Beth: Eaarth by Bill McKibben and NPR’s Throughline Podcast
Claire: The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee
Nichole: Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History Podcast and particularly the episode titled, ‘Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment’
Beth Stevens served as Chief Director of Voting at the Harris County Elections Office, helping run the biggest voting jurisdiction in the state of Texas and the third largest in the country. Beth walks us through the implications of SB1 and how it has affected voting in Texas. We learn how voting rights are the foundation for advocacy on all other issues. Whatever you care about, it all comes back to voting rights at some point. Beth educates on the different models in Texas counties for how elections and voter registration are handled. This episode is a must-listen-to grasp the fundamentally important role of election administrators in preserving our democracy and why we must value these quiet, everyday heroes.
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Who Makes Elections Actually Happen? Elections Administrators. What Do They Do? Beth Stevens Explains All
We are so glad that you have joined us. This is another episode in our election series and we had a fabulous guest with us. We spoke to Beth Stevens. She is a voting rights expert. She knows so much about voting. We were grateful that Emily Eby put us in touch and we had a wonderful conversation. We can see why she recommended that we have Beth on the show.
Beth previously work with Texas Civil Rights Project. She was the Voting Rights Program Legal Director. Subsequently, from that job, she became the Chief Director of Voting at the Harris County Elections Office. We thought it would be great to chat with Beth because she has real-life experience administering an election in a very big county, Harris County. She was able to share with us what it’s like to get your hands dirty and administer that election, and what happens behind the scenes.
As we were talking with her, we had all these new questions come up because who knew what this world was like? It was interesting and eye-opening. We’re very appreciative of her and the work she does and the work everyone who’s connected to Elections Administration does. We need these folks to be there to help us make sure our elections occur and are handled properly. They do great work. They are real public servants. Nicole, tell us what you thought.
Another not to be missed episode. Beth is incredible at breaking down how all this stuff works on the county level and understanding who’s who and what’s what. A special shout-out because when we talked to her after, she wanted to make sure that she communicated to our audience to make sure that you vote all the way down the ballot.
Don’t forget the importance of those local offices and how much effect they have on the ways that elections run, and how critical it is to vote all the way down the ballot. As exhausting as it might be in some of the bigger counties that is worth your time and energy to know who those folks are and to vote in the way that you want, but to vote all the way down the ballot.
The further down you get, the more local it is, and the more those people’s decisions impact your life. Do your research. As always, we love the League of Women Voters. If you’re unsure, check them out and tune in to this episode. Learn a little bit more about election administrations in Texas.
We are excited to have Beth Stevens with us. She’s going to talk to us all about the work of election administrators. We thought this would be so timely because these are the people who help make our elections happen. I was curious in our election series about who is behind the scenes putting it all together and why it is different from county to county. Why is my experience different from my dad’s or my sister’s experience? This is great because Beth can tell us what’s happening and the decisions being made because she has done it herself. Thank you, Beth, for being with us.
Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here.
We’re excited to learn more about this. I’m very fascinated, but before we get into the fun election stuff, we like to get to know a little bit more about our guests and how they got to where they are now. Are you from Texas? Did you grow up here?
I am from Texas. I’m from a small town near Corpus Christi, Texas. I was born and raised there.
Now, you’re in the Houston area, right?
I’m in the Austin area. I’ve bounced around Texas quite a bit. I grew up near Corpus Christi, went to undergrad in Austin, went to law school in Dallas, came back to Austin, and then lived in Houston for a while working in elections.
Tell us about law school.
I went to law school at SMU.
What made you want to go to law school?
My post-high school experience has been very much an amalgamation of my parents, which is a path in my life, generally speaking. My undergrad degree is in History. My mom was a History teacher for a very long time and my dad is an attorney. After I got my undergrad degree in History, it seemed very apropos for me to go into law school. At the time, I didn’t know a lot about elections or the non-profit world, which I eventually went into. It was an eye-opening experience to go to law school, understand and find out about the inner workings of the law, and then how that led to elections and voting rights as well.
I’m going to assume with your parents’ background that you all did discuss politics.
