Voter suppression is a very real and apparent issue nationwide. What is being done to combat this, and who are the people at the forefront of making voting easier for voters? The League of Women Voters Austin Area (LWVAA) is a nonpartisan grassroots organization that aims to protect and expand voting rights in the United States. Today’s guest is Meet Pam Bixby, Vice President – Voters Service, a volunteer role that encompasses the Register & Vote, Voters Guide, Candidate Forum, and FirstVote! activities of the Austin League. In this episode, Pam sits with hosts Claire Campos O’Neal and Nichole Abshire to discuss the different obstacles to voting in Texas and what they’ve been doing to battle this and educate more people on the voting and election process. Only a small percentage of people are taking part in making decisions that impact all of us on a large scale. Tune in to find out why that is, and learn more about what you can do to get educated on these issues.
Pam: Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Claire: The Comey Rule on Netflix
Nichole: The Improvement Association, a Serial Productions podcast about voter fraud allegations in North Carolina
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Pam Bixby with the League of Women Voters Explains How Voter Suppression Affects All of Us (Elections)
In this episode, we interview Pam Bixby, who is the Vice President of Voters Service for the League of Women Voters Austin Area. Pam was a great guest. She shared so much with us about what voting is like in Texas, how hard it is to register to vote, and how hard it is to then vote. We talked about the state of voting in Texas, which was informative for this election series. We understand the barriers to getting to the ballot box. Nicole, what were some of your takeaways from our conversation?
As usual, I was so impressed with the organization and so amazed that these people do this work for free. It’s another example of people who believe in what they’re doing and are willing to give up their time and energy for no compensation. I also would want to encourage everyone to check out the League of Women Voters because they have a Voters Guide that they put together that is completely non-partisan and lets candidates speak for themselves. You can make informed decisions about who you want to vote for. They’re not non-partisan, so they ask all candidates for their answers to questions that are relevant to any particular election.
They have a lot of fabulous resources when you’re getting ready to vote if you’re like, “I don’t know anything. What should I do?” A lot of our previous guests would refer to the League of Women Voters. When you’re getting ready to vote, which is going to be November 8th, 2022, check out Vote411.org. Look at their information. They’re a great resource. Learn from Pam and all of her great wisdom.
In this episode, we are speaking with Pam Bixby, who works with the League of Women Voters. Pam, do you volunteer with the league? Is that right?
Yes. We were 100% volunteers until we hired a league manager not so long ago, but the rest of the board is all volunteers.
Tell us your position again.
I am Vice President of Voters Service, which covers a couple of big areas, including our Voters Guide, our first high school voter registration program, our candidate forums, and our register and vote activities.
That’s great. Thank you for highlighting that you’re all volunteers. It’s important that we know where people come from when they’re doing this work. In our previous episode, we talked to elected officials. Some of them have said that they are unpaid elected volunteers or very minimally paid. It’s important for people to know why you do this, that you do it out of your free time, and that it’s your passion. We would love to start off by learning a little bit about your story, how you came to Texas, and what it was like for you growing up.
I’m not from Texas. I’m from the Northeast. I’m from a small town in Pennsylvania. I grew up in a town of about 3,000 folks, and I grew up on a farm. I did my college in Pennsylvania. My graduate school was in Washington, DC. I ended up traveling the world as a military spouse. We came to Texas when my spouse got out of the military. We were looking for the best place to live. We traveled around the country and came through Austin. We loved it, and put down roots many years ago. I’ve been here a while.
Which branch of government?
He was my ex-spouse now. He was in the US Navy. My dad was in the Air Force. My sister is in the Air Force. Similarly, we moved around a lot growing up and came back to Texas later in life. My parents are in San Antonio. There are a lot of military bases there. Luckily, Austin is not that far.
Austin speaks to me, so that’s why I’m here. I’m curious. When you were growing up, was your family politically involved? Do you have any memories that come to the surface around election time?
I do not remember ever speaking about politics with my parents. I remember being in college and not even understanding the difference between a Democrat and a Republican. My awakening came when I was in college and started volunteering for things I cared about. I realized I cared about the environmental movement. I remember marching in DC for Earth Day and things like that. My leanings naturally occurred, and then I realized what I believed in after that. I now talk to my father about politics a lot. He’s still in rural Pennsylvania. We do have a lot of conversations now.
Is he receptive? I’m curious about what those conversations are.
This is my personal side. The League of Women Voters is completely non-partisan. We do not discuss politics, candidates, or anything. My father lives in rural Pennsylvania. He’s been a gun owner his entire life. He’s been a lifetime member of the NRA. Most of our conversations, to be honest, revolve around gun rights. One time, I was there for an extended period of time a couple of years ago. Every single day, we talked about firearms in the United States.We're a non-partisan activist grassroots organization and our goal is to protect and expand voting rights in the United States because we believe that voters are the key to democracy. Click To Tweet
He brought his evidence, and I remember bringing my evidence. We had been sharing ideas back and forth. In the end, I said, “Dad, what can our two sides agree on?” We came up with three things that we could agree on. One of them was to enforce the laws that already exist that are on the books because many of them aren’t and tighten up the connections among the databases. That’s that fixed mix theme. There was a third one. I forgot it was. I said, “We agree on these three things. We won.” He is receptive to some things.
