an effectively property-qualified franchise, now “credit-scored” but still administered pursuant to the Jim Crow Texas Election Code.
This sorry situation – crippling for the Democratic Party in any ordinary year -- has both a political and economic bias that hand-wringing over racism is now pretty much an excuse for ignoring. Yes, racial bias is almost as great a consequence as ever, but it is no longer a “root cause” of problems with voter registration in Texas. Our problem today goes way beyond race and threatens every citizen.
The root problem is economic discrimination. And that pervades, for instance, indirect and regressive taxation. So the serious problems are at the neglected core and not the controversial fringe of the legal, logistical, and technical foundations of voter registration, indeed of all Texas government.
The unifying and patriotic Obama campaign has a message of hope: “It is not about me, it is about you!” And it should translate into a message of change. The Texas Democratic Party in Austin ceded Texas to the GOP long ago, but not the Harris County courthouse, and not the Texas House. If and only if the built-in, refractory vote suppression here and there has been overcome temporarily in the course of this campaign, then something fundamental, something historic and irreversible can be done about it … starting next year.