Politics were very much discussed in our house. Mostly the adults discussed this politician or that, and how good or not good they were doing. I grew up going to a family reunion for a week out of every summer. One of the highlights was a debate night. A couple of family members got up and would debate, whatever political issue of the day was. I very much grew up with that. This is how we express ourselves and talk about the things that we are concerned about, and to some degree understand the other person’s point of view through that debate process.
That seems so radical to me. We’re the opposite family. It’s like, “We do not talk about this and make anybody uncomfortable so zip your lips.” My grandfather later in his life though became very vocal and it shook the foundation of our family in a good way, but he was so passionate about things. A lot of theoretical things that he believed as a younger man, he was seeing how they turned out in a very practical way in his life as an older man. It made him change his position. The tape was off the mouth and he was talking about everything.
The fortunate part was that it changed the climate a bit. In other words, we were starting to hear things we’d never heard before. The unfortunate part though was that he was dismissed by some, especially by the generation below him because he was older. They were like, “He’s just an old man.” I respect that your family was so open in doing something that seems so radical to me, but it shouldn’t be radical to be able to advocate for what you believe.
To articulate and learn that skill.
Listening is an undervalued skill that we have. Kudos to your family.
Thank you. It took a long time to realize, “This isn’t how everyone operates,” and maybe the escalated or elevated discourse might make some people uncomfortable.
We’re very allergic to conflict because we have no idea how it went.
We’re learning that not talking about these things is not serving us. We’re trying to bring more people in and it’s great that your family modeled that. I am very impressed. You’ll have to write out the formula of how you all did so other families can go do it for their reunions.
This is probably not an important question, but I’m so curious when they would have the debates, did each person honestly believe that point of view? Was it more like a debate-style where you pick opposite sides and it’s about debate skills?
It’s the latter. We drew out of a hat what the topics were going to be, and usually assign groups. They would discuss among themselves the best argument for that and then choose a person to get up and debate.
That’s great. I love it. Tell us about voting rights. Did you all ever debate about voting rights in these family debates?
We do now. We collectively didn’t have an understanding of voting rights as a substantive issue. That has evolved and folks are more politically active now. It’s elevated to being its own standalone substantive issue, in addition to being the fundamental right that it is and tied so closely to all of the other substantive issues that we care about. That’s what got me interested in voting rights.
In my first year of law school, I was reading a book called Eaarth by Bill McKibben. It’s an environmental book about the impact that humans are having on our environment. It was quite frankly very scary. I walk away from it going, “What do I do?” It was 2008. It was the primary season of 2008. I was at the same time very interested in the presidential contest so I was getting interested in politics. I became very aware over the course of the next six months to a year about how important voting rights are to all of the substantive issues that we cared about. For me, that started with environmental issues and has naturally expanded from there into voting rights as its own substantive issue.
I’m glad that you’re pointing out voting rights as a separate thing and not this presumed underlying non-examined thing. For me, it has been so educational the conversation we had with Emily Eby, especially about the history of voting rights, and attending the webinar that the Texas Civil Rights Project hosted. It is one of those things that I have taken for granted to realize and understand what voter suppression looks like. It is to look at voting rights as an issue of its own to be protected, investigated, valued, and pointing it out in that specific way.
Let me know if this is right. To me, it sounded like voting rights were foundational and it’s hard to get to these other issues if we don’t have this foundation laid.
That’s exactly right. That’s how voting ties into every other substantive issue that we care about. For me, that started out with environmental rights and justice. For other folks, it might be family separation back in 2017 or whatever your catalyst is to get into politics to care about who we’re voting for and what we’re voting for. Voting rights are the fundamental foundation to get you there, and it is its own substantive issue because those same folks and measures that we’re voting on affect who gets to vote and how we get to vote. It’s all so interconnected.
What have you noticed about voting rights and the discourse and policies around that throughout your career? Is it getting easier or harder to vote? What’s happening? Emily told this a little bit about this, but I’m curious about your perspective on what you experienced.
The overarching expression, the arc of justice bends towards justice. We are backsliding right now. Taking note that the road or arc there of how we get there is long, windy and bumpy. We are right now on the mountain path, but we are sliding backwards and that is not an accident. There are folks in power who purposefully pursue that agenda, but it’s not new.
