Texas College Democrats Aim to Bring More Voting Booths to Campuses by Suing Secretary of State

The Texas College Democrats have sued Secretary of State Ruth Hughs in the hopes a judge will hit the pause button on a law they claim suppresses the youth vote.

"College students across the state have traditionally relied on temporary polling locations to cast their votes," the Texas College Democrats said in a statement. "HB 1888 has threatened the livelihood of civic engagement across Texas campuses."

At the center of the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday, is HB 1888, a recent law that requires all temporary polling places to be open for the entire length of early voting. This requirement, the lawsuit claims, is problematic for college voters because some campuses don't have the resources to keep a polling place open for two full weeks.

Mobile voting sites at five schools, including the University of Texas at Arlington and Rice University, that were open to voters during the 2018 elections are no longer available in 2019, according to the lawsuit. This contributed to a decrease in voter turnout this year because college students lacked transportation to get to permanent polling locations, the suit says.

At the University of Texas at Austin, where a polling location was set up in 2018, voter turnout among registered students for the midterm elections was 42 percentage points higher than in 2014, according to the school. Kassie Phebillo, a doctoral student at UT Austin's Moody College of Communication, credited the increase in voter engagement to student-led efforts to make voting easy and accessible.

texas college democrats voting lawsuit secretary state
Students at the University of Texas in Austin participate in the "Walkout to Vote" event on November 6, 2018. On Tuesday, the Texas College Democrats filed a lawsuit against Secretary of State Ruth Hughs to invalidate a law that requires temporary polling places to be open for two weeks of early voting. SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP/Getty

During the 2018 midterm elections, 57 percent of registered voters in Tarrant County, where the University of Texas at Arlington is located, cast ballots, and 39 percent did it through early voting, according to the Texas secretary of state. Only 12 percent of Tarrant County voters came out to cast ballots during the 2019 elections, the first since HB 1888 went into effect. The true impact of the law won't be fully realized until the 2020 elections, though, because constitutional amendment elections, like those in 2019, tend to have a smaller voter turnout.

Cameron County officials told the Texas Tribune that instead of having temporary polling locations at three colleges, they will open one at whichever campus is likely to see the most traffic.

"The best way to look at it is that previous to HB 1888, each county had the discretion to work toward what was best in serving its entire community," Remi Garza, the county's elections administrator, told the Texas Tribune. "The one size fits all makes it extremely difficult."

The law, according to the suit's court documents, was grounded in a "desire to harm" youth voters because they tend to lean Democratic.

Fourteen Republican state legislators sponsored the bill, but it received bipartisan support during a vote in the Senate. In May, 12 Democrats voted in favor of passage, and the only two votes against it were from Republican state senators, according to the recorded vote.

Newsweek reached out to Hughs's office but did not receive a response in time for publication.

During previous elections, polling places set up at a temporary location, such as a room on a college campus, could determine what days and hours people could vote at that location. The new law says voting must be allowed for the full extent of early voting, a period that spans 10 weekdays in Texas, and the polling places must be open at least eight hours each day.

"In other words," the suit says, "the 'temporary' nature of polling places for early voting was obliterated and with that obliteration so was their usefulness as a cost-effective tool for enhancing turnout among legislatively-targeted segments of registered voters, specifically including young voters and elderly voters with impaired mobility."

The exception to the eight-hour rule is if the city or county clerk does not serve as the early voting clerk for the territory holding the election, or if the territory has fewer than 1,000 registered voters.

The lawsuit is asking a federal court in Austin to find the law in violation of the U.S. Constitution and prohibit it from being implemented, beginning with the March primary.