It sounds like that’s the model we would love to see the government adopt. It’s the two opposing sides but is willing to listen to each other and find common ground because it is possible. Sometimes you are fed the narrative that it’s not possible, but it is. I love that.
It’s remembering that we’re all in this boat together. We have to get along somewhat because we’re not going anywhere. Let’s transition a little bit into the League of Women Voters. We thought it would be great to speak with you because, in our education series, we had a lot of our guests bring up the League of Women Voters organically. We would ask them, especially people who are running for office, “When someone’s getting ready to vote and go to the ballot box, how do you recommend that those voters educate themselves?” They were like, “The League of Women Voters.” We feel like we have to talk to you because this is our election series, and so much of your work is around that mission. Can you specifically tell us what the mission of the league is?
As I said before, we’re a non-partisan activist grassroots organization. Our goal is to protect and expand voting rights in the United States because we believe that voters are the key to democracy. That is essential. Everything we do is around those things, protecting and expanding voting rights. We provide lots of education because we believe voters shouldn’t go to the polls without knowing what they’re voting for. That’s where our education component comes in.
We need that, for sure. Can you tell us why the league was created and what the origin story looked like?
It was over 100 years ago. When about the time the 19th Amendment was being ratified, it passed in Congress and had to be ratified by the states. The women suffragists at the time realized that the battle then went to the states because that amendment needed to be ratified. State leagues started popping up. They realized it wasn’t just a national thing to fight for. State leagues started popping up around 100 ago. The Texas league is 101 years old now. The structure is there’s a national league in Washington that covers national issues and advocacy. Every state has a league at the state level, and then local jurisdictions have leagues. That’s the one I’m on the board of the Austin Area League of Women Voters. I forget how many leagues we have in Texas, something in the 50s, I think. We then work with the state league on some legislative issues.
How did you get involved with the League of Women Voters?
When about time my daughter went to college for the first time, which she graduated high school in 2015, she wanted to vote in the 2016 election. I said, “No problem. I know there’s a thing such as absentee voting. I’ll help you get that taken care of.” In that process, I went to the secretary of state’s website and downloaded the application. I had it sitting on my desk for a couple of months because I knew there was some timeframe that she had to fill out this application. When I went back a couple of months later, a new law had gone into effect that added some information there.
I remember reading this and being completely infuriated. The information on that on the application said, “You should mail it in, or you can scan and email it,” which I thought was awesome for a college student. They don’t know what a post office is. They’ve never seen a stamp. There was a little line that said, “If emailing this form, you must also mail it in within four business days.” I was incredulous.
What’s the convenience of emailing?
Exactly. It was in 2015 that the legislative session was decided upon and then made into the language of that application. I was infuriated. I started looking around for ways that I could make an impact on that. My first role in the league was helping with high school voter registration in our first vote program because I’m an educated adult, and I had no idea. I didn’t know how difficult this was. Our kids who are going off to college are not going to know. That was how I got involved years ago.
I have to ask a question too. When you discovered that change, was that by chance that you discovered that?
It’s completely by chance. I’m someone who reads the paper, pays attention, and listens to the radio national public KUT whatever, like public service things. I did not know. If I’m someone who’s on top of it and had no idea, as we’ll get into later, there are even more hurdles to jump through that are impossible for the average voter to step through on their own. That’s why the league exists to clarify all those things and help smooth out a process that’s been made more difficult, unfortunately.
I know this might be obvious to many people, but I want to put it out there that this is a non-partisan discussion we are having. Everyone has an opportunity to vote.
We’ll get into voter suppression later. Voter suppression tactics are often meant to disenfranchise a certain group, but they completely affect everybody. As we’ll go through some of the things, I can give you some examples to think about how it might affect different types of voters in Texas.
It’s interesting. Some of the folks who we’ve talked to are advocates for a particular issue. It’s a similar story where they were going about their lives, and then they encountered this obstacle that was very frustrating to them because it felt like it should have been easier, and that’s what ignited their journey to try to change. Can we talk about the Voters Guide and how that is developed to help folks when they vote?
We have an amazing Director of our Voters Guide Program. Her name’s Gretchen Otto. She’s been doing it for years. She has a whole team under her. The way it works is we have a questions committee, and we try to make that as broad as possible. We are now working in Central Texas in the Austin area. It tends to be Travis. We have some people from Williamson and Hays County. We reach out to groups every cycle to see, “Do you want to participate in our questions committee?” We get together. We look at the questions from the last couple of times. We think about what other issues have bubbled up, what’s in front of the voters now, and what people might want to know. We then get input on the questions.
Because of the length of it, we can only ask about four questions in the guide. We can add another question or two on the online version, which is Vote411, which has even more information. That’s a nationwide resource. We can talk about that later. We don’t tend to get wildly different questions every cycle because issues take a long time to bubble through the system. When COVID was happening, we had public health questions there when there were education bonds. Each election has different questions. Your mayor is going to get different questions from your county commissioners and those people.