That is an important thing for folks to remember. This is part of our country and what’s baked into the bedrock of how we vote in this country and who gets to vote. We’ve made advancements. Right now, we are seeing a lot of those advancements rolled back. That can be a catalyst. It is scary and concerning. It can also be a catalyst for us to wake up and do something about it.
Why do you think we’re in a moment of backlash?
The right to vote is an extremely powerful right. It is also a fundamental right. We talked about the foundation of our democracy. Those in power and those who pay to be in power meaning running big structures in our country know that it’s powerful when we use our individual voices to vote, but when we speak collectively like in the election that’s coming up, it’s extremely powerful. It can be a scary thing to behold for those who see a threat to their own power. That is the throughline. The reason for a lot of the things that we’re seeing right now that undermine our democracy is that folks in power want to stay in power, and power for power’s sake, and to the extent that they need to suppress the vote to do that. That’s what we’re seeing.
Let’s dive into what are those things. Can you go into that a little bit so that people understand when we’re talking about the backsliding and the threats, and what that looks like in a person’s life?
I want to talk about two very specific things that are going on right now. One is anti-voter suppression laws or anti-voter laws that are being passed in Texas. Texas is very much a model. These laws are being passed in other states around the country as well. Our prime example that occurred about a year ago is SB 1. It’s this massive omnibus anti-voter bill that does a whole host of things. One that is very tangible that folks can understand and relate to is the changes to our mail ballot structure.
In Texas, only certain folks can vote by mail, which includes to the most degree folks who are 65 or older. They’re automatically eligible to vote by mail. The law that changed the last session was requiring that those folks provide an identification number on both their application as well as their mail ballot. We saw in the primary election back in March that so many people didn’t have the identification tied to their voter registration record as required because they registered to vote 50 years ago, or they registered to vote at a time when that wasn’t something that was regularly provided.
We had people in some counties that was over 10% of mail ballots completely rejected because folks didn’t have or didn’t provide the identification required. Laws like that truly result in disenfranchisement and are being passed across the country. That is truly backsliding. Another thing people can see in their own lives is disinformation about our democracy. What that looks like runs the gamut, but it very much includes rhetoric around the 2020 election and that it was stolen or things turn into a big lie. That rhetoric takes all sorts of shapes and forms, but it goes towards saying that the 2020 election was not accurate and that President Biden isn’t the president.
The folks perpetrating some of this are doing it in a way that is willfully misleading. It is true disinformation and knowing disinformation. Repeating debunked claims related to election machines and election workers, and all across the board, disregarding things that have been soundly refuted and moving through and passing on the disinformation. That part is especially troublesome because we know that the more people hear a thing, the more people are likely to believe the thing, even if they’ve been told it’s not true.
I want to quickly share this with everyone because this has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s the difference between misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is when you mistakenly pass along something that isn’t true. If Nicole and I shared a statistic here that was off, we didn’t intend for it to be, we tried to correct it down the road. That’s misinformation. Disinformation is spreading deliberate falsehoods. You know that this stuff is not true, but you’re going to share it. It sounds a lot like propaganda.
Propaganda probably falls under that bucket, but that’s the difference. It’s everywhere right now. The thing that frustrates Nicole and me is how hard it is for people to recognize and see how we need more media literacy because if it looks like it’s true and it’s coming from someone who has authority, you’re probably going to believe what they’re saying. It’s hard to be in this moment.
To have folks that are in political power regurgitating this stuff, knowing it’s disinformation.
I feel like it’s the knowing part that I get enough on. It has been debunked and shown evidence and yet you continue to believe that same information. It sits hard on my heart and soul. It’s anti-integrity. It’s hard to imagine leaders doing that. The other thing that has occurred to me as we were talking about people in power wanting to maintain power, it’s fascinating to me that the choice that we’re talking about here has a lot of disinformation. The choice is to have this iron grip on power instead of governing in a way that is more inclusive, bringing people along, or having a platform that could keep you in power without having to use tactics that are undermining and destructive.
It’s being more persuasive. Make your case convincingly and let people legitimately vote for you. Don’t do these other things. We’re going to transition and talk about elections administration. My first question is, what is an elections administrator? Is this the same as a county clerk?
