March 22, 2018 - Assistant Professor D. Theodore Rave emphasized the state's need for election officials who do not have ties to a political party during a voting rights briefing to the Texas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights last week at the University of Houston Law Center.
The commission describes itself as, "an independent, bipartisan, fact-finding federal agency, (whose) mission is to inform the development of national civil rights policy and enhance enforcement of federal civil rights laws." Committee members considered discriminatory practices that may impact voters on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability status, or religion in the areas of voter registration, access to polling locations, and language access.
Academics, voters, representatives from advocacy organizations, and elected officials and lawmakers spoke during the day-long meeting. Testimony from the public was heard in open forums during the morning and afternoon sessions.
Rave's remarks centered on partisan control over election administration.
"Things like voter registration, polling place locations and hours have been returned to partisan state and local officials," he said. "In Texas this means that local officials like the county tax assessor-collector, the county clerk, the county commissioners court are tasked with implementing the election code. Of course, these local elected officials are not disinterested in the outcome of the elections.
"You could say they face a pretty stark conflict of interest. These officials are going to have to run for re-election, under the very procedures that they're charged with overseeing. These elected officials face a natural temptation to manipulate the rules to favor themselves or their own parties," Rave said. "This is why pretty much every other advanced democracy takes control over election administration, out of the hands of elected officials."
Rave also referenced the general racial demographics of the Democratic and Republican parties, and how a partisan election official can manipulate an election in favor of their party.
"Voting in Texas has become extremely polarized along racial and party lines," Rave said. "Black and Latino voters overwhelmingly favor Democrats, while Anglo-whites strongly favor the Republican Party.
"The decisions that partisan election officials make about registration procedure or polling place locations in order to try and favor one party and hurt the other, are inevitably going to have a predictable racial effect as well."
Rogelio Saenz, dean of the College of Public Policy at the University of Texas-San Antonio was the second member of academia to address the commission.
The second panel featured Frank Jackson, a former mayor of Prairie View, Ernest Herrera, a staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP, and Jerry Vattamala, director of the democracy program for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Ann Harris-Bennett, the tax assessor and voter registrar in Harris County, was the lone speaker during the election officials and lawmakers testimony.
The final speakers were representatives from several voting rights groups, including MOVE San Antonio, AALDEF Voter, Collin County Democrats, Texas Organizing Project and League of Women Voters.