We tailor the questions to the office and develop those questions. They are non-leading. They are open-ended, so they can’t say yes or no. There’s a whole system and deadlines and whatever, where we have to find all the candidates, which we are doing now because the filing deadline was August 25th. I keep thinking, “The election’s right around the corner, but we didn’t even know all the local candidates until August 25th in Travis County anyway.” We reach out. We get their emails, and all the questions go to those folks. They’re given directions on how to upload those questions through our Vote411 system. They have a deadline, get reminders, etc. Once the deadline hits, the work goes to designing the guide because we do a print guide for big elections twice a year.
We then do Vote411 the electronic version for the smaller elections. We will include the races for every candidate and races in which there is a league member. If we have three league members in some tiny little hamlet on the edge fringe of our service area, we will include those races. We try to get information. The other important thing about the Voters Guide is that we do not edit in any way, except for the length. They have a length. They have word limits or whatever.
We don’t edit their responses if they send in something full of grammatical errors or unless they’ve said something or have gone awry of our rules, which is, “Don’t say anything about another candidate. Don’t use foul language.” You get what you get. The idea is that these are unfiltered responses. We’re not cleaning them up. We’re not making them seem like someone who they’re not. That’s what’s printed. What people understand is that it is a credible source of information that we’re not editing it. It’s right out of the horse’s mouth.
Vote411.org is not only our league but all the leagues across the country upload their information. That’s available to anyone in the country. You put your address in there, it comes up, and up comes your ballot, whatever your local is. There might be state constitutional amendments on there. There might be local issues, bond elections, or whatever. Once your ballot comes up, you can compare candidates. You can look at the pro and cons of issues. You can make your selections, print it out, and bring it to the polling location.The league exists to clarify all those things and help smooth out a process that's been made more difficult, unfortunately. Click To Tweet
If people wanted the paper version, how would they get that?
The paper version we print is 40,000. In fact, one thing I’m proud of is we are now producing it in four languages, English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese. The Vietnamese and Chinese, we don’t physically print, but we have the PDFs on our website for download. The Spanish and English, we print. It will be in the Austin Chronicle. When early voting starts, whatever issue that is, it will be inserted into the Austin Chronicle, which is a great partner of ours. We will print about 40,000. We have a huge distribution network. We bring them to libraries and community care clinics. For anyone who asks, we have a huge list, and a whole bunch of volunteers go to the warehouse, pick them up, and spread them out all over town. They’ll be in public offices, government offices, public places, that thing.
I wanted our readers to know that in case they like things in a paper version.
The PDFs will be on our website, which is LWVAustin.org. PDFs for download are always there if someone has the willingness to print it out or if they just want to print out their pages because, like I said, it’s every race for all of the Austin area. It’s a thick publication.
Let’s talk about the state of voting in Texas. As you were saying earlier, a lot of the league work is very specific geographically. How does Texas compare to the rest of the nation when it comes to voter turnout?
I knew you were going to ask that question, so I looked it up to be sure I had the right numbers. Compared to the rest of the country, I don’t necessarily have that. What I know is that in Texas, 67% of the registered voters participated in our 2020 presidential election. As you know, presidential elections get the biggest turnout. It’s 67% of our registered voters. That was about seventeen million people in Texas who voted, but that was only 52% of the voting age population. You said somewhere in your information that it’s not a red or blue problem. It’s a non-voting problem. When 52% of the voting age population is voting, that’s almost 48% of people who could vote who aren’t participating.
Why aren’t those people voting?
I think about this all the time. This is just my opinion because I haven’t read a definitive study on it or anything. It’s a combination of factors. One of them is information overload and misinformation. There’s so much stuff coming at you all the time. It’s hard to know what’s credible and right. There are some effects of voter suppression, one of one tactic which is gerrymandering.
If you know, “My vote’s not going to matter anyway because the politicians have picked their voters instead of the opposite,” if you run into one obstacle, and you’re like, “It doesn’t matter anyway, so I’m not going to vote.” You have some discouragement that’s built into the system. You have apathy due to misinformation and information flooding. We also have a lack of civics education. Even young people coming into the system often don’t even understand what their role is in a democracy. Those three things together are the core of the problem.
This is a great moment to be grateful for the League of Women Voters. Once again, we remind everybody that it is non-partisan. Your Voters Guide is incredible. It gives people such a great touch point for finding out the basics of who they’re voting for and what their positions are and issues. That is devoid of any partisanship that is about who fits what you find important.
I mentioned our first high school voter education program. When I’m talking to students, I say, “I know it’s overwhelming. There’s no possible way you can know everything about this race.” I said, “Before you even do any race, think about what’s important to you. What do you care about? Pick 1 or 2 issues, go on the candidate websites, and see what they’re saying about that. See what their position is on that, and go with the person who most aligns with what you care about.” That’s a good way to do it instead of the other way around, where you go to the party and see what they’re doing, or vote straight party, which is probably never a great idea. Start with your own values and set of things that you care about.