To answer your second question first, an election administrator in Texas is not the same as a county clerk. However, in some counties in the state, the county clerk does administer elections. An elections administrator is a specific role that is provided for by the Texas election code. It’s a nonpartisan role. The county has to decide, “Do we want an elections administrator?” If they do and they hire one, that person runs both voter registration as well as the operation of an election when it’s time for an election, so finding your polling locations, putting voting machines there, and helping hire election workers.
That’s the difference between an election administrator and the way that counties do not have an election administrator. Most of them run those two roles separately. Voter registration is often housed under the tax assessor-collector, whereas the county clerk then runs the elections. A lot of counties have moved in the direction of an election administrator, where they take both of those roles and they put them into one office.
The election administrators are being put in place by the county commissioner’s court. Is that right?
I’m still trying to figure out the county clerk. County clerks are elected positions.
That’s a good reference point. For elections administrators, not only is the county commissioners court voting to have one, but then a body appoints the elections administrators. It’s a nonpartisan person appointed by a body at the county level. A county clerk is very much an elected position. If you have a county clerk in every county, they have roles outside of elections, whether they run elections or not. They do things like have folks file different paperwork with them at the county level. They do birth certificates and death certificates, and things like that. If they do not have an elections administrator, then that county clerk is likely the person who runs the elections in that county.
Do you see that in large and small counties or is it going to be with smaller counties?
This has been changing over the last ten years fairly rapidly. Most big counties have an election administrator, and then small counties vary between an elections administrator or a county clerk and a tax assessor-collector. The biggest county that still has those roles separate from a tax assessor-collector and a county clerk in Travis County.
Thank you. I was getting around to that because I was like, “In Travis County, it’s different.”
Those two offices are separated in Travis County. The other 4 to 10 largest counties, most of them have an election administrator.
It’s a provision that was added to the election code 20 or 30 years ago. The trend across the country is professionalizing that role. You can hire somebody who’s got different levels of experience related to elections to come in and not change with the political wins because they’re not elected. The idea there is to have some continuity in the office and the structures that are running the elections or our democracy.
That’s what I meant by interesting. It seems wild to me. Once again, running these new things is starting to blow my mind, that there would ever be a partisan person in charge of elections. That seems wild to me. I had an assumption that the person administrating would be a partisan person. Right now, each county gets to choose one of those models.
Yes. Under the election code, it’s county by county. We have 254 counties across the state and so lots of different decision points at the county level for how their elections are going to going to be run, starting with who runs them.
Is it a financial decision? What are the reasons behind the choices?
There is a number of things that the county has taken to account in determining whether to move to an election administrator role. One of them is financial in that you have two different offices with staff for each office to run the tax assessor-collector or the county clerk. Those offices don’t go away if you have an election administrator, but you take the election and voter registration functions and put them into a different office, which ideally can have staff who share roles like doing some voter registration. When it’s not voter registration time, those folks can transition and help with running the election. It can be financial.
It’s also can be pro-voter to put both of these roles in one office because in my experience and for my own self, people often assume that these roles are housed within one office. When you move to a county where they’re separated, that can be confusing for folks to say, “We’re 60 days out from an election, you need to register to vote and go to this office. We’re now twenty days out from an election and you need to vote. Go to this other office.” That can be confusing for voters. Some counties do a better job of describing the existence of both offices than others.
I didn’t know it’s different depending on where you live in Texas. You were an elections administrator. Tell us about that experience. I’m also curious about the counties that do choose an election administrator. How do they decide on that person? What’s the vetting process like?
I was the Chief Director of Voting under our election administrator. Isabel Longoria was our elections administrator and she was the first elections administrator for Harris County. Harris County moved to an elections administrator’s office. It was the summer of 2020 when the Commissioner’s Court voted to transition that way.
The body that appoints the election administrator is not the County Commissioner’s Court. There is a body called the Election Commission. It is made up of the county judge, the head of both political parties at the county level, the tax assessor-collector, and the county clerk. Those five folks get together and they decide who’s going to be the elections administrator.
What makes a good elections administrator or what skill set do they need? They need a bunch of skills. I’m going to describe some of the main ones. One is being able to run an organization because the election’s office is multifaceted, and has many roles, starting at voter registration through running the election for the voter, but then returning the returns, and providing those to the folks and the bodies that need to have the results of an election. It starts early and it goes a very long time. Running an organization with all that comes with it from a budget to hiring folks to create this structure of an office is very important.
