The following was written by Azeem Edwin & Maria Geary, two Notley Scholars from the 2020 Summer Session.
The Notley Scholar program is a paid internship program for Black and Latinx university students interested in social justice. We provide Notley Scholars with mentorship, professional development, and the encouragement to pursue their own projects or to get involved with existing Notley initiatives. Our mission with Notley Scholars is to build and nurture a diverse pipeline of future leaders in the social impact space.
Voter Suppression in Travis County
We had the opportunity to spend the summer working on the issue of voting rights and voting access in Travis County. This work included creating comprehensive website which provides an overview of historical voting discrimination in Texas, the impact of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, current barriers to voting among communities of color, and interviews with community leaders and experts on the impact of Covid-19 among other topics.
Research indicates that polling wait times are a significant barrier to voting, and nationwide, up to 520,000 people did not vote in 2016 due to long lines. Based on this, we wanted to understand whether this phenomenon might impact people of color in Travis County. Our findings inform the recommendations we have for policy makers in Texas and Travis County as we approach the 2020 Presidential Election.
Polling Wait Times in Travis County
In order to determine the wait times at each polling location in Travis County in 2016, we requested the data that Travis County had collected during the 2016 election. We analyzed and graphed the data for every polling location on election day November 8th 2016 from 7am to 7pm. Right away, disparities in wait times stood out.
At the polling location with the longest wait time, the County Tax office in Pflugerville, voters routinely waited upwards of 50+ minutes to vote throughout election day.
These locations stood in stark contrast to many areas of Travis County where there were never wait times longer than five minutes, even during the peak voting hours.
We were interested in determining where Travis County’s high wait time polling locations were located spatially, to determine which voters might be being impacted. To do that, we geocoded polling locations in Travis County and mapped out the 22 locations with the longest wait times, and overlaid that with demographic data (obtained from the census) to understand what areas of the city (and by extension, what citizens) were being impacted by long wait times.
Our analysis indicated that 15 of the 22 polling locations with the longest wait times in Travis County are located in areas with large black and Latinx populations. This phenomenon is particularly striking in Pflugerville, an area of Travis County that has experienced a strong influx of black voters who have moved there in recent years due to a lack of affordable housing in Travis County center.
Given what we know about the impact of long wait times on the ability of people to vote, it is striking that well over half of the polling locations in Travis County with longest wait times are in areas of the city with high numbers of voters of color. This finding has significant social justice implications. Many barriers exist in Texas which discourage voters of color from exercising their constitutional right to vote, including voter ID laws, a lack of online voter registration, and polling place closures. Based on our research, we believe that inadequate poll workers and polling booths in precincts with high numbers of voters of color are another area of significant concern. Unlike many other structural barriers, the distribution and staffing of polling locations is something Travis County has authority over. This is also important given that the Covid-19 pandemic has the potential to exacerbate long lines at polling places, as safety procedures and a potential shortage of poll workers make voting more difficult.
Based on our analysis, the following locations are likely to suffer from excessively burdensome wait times on Election day 2020. In order to lessen the burden on voters of color and ensure that the ability to vote easily is available to everyone in Travis County, regardless of their racial or socioeconomic background, Travis County needs to expand the number of voting booths and poll workers at the following polling locations:
- County Tax Office, Pflugerville – 15822 Foothill Farms Loop, Pflugerville, TX 78660
- RE Hartfield Performing Arts Center – 5800 McNeil Dr, Austin, TX 78729
- Murchison Elementary School – 2215 Kelly Ln, Pflugerville, TX 78660
- Dan Ruiz Public Library – 1600 Grove Blvd, Austin, TX 78741
- Pflugerville Hall – 203 E Pecan St, Pflugerville, TX 78660
- Black Hawk Amenity Center – 3111 Speidel Dr, Pflugerville, TX 78660
- Park Crest Elementary School – 1500 N Railroad Ave, Pflugerville, TX 78660
- Brook Hollow Elementary School – 1200 N Railroad Ave, Pflugerville, TX 78660
- Wells Branch Mud Rec Center – 3000 Shoreline Dr, Austin, TX 78728
- Caldwell Elementary School – 1718 Picadilly Dr, Round Rock, TX 78664
- Manor ISD Administration Building – 10335 US-290, Manor, TX 78653
Alternatively, the county could add more polling locations in those immediate areas. In either case, the county must make these locations known to voters so that excessive wait times do not add to the already difficult challenge of voting for people of color in Travis County and in Texas.
For a more extensive look at our research, including the history of voter suppression in Texas and our recommendations to strengthen democracy and the ability to vote for all Americans, please visit the Notley Scholars Voting Rights Project
Want to help?
There are dozens of election worker roles in Travis County that are still waiting to be filled. By becoming an election worker, you can help ensure a strong, fair democratic process! Learn more here.
About the Authors
Azeem Edwin is a Dual Law and Global Policy student at the University of Texas. He is currently a fellow at the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at UT Austin. After graduating, he is interested in pursuing a career international law.
Maria Geary graduated May 2020 with a Masters from the Steve Hicks School of Social Work with a focus on Administration and Policy Practice. In addition to being a Fellow at the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, Maria co-chaired the APP Student Organizing Committee at the Steve Hicks School. She recently returned from Cape Town, South Africa where she completed an internship focusing on affordable housing, place making and community-based participatory research.