I’m the person who used to vote in general elections regularly. I then got more involved and started voting in primary elections, then got so involved that I decided to run for office, but I didn’t realize how important primary elections are. That’s where you decide who is going to.
You talk about 60% or 70% of registered voters who voted in the presidential election. Do you know how much it is in the primary? It’s about 12%. Do you know how much is in a local election? It’s about 8% of people. That is a very small portion of the population deciding on huge issues that affect everybody’s quality of life and what happens in their city and their backyard. A small percentage of people are making decisions that most affect us day-to-day.
It’s funny because it feels like the noise is flipped. We hear more about the national elections, which don’t impact you as much, but it’s the local ones that do, yet that is harder to figure out.
It’s very unfortunate, but that’s where we are.
We’re glad that you hone in on all these races so that when people perhaps are ready to vote for the next election, they can come in prepared and know a little bit more about who they’re voting for. It’s the fact that you lay out the information, and it’s not an endorsement process or a party process. This is the best way to assess for you who you think would be a good representative for you.
I always come in as the novice, the relatively new to all of this in this world. This might be a good moment to not assume that when we talk about primary races, people understand what that means. What if we back up just a teeny bit and talk about primaries?
A primary, for those who are wondering, is run by the parties. The Democratic Party will hold a primary race. Those are candidates who are all running for the same job, essentially within that party. We had our primaries back in March 2022. Through that situation, Beto O’Rourke is now, for instance, in the Texas Governor’s race. Beto O’Rourke won the primary, so he is now the Democratic nominee to challenge the Republican candidate who is our sitting governor. For every race, there will be primaries in each party. The winners of those will be on the ballot in November. In a local election, it’s usually about things like propositions bond, bond elections, and that thing.
Even fewer people come out for those. It is hard to get information about local ballot initiatives until very close to an election, which is why I think people wake up a week before the election and go, “I’m just hearing about this for the first time.” It’s probably because that’s the first time the general information has been put out to the public about it. Those things, to me, feel way behind the information curve. People aren’t aware of those local things until close to an election.
Here’s a quick little side note in case somebody doesn’t know this too. When you vote in a primary election, you have to vote in one party or the other. You don’t vote in both. If you’re going to vote for the Democratic side in that primary, that’s the side you’ve chosen for that particular election.
When it comes to November in general, say you voted in a Democratic primary, that does not behoove you to vote for a Democrat in the general election. You can decide your party at the primary level and then whoever you want in general.
Let’s go back to that 48% of folks who are not voting but could vote. What are some of those obstacles that they come up against? Why is it difficult to even register to vote in Texas?Vote411.org is not only our league, but all the leagues across the country upload their information, so that's available to anyone in the country. Click To Tweet
Texas is one of the most difficult states to vote in. There were a lot of restrictions even before SB 1, which we’ll talk about also. I don’t know that this is that much different from other states, but we must have a wet signature on a form in order to register to vote. In other words, that’s why there’s no online voting because you have to physically, with a blue or black pen, sign your name on a form. There’s that. Either people have to go to the tax office to get a form or go to a library or a government building that happens to have them, or they see what is called a volunteer deputy registrar, which most of the people in the League of Women Voters are a volunteer of deputy registrars.
We have done some training, and we know how to get people registered. We will go to movie theaters, grocery stores, music events, and farmer’s markets. Any place where there’s a public gathering, you’ll see volunteers out with clipboards asking if you’ve been registered. The most central way to do it would be to go physically to the tax office, get a form, fill it out, and leave it there. There are all these other ways in which volunteers help to get people registered. There’s also something that Texas did not participate in and fought for many years called, and you might have heard, the Motor Voter Law, which I forget what year it was passed.
What was supposed to happen is when you got your driver’s license in any state, you were supposed to be offered voter registration. Many states implemented it as soon as it became law, and Texas fought it. For many years, if you just moved to Texas, you were not given the opportunity to update your registration and get registered to vote in Texas. That is now not the case. Texas lost that deal a couple of years ago. Now it should be when you go to renew your driver’s license or when you first move into the state, you’ll be asked if you’d like to also register to vote. That roadblock, at least, has been eliminated.
In case this feels a little unclear or murky like, “Why that’s a problem?” here’s what I’m hearing. Let’s say you move to Texas and are not given that offer. If that’s not front of mind for you, all of a sudden, it becomes election time, and you realize you’re not registered. You got to try to figure out the mechanisms for how to get registered.
That’s very true. In Texas, you have to register at least 30 days ahead of an election. Let’s say you miss that opportunity. Let’s say you’re someone who’s got kids in a job. You just moved, and as you said, voting wasn’t on top of mind. You weren’t offered it automatically when you first moved into the state. If you didn’t catch it 30 days ahead of an election, you’ve missed that election cycle. You have to wait until the next election.
It sounds like there’s a lot of friction involved in trying to register to vote in Texas. We’re not going to talk about voting yet. What is the argument for putting those obstacles in place? To me, it sounds like the easier we make it, the better it is for Texans.