They need to know voting laws in the state. The Texas Election Code is thick and printed out front and back. It’s huge. There is a robust amount of substantive information that somebody either needs to know or needs to be a very quick study on learning the relevant laws. They need to be adaptive to the current climate we’re in. It takes a lot of pivoting to respond to what the issue of the day will be. Being flexible and adaptive is extremely important.Elections administrators must be flexible and adaptive because of the robust amount of substantive information and relevant laws they must study. Click To Tweet
An element I’m not sure everybody thinks about, but is very crucial is customer service. There are a lot of customers of an election’s office, including first and foremost voters, but also including people like your election workers who are paid, but very much using their own volunteer time to help run an election, the Commissioner’s Court, and the public at large. There are a lot of customer levels and customer interactions that are crucial for an election administrator and their office folks to be adept at.
That was so much to take in. This is great.
Let me know if I’m right or wrong here. I’m assuming that the election’s administrator is a person selecting the different polling locations. Is that right?
At a high level, the elections office is nominating the polling location. They’re coming up with the list of, “Who did we use last time? Who still has a building? Who has decided they’re not going to operate anymore?” Whatever can happen related to particular polling locations, then they take that list. This is for most elections in the state. The other caveat is depending on the type of election, it might be a whole different set of rules under the election code. In most elections, you bring your list of polling locations to the Commissioner’s Court that reviews them, asks questions, and might say, “What about this location?” They approve of them.
For example, in this past primary election, I voted early. It was two minutes. I was in and out. There were no lines. It’s easy. My dad lives in Bear County and he said he had to wait two hours to vote in a primary. I was like, “That seems excessive for a primary.” I’m wondering why was his experience so different from my experience.
The other caveat is for primary elections, the elections office and the political parties have to work together to decide on polling locations. While you will have the Commissioner’s Court review and ask questions, the political parties play a heavier role during the primaries of where you’re going to situate a polling location.While you have the Commissioner's Court review and ask questions about polling locations, the political parties play a heavier role in picking their exact place during primaries. Click To Tweet
The other thing to keep in mind is counties are supposed to have a certain number of polling locations open based on a calculation provided by the election code. Assuming that they have that, if voters go to all the polling locations around the county, you will often have a situation where you don’t have a lot of lines. You evenly distribute voters across the different polling locations. It can be the case that you’re in and out in two minutes.
There are popular locations in counties across the state. I can think of a number in Travis and Harris County that “This is the day I vote and this is the place I vote” is the feeling that a lot of voters have, and for good reason. They’ve been doing it that way for a long time. That can add to the potential long lines. The question I would have for your dad is, was there an issue at that location that was going on that was making the line or was it truly there a lot of people excited about voting that day? It can vary on whether this is what I would call an okay line of people who are excited and showed up at 7:00 AM the first day or we should be concerned about something going on inside of that location that’s bottle-necking and causing a line.
Another real-world question I have is I heard that some universities will have polling locations. Some years, they will. Some years, they won’t. Is it that collaborative process deciding if they’re going to have those locations available and why it changes each election cycle?
It can always change each election cycle. We know that for voters, that’s not great. All of us as humans are used to habits. We have habits and things that we’ve done in the past, and that’s what we go to when we think about where do I need to go vote. In an ideal world, we would have the same polling locations with sufficient access every election. That doesn’t have real-world possibilities because things change.
For universities specifically, it is crucial for access in my opinion that we have a polling location on university campuses across the state. It is my experience that if you don’t have folks going to the Commissioner’s Court to say we want a polling location on campus or if you don’t have somebody saying, “Elections administrator, we need a location there,” those will often fall to the wayside the fastest.University campuses must have full access to polling locations Click To Tweet
It’s not a good excuse. In my opinion, elections offices should be taking that into consideration when they’re looking at their list. They should say, “We have a large university. We don’t have a polling location there. There’s something wrong.” It often takes advocates to get folks to pay attention to that. We’re making progress. There was a bill in 2021 proposing a requirement for polling locations at universities of a certain size. We are making progress in that direction, but we are not perfect across the board. There are counties in the state who do not have polling locations on some of their university campuses.