You are so logical. I honestly do not understand the arguments because these affect all voters. It affects Republicans, Democrats, and the independent. It affects all voters. I don’t know the original intent to make it as difficult as possible. The legislatures who put in place obstacles to voting will say it is to combat voter fraud. However, I did some research on this. Voter fraud is exceedingly rare. I got numbers from a very conservative website. In 2020, there were more than 159 million voters. Guess how many cases of voter fraud were confirmed in 2020 out of 159 million voters?
That’s a scary thing to guess, 5,000?
It’s seventeen. In 2020, there were seventeen million voters. The Secretary of State’s office reports three credible cases of voter fraud. Voter fraud is not a problem. It’s a phantom that those who tried to restrict access use as an excuse. By far, we have much more of a problem with people not voting than with people voting twice. That’s the reason put forth, but it’s not credible.
The wet signature part is interesting to me. I’ve had my real estate license for ten years, and we do everything over DocuSign. When you go and close on your home, you wet signature, but we’re throwing around hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it’s no big deal.
Think about it. It’s also a waste of money. It’s all the paper, the ink, the volunteer resources, everything it takes to get those. They then have to be hand. There’s a loss of data integrity when somebody is transferring, often very sloppily, a handwritten form into a computer. You lose data integrity, which can then cause problems for that voter later on down the line when they try to vote, and their address or name is wrong or something like that. It introduces a huge cost and a huge problem to do that.
I even think about those accidental human errors that can come about because we’re going with this antiquated system.
Isn’t there also a problem, like if I signed Nicole Abshire on my original application, but then on my ballot, I do N. Abshire?
That’s for a vote by mail. There’s a technology for vote by mail signature matching. If you signed it differently or signed fast and it didn’t match, it would get flagged, and you might have to come in. It introduces all of these other obstacles for people that are unnecessary.
Does the league get involved with advocacy at the Texas legislature when bills are being put forward that make voting more difficult?
The state leagues are in charge of that advocacy piece. The Texas State League prepare testimony that were either written or in person that they present in the legislature, specifically on voting regulations. There’s also a whole issue with policy papers. When anything comes up that is something we have a position on, we will prepare testimony. That’s the Texas league. In the Austin area, because we’re right here in the capital city, our members tend to get called up to present that testimony or drop off that testimony. That’s called the capital core. I’ve participated in that. I live about two miles from the capital. They’ll want testimony dropped off at 7:30 in the morning. I’ll run down there and drop it off. They rely on the Austin area league to do a lot of testifying.
This is a question that is bubbling up. You can correct me if I’m wrong. It seems that a lot of these bills that are put forward to suppress the vote are from the Republican Party. How do you all stay on that non-partisan line with one party pushing forward, taking away the vote from folks?
It’s difficult when one party clearly seems to be against democracy. In fact, we’ve been accused in other states. There are some states where they’re accusing the league of being partisan because of that exact reason. Regardless of what party was in power or who was doing what, the things that we’ve always stood for now tend to be the home of one party. However, we maintain that integrity by never participating in any partisan event, never endorsing candidates, and never endorsing parties. None of that. Our issues have never changed. When you look across time, the issues have always been the same.
That’s so important. That sounds attorney, maybe not from the league’s point of view, as you’ve pointed out. You have a very clear mission that has been the same since its inception, yet I can see outside forces trying to drag you in.
We also have rules for board members in certain positions that we cannot participate in any political organizations or give money to political campaigns over a certain amount. We have rules overseeing our own conduct as board members.
We love an ethical organization.
We try to do that ourselves. We’re human, so we’re going to have our own views. It’s to give people a base in knowledge, and then you can draw your own conclusions.Texas is one of the most difficult states to vote in. Click To Tweet
For instance, when we’re doing a voting presentation to high schoolers, we don’t just give an example from one party. It’s always both sides. It’s not of issues, but like, “From the Republican Party, here’s an example, the Democratic Party, or the green party.” We sprinkle it all in, so there’s no inherent bias in our presentations.
This would be a good place to get into SB 1, which took up a lot of the air in the past legislative sessions because we had a few of them. Can you tell us about that bill? How is that impacted voting in Texas?
I wrote down my notes because there are so many things. In the interest of time, I will talk about the 2 or 3 biggest things that are affecting this. For SB 1, while there are wide-ranging impacts, the biggest impact is on those who need to vote by mail, which was already difficult in Texas. You already needed a reason to vote by mail, which includes either you are over 65, have a disability, or are out of the county during all of the early voting and election day, or if you were a felon and you’ve served your sentence and your off paper. They have added the additional restriction that election officials cannot offer or talk about vote by mail with voters. Even though that’s their role to help people as voting officials, they can no longer offer it or help anybody with vote by mail. They can’t provide funds to an organization such as the League of Women Voters to print vote by mail ballots or applications or help us get into communities to offer it.
Third parties can do that. The league can do that. There are plenty of other organizations that are voting advocates and help people do vote by mail. Now, voting officials cannot offer it. The other thing is they’ve made it very complicated so that someone who’s applying to vote by mail must now provide an ID that matches their original voter registration. Like me, they may have been in Texas for 30 years, and they don’t remember if they provide their Social Security Number or driver’s license. Maybe they didn’t have a driver’s license yet. When they apply for a ballot, the number they put on that application must match the voter record. When they get the ballot in the mail, they have to provide numbers again, which must match across those three documents.
We’ve had to create all kinds of education. We have slide presentations that show clearly on these forms what numbers are and where you need to put them. We are telling everybody to provide vote numbers. If you don’t remember what you put on your voting application many years ago, always provide vote numbers. When it first happened, a lot of applications for vote by mail were being rejected. We’re hoping that this extra education and telling people to do things twice helps. Also, if you have looked at the vote by mail application, it is so tiny that you can barely read it. It’s a poorly designed form. It’s hard to read. The league has come up with a newly designed form that is legal to use and easier to read.
How do people know if they voted by mail if it’s been counted or not?
That was something that was a good thing that is now in place. You can track your vote by mail application and your ballot. It’s on the SOS Secretary of State website. There’s a place where you say, Track My Ballot or Track My Application. You can put in your information and watch it go through the system. I also serve as an election judge in Travis County. I have gotten many people who come to our polling place, especially this first election in March, “I applied for a ballot by mail. It never came. Can I still vote?”
You have to go in the system and do either provisional, or you got to check, or they got their ballot, but it was too late because it had to arrive in a certain window of time at the elections office. They were worried that it wouldn’t get there in time, so they come to us and surrender their ballot, and we have to do all this extra paperwork to allow them to vote that day. It introduces all of these complications and anxiety for people voting by mail.
I shared this in an earlier episode when we were speaking with Representative Vikki Goodwin when the pandemic happened. It was during the primary. It was some election. I requested to vote by mail because I was pregnant, and it was the pandemic. I was like, “Is this a disability? I don’t know, but I don’t want to go in person and risk COVID exposure, especially when it was so new.” She said that she helped change the wording of the law. You could check the pregnant box instead of the disability box.
It has to be within three weeks, either prior to or after an election. It’s also disingenuous because you don’t know you’re going to have a premature pregnancy. Now, there was an addition within three weeks of birth.
The whole time, I was like, “I hope I don’t get in trouble and that my ballot doesn’t get thrown out.” I was very scared.
It’s disconcerting. It’s drawing anxiety and fear into the mix. That’s one of the big things. Another big thing, among others, is partisan poll watchers have been given more freedom in polling locations. Now they’re allowed much closer access to voters, which feels like intimidation to me.
Can you tell us first what poll watchers are for folks who might not know?
People often get mixed up about what a poll worker is versus a poll watcher. A poll worker is someone hired by the county to run the system, check people in, assist people with the voting machines, oversee it all, lock it all down, and take the ballots to Travis County. A poll watcher is always a partisan appointed by either a party, a candidate or an issue. Let’s say there’s a bond issue, and there are big pro and con groups, like an issue. Poll watchers have to take a little training, they get a certificate, and they can come into your polling place. It used to be that they could come in, stand way over there, and observe, which is fine.
You want transparency in any polling location, but they were very innocuous before. They were just there, making sure there were no irregularities. Now, poll watchers who are partisan in nature can come into polling places. They can observe every single little thing. They can stay there all the way through. It’s about an hour and a half long process at the end of the night to lock everything up, secure everything, and get everything to the elections office. They can stay through all that. If they commit a violation, and some voter says, “This person was looking over my shoulder or said something to me,” if I didn’t observe it as an election judge or a poll worker, we can’t do anything about it. I have to physically have seen that happen.
Introduce needless stress and anxiety in a polling location. There’s also a whole lot of other more paperwork that people have to do if they’re trying to assist voters. If you’re, for instance, someone who works in an assisted living facility or a nursing care facility, and you have been used to bringing voters in a van to vote curbside or something like that, there’s a lot of that happens where people want to vote. They still want to participate, but they can’t drive themselves. That driver has to provide more information. There are criminal penalties and all that stuff. It’s infused a lot of anxiety and criminal activity threats around helping voters vote.
We appreciate that you all are the logical voice in the mix and trying to help folk.
This affects everybody. Voter suppression tactics are typically created in order to disadvantage or disenfranchise one group of people that is often of lower socioeconomic, people who don’t drive and can’t get a driver’s license, has a voter ID, or maybe English is not their first language. You can’t provide assistance to them to understand the ballot or who are older or disabled. There’s a whole disability rights group that is up in arms about these things.
The disabled are those who are being helped with curbside voting. Now, there are these extra elements of fear and worry that are introduced into the system that disadvantage all those people. They don’t all vote the same. They’re not a monolithic group. Voter suppression is real. It, unfortunately, happens over our long history in different ways. During the Reconstruction Era, it was intimidation, violence, poll taxes, and literacy tests. Now it’s gerrymandering, strict ID laws, and all these kind of fear of criminal penalties that have been added into the system.
For anybody wondering, we are going to have an episode about the history of voting rights in Texas. We’ll be digging into all of the things that Pam mentioned.
Also on why we are, where we are, and how this happened. It’s always great to have history lessons. Speaking of education, can we talk a little bit about the civics of education that Texas students receive and if it’s sufficient?