If you want a polling location in a specific area, you’re like, “This would be a great spot. Many people live here.” Should you go to the County Commissioner’s Court and advocate at that place to let your voice be heard? Where should people go if they’re like, “We need this here. Why did this go away? Why don’t you consider this area?”
There are two places at minimum. One, go to your election office first and early. This is an example of the timeline it takes to run an election. In the November 8th election, polling locations are decided and almost exclusively across the state were locked down. They were proposed to Commissioner’s Court in July and early August. That’s how far in advance because of other derivative things that have to go on in the election’s office. Those things have to be decided.
If you know now of a location that you think next May or next November your elections office should have, right after this election, go talk to that election’s office. Let them know now. If for whatever reason, you’re not getting anywhere, you haven’t gotten that location squared away, the next step is your Commissioner’s Court because the election’s office will take that proposal to Commissioner’s Court. That’s a place in a public forum to advocate for the area where you think polling locations need to exist.
Do polling places or locations get paid for their space?
Under the election code, public places, by and large, have to provide their space to the election’s offices, so that you can have a sufficient number of buildings to have polling locations. Private spaces sometimes will donate their space, and then at other times, they’ll require payment. It depends on how much they’re going to charge to see if the elections office is going to be able to afford it. It’s a mixed answer. You want to be able to pay for the location, but it can’t be so expensive that it becomes cost prohibitive.
That’s a good question, Nicole. I didn’t even think about that.
Discussing all these differences between, “This county does it this way. This does it the other way,” what is standard in Texas when it comes to elections administration, and then what is decided at a more local level? We’ve talked about this a little bit, but can you give us the bare bones of what they have to do?
The standard at the state level is on election day, it will be 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM hours wise, everywhere across the state. If you have a polling location open, those should be the hours. During early voting, the days of early voting are dictated by state law. We have Monday the 24th of October through, Friday, November 4th. Those two weeks is early voting.
The hours that a particular county has voting open varies from county to county, depending on a number of things. One is the size of the county. Smaller counties under the election code are not open as long hours as larger counties. Within the required amount, there are some choices that the elections offices have to make, both small and large.
For example, some counties are required to have voting on Saturday or Sunday of that two weeks, but they can decide to have it for the smallest amount of hours required under law or they could have it for double the number of hours required under the law. There are some choices like that at the county level that are crucial to providing access.
We know that folks are moving towards voting during early voting. It used to be the bulk of folks voted on election day, but now it’s closer to 50-50. The trend is moving in that direction because it’s more convenient. You need an elections administrator or whoever is running your election to be willing to have as many hours as they can handle during early voting because we know it provides the most access to folks. To answer your original question, there is the structure around provided by state law, but there is a lot of wiggle room at the county level where if a county official wants to provide access, they have the ability to do that.
You’re saying that is outlined in the election code?
Is SB 1 outside of the election code or was that passed and then put into the election code?
It’s the latter. SB 1 is the name of the bill that was passed, but all of its text gets inserted into the election code.
For the audience, it’s a 3-to-4-inch book stacked hefty. Can you tell us a little bit about the relationship between election administrators and the Secretary of State, and how the Secretary of State factors into this process?
The Secretary of State is the state elections official in Texas. This can vary from state to state. They are an appointed role. The governor appoints the Secretary of State, and then that is presumably approved by the State Senate. Now, the state legislature is not in session. The person who’s appointed by the governor acts as the Secretary of State even before they’re approved by the Senate. Our current Secretary of State John Scott is acting as the Secretary of State even though there hasn’t been a legislative session yet.
Their role is to provide advice and guidance to counties across the state on election laws. That includes both the state election laws and the election code, as well as Federal election laws. By and large, that works in a fairly collaborative way with counties across the state. The Secretary of State has a whole office within it dedicated to that collaboration with counties. As you might imagine in the current political climate we’re in, sometimes that can get more tense, depending on what county is contacting the Secretary of State’s office. The idea is a collaborative process where the office is helpful to the counties and the counties are communicating with the state in a regular way.
As you pointed out, the Secretary of State in Texas is appointed, but that is not standard across the US. Some secretaries of state are elected.
That’s right. Some are elected. It depends on the state’s own rules around that.