That’s out of my wheelhouse. However, I will say that the league has worked with different organizations over the years. The one that stands out in my mind is Generation Citizen. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with them, but their mission is to get more and better civics education in high schools. I’m sure you know this as parents. As curricula have changed over the years, there’s been more emphasis on STEM, which is awesome and great, but it has crowded out some of the softer subjects, Civics being one of them. Our first vote program tries to infuse a little bit of that civics education where we can get into schools. However, that’s a half-hour presentation. That’s not a whole semester on how government works and what the role of a citizen should be in a democracy and all that. There are lots of organizations out there that are fighting to get better civics education in schools.Voter suppression is real. It unfortunately happens over our long history in different ways. During the reconstruction era, it was intimidation and violence, poll taxes and literacy tests. Now it's gerrymandering and strict ID laws. Click To Tweet
I thought I heard that high school seniors in Texas had to have the opportunity to register to vote in school. Is that right? Is there something like that?
They do. It’s a provision within the Secretary of State that twice a year, voter registration must be offered to Texas high schools and students. The Texas Civil Rights Project a couple of years ago did a whole survey of every school district across Texas, and found out that that was not happening. There was very little compliance with that. Over the years, it’s gotten better. I don’t know where it stands now. I know that it has improved, but only because the Texas Civil Rights Project cried foul and started holding their feet to the fire to do that.
It reminds me, Claire, of when we’ve talked about unfunded mandates. I wonder if part of that issue is there’s no accountability for it because there’s no consequence except wag your finger like, “You’re supposed to be doing this.”
I don’t think it’s a law. I think it would be nice to happen, like a requirement or a policy, but it’s not written into law. You’re right. There’s no consequence.
When you’re educating students, do they seem eager to vote? Do they seem receptive to being part of the democratic process? Do you see more disengagement and cynicism? I’m wondering where the temperature’s at with the next generation.
I haven’t gone into a classroom in the last couple of years because I now have a different role on the board. When I was doing it regularly, it depended on the school. To be honest, it depended on how enthusiastic the government teacher was. The first vote teacher goes into government classrooms, and we have connections to all of ISD in the Austin area and other contiguous school districts. There was an enthusiastic government teacher who did hands-on stuff with their kids. I remember walking into a classroom. It was during a primary. The teacher had pictures of all the candidates around the classroom and their platforms. The kids had been voting on it.
The teacher was a great teacher. We came in with our voting presentation, and they were answering questions and had questions. I’ve gone into classrooms where it was pulling teeth to get a kid to look up from his phone. It just depends. In the last couple of years, I have not been involved. The new chair of our first vote program is a teacher herself. She has come up with all other ways to engage students, including doing stuff on morning announcements and in the closed circuit television programs of schools. Because she knows what excites kids, students, or young adults, she might get more enthusiasm around it. We also completely revamped the presentation and made it more appealing to that group of people.
Whether you’re young or old, you want to know, “How does this impact me? Why should I care about this?” I imagine that the more teachers connect to their everyday lives, the more invested they are. That’s so valuable because you carry it. It’s a habit. I’m sure you all know this from the league. Once you start voting, it becomes a normal part of your civic life, and it’s easier to stick with it.
One of the things in the presentation we talk about is making it an event. Make it fun. Go to vote with your friends and have brunch. Do something fun around it and make it an annual event.
Back to Texas and voter turnout in Texas, are people voting more historically or less? Where are we as far as participation goes?
I don’t know the turnout of adults historically. Because we’ve done all this work among young people, I thought that would be a real, good thing to share. In the voter group 18 to 29-year-olds, in 2016, nationally, the turnout was 39% in 2020. It was 50%. In Texas, 18 to 29-year-olds had a 28% turnout in 2016 and a 41% turnout in 2020. Even though they started lower, there was a greater percentage increase for our young people in Texas. We feel like the tide is shifting. There have been all these efforts, and the league is not the only one by far. There’s Jolt and Texas Votes. I could name a bunch of organizations in Texas alone that are working to get out the vote. They’re non-partisan players often.
They’ve been doing a lot of work. I feel like it’s trending upward. Young people understand the stakes of the game more than they used to. They’re concerned about climate, education, and healthcare. It’s trending upward. When we talk to young people especially, we don’t want to say, “This is so hard. Let me tell you. You got to jump through this and hoop and jump through that.” That’s not how we talk about it at all. What we talk about is, “What a great opportunity. Look at the trend. Be part of this amazing thing. You have the opportunity to set the course for your future.” How we need to think about it is to get them engaged.
What do you most enjoy about your volunteer work with the league?
Like I said, I don’t go to high schools much anymore unless they really need somebody. As I mentioned before, we’re all volunteers, and I have a full-time job. Getting out to the high schools is difficult. I love doing presentations for voters. We get all kinds of requests, especially this time of 2022, running up to the big election. I’ll have 2 or 3 a week. Often it’s on Zoom, so it’s easy. I put together presentations, walking people through the history of voter suppression and what’s happening with SB 1. I love giving voters tools to help them be more informed voters and help them tell other people it’s all about that. In the league we’ve got on the board, we have fourteen members. We can’t do it all, but we educate people who then educate other people. I love being in that system.
We appreciate it. I believe, at least from my own experience, that curiosity begets curiosity. I’m sure when you’re given these presentations, and people learn something new and unique, it probably gets them on that path on, “What else don’t I know? How else can I get involved?” Hopefully, like what you’re saying, they share it with their friends, and slowly we bring one another in and get each other more involved.
An indication is that when I first joined the league, which was back in 2015 to 2016, we had 150 members. Now we have over 600. You can see people have realized they need to be a part of it and help with voting.
We’ve covered most of our conversation. Nicole, is there anything outstanding that you wanted to ask?
I can’t think of anything. Everything meandered into the places I was hoping it would. This is awesome.
I’ll wrap up by asking this. What do you think we need to focus our attention on most now to make sure our democracy is protected?
I will say big-picture things. There are certain things we can do locally. What I feel the biggest problems in our system include money in elections because that’s what often motivates all of the dark money where we don’t know where the misinformation and the misleading ads are. Dark money is a real problem. Gerrymandering is a real problem because that disenfranchises voters on a very large scale. Also, voter education. As I said, there’s so much misinformation out there being the boat in the storm that people know they can come to and get good information and be able to make good decisions. The money in politics and gerrymandering are huge fights to have at the federal and state levels. Helping individual voters understand their power and the issues is paramount.
Part of our election series will touch on dark money and politics. Stay tuned, folks, if you want to know more about that issue. To wrap up our show, we will do our attention mentions where we mention something that has our attention and can’t stop thinking about it, if it’s a show, a book, a movie, an article, or a podcast. Pam, does anything come to mind for you?
Several months ago, I started reading. I know it’s an old book now, but I had never read it. It’s the book about Lincoln’s cabinet named Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns. I read a little bit every night. What I’m finding that is eye-opening to me is it’s all about the run-up to the civil war. Many decades ahead, she’s taking through the history of Lincoln and the four other people who were his rivals in the 1860 election. I’m reading about the 1850s now. It eerily feels the same. I’m not saying that civil war is imminent, but I’m saying the divisions in our country are eerily reminiscent of what happened in the 1850s. I’m hoping our leaders have learned their lessons, know their history, and take a different path.The biggest problems in our system include money in elections. Dark money is a real problem. Gerrymandering is a real problem because that disenfranchises voters on a very large scale. And, then just voter education. Click To Tweet
When you were talking about voter fraud, it reminded me of an excellent podcast I listened to that traced an accusation of voter fraud and everything that unraveled in this local town. The Improvement Association is the name of the podcast. It’s part of Serial, which is a hugely popular initial podcast. They’ve had several seasons. I want to say this was maybe the 3rd or the 4th season. The Improvement Association, as part of this Serial podcast, was fascinating. It gets into the implications of when the accusations of voter fraud are false, but the ripple effects of what that did in this community are interesting.
I like this. I’ll try to stay on the theme a little bit. I saw a Netflix show not that long ago. This show was maybe initially on Showtime or some other service provider, but it was called The Comey Rule, which was about the time when James Comey was investigating Hillary Clinton because of her email situation. Jeff Daniels played James Comey. It was interesting because it was from his perspective and that particular time in history. It made me think when you were talking Pam about nonpartisanship, he saw himself so separate from Republicans or Democrats that he didn’t even vote. At least in the show, he didn’t. He’s like, “That’s not my place. My place is to be in this different institution and be separate from this political process.” They drag him into it.
It was fascinating. I read about him, but it was a cool experience seeing that story. I’m not sure how accurate it was, but dramatically, it was a good show. Check it out. It’s on Netflix. Thank you so much, Pam. We appreciate you taking the time to share a little bit more with us about voting and the struggles we have here in Texas. You can still vote, nonetheless. If you need help, turn to the League of Women Voters. If you need help discovering who is a good candidate for you, go to Vote411.org and read up on the amazing information they provide.
Thank you so much for having me. Don’t forget the deadline for registering to vote in this 2022 election is October 11th, so get it done before that.
That’s my birthday, everybody, so that will help you remember.
Thanks so much.
- League of Women Voters Austin Area
- Voters Guide
- Austin Chronicle
- Vikki Goodwin – Previous Episode
- Generation Citizen
- Texas Civil Rights Project
- Team of Rivals
- The Improvement Association
About Pam Bixby
Pam Bixby currently serves as Vice President – Voters Service for the League of Women Voters Austin Area (LWVAA), a volunteer role that encompasses the Register & Vote, Voters Guide, Candidate Forum, and FirstVote! activities of the Austin League. Previously, she served as co-chair of the FirstVote! high school voter registration program, as a member of the community relations team, and as a member of the LWVTX Capitol Corps. Pam has worked as an Elections Judge in Travis County since 2017. When she’s not volunteering for the LWVAA, Pam is Deputy Director of the Coalition for National Trauma Research, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing public and private funding for traumatic injury research and coordinating clinical trauma studies across the country.