Tell us about some of the challenges you encounter as election administrators, whether it’s around laws that are being passed or the political climate we’re talking about. What’s making this job hard right now?
We can take SB 1 and the disinformation, and talk about those from the elections office perspective because we know that they’re affecting voters. They are also affecting those who are running our elections. On SB 1 specifically, the mail ballot example and the change to the ID number requirement. What that did to election offices across the state with passing that law in September or October of 2021 and being implemented by the time of the primaries, it was like saying, “Here is a robust new law. You must implement it for a very big election within months and without any resources given by the state to do so.” You hear the phrase unfunded mandate. What it means is there’s no money and no people coming with these very intense new requirements under the election code on a shortened timeline.
Normally, a bill will pass during the spring legislative session and then not be implemented until the following November timeframe. This was a tighter timeframe without any additional resources. You had election offices across the state scrambling to make sure that voters had the information they needed to be able to comply with this new rule, as well as internally to the county and implement new structures to be able to handle the new ID requirements for the mail ballots. That required people power, money and time to be able to implement. That’s the downstream effect or sidestream effect of passing a new law like that without providing the resources to be able to implement it on the county level.A bill normally passes during the Spring Legislative Session and will not be implemented until the following November. However, SB1 had a tighter timeframe without any additional resources. Click To Tweet
Are these things easily interpreted? I’m also imagining that this new text or requirement comes across your desk. You also have to figure out what it means.
It’s incredibly complicated. It is not easy to understand. This dovetails with the Secretary of State’s role. They are supposed to be providing guidance on things like the new law. When you compress the timeline as the legislature did, the Secretary of State was putting out guidance as we were already mailing out ballots for the primary election. These things are overlapping each other in time. Trying to understand either for yourself or communicate with the Secretary of State’s office or whoever the relevant other person is becomes extremely difficult in that shortened timeframe. It creates hurdles for election offices to be able to make sure that voters have the access they deserve.
Is it possible for different administrators and offices to interpret things in different ways? Can there be confusion depending on your county? Maybe they thought, “This is what that was requiring,” and it’s something else.
We saw that in real-time last spring and into the summer. We got guidance from the Secretary of State’s office, but there’s still this question of what X, Y, or Z means. This county is doing it one way and this county is doing it a different way. That can have a real-world impact on voters. I heard somebody who programs computers talk about this. You come up with how you’re going to program the computer and then you do full testing, and then you roll it out to the user. When you have an SB 1, you need to do full testing, explain the entire guidance and test, and then roll it out to the voter. The situation that the legislature put counties across the state, there was no time for that full testing in the same way.
I’m sorry, you’ll have to go through that. That sounds so hard.
As I’m thinking about the implications of that, if you’re the voter on the ground and you wind up feeling frustrated, that frustration then is going be directed to who’s most immediately in front of you without the knowledge of who’s really responsible. You’re doing the best you can to follow the directives that have been essentially thrown at you. There’s also that level of distrust. I would imagine that can build potentially with the electorate.
You’re hitting the nail on the head. There’s a level of assumption that the person running the elections on the other side with all deliberate measures rather than ride the wave that’s coming at them. For voters, that can be disheartening. Even if you hear, “We’re doing the best we can under SB 1. This is what the legislature said,” the voter is still experiencing their own experience and saying, “I’ll try again next time but I’m frustrated.” That has a real impact on individual voters.
That would maybe be a good point to transition into the state of counties and their election’s administrative offices. I heard a lot of people are quitting because this is a very hard job. More is required of you. I was reading that in Gillespie County, the whole staff resigned. What’s happening? What’s going to happen for voters when you all burn out and there are few people left behind or no one left behind to pick up the ball?
I also read that story and have read similar stories, and this is happening not just in Texas. It’s across the country. The thing it can do is throw part of the election into crisis. Someone has to pick up the slack. The bottom line is someone is going to step in and run that election. Is that a neighboring county? Is it someone from the Secretary of State’s office jumping in? Is it a new person from a different county office coming over to try to bootstrap this thing together?
Someone is going to fill that role. Being conscious of making sure that that person feels supported so that they can make sure that voters have the access they need is crucial. The other thing that election offices are facing is that disinformation we talked about with respect to what voters are feeling, they are getting the brunt of, “The election is not run correctly. You are doing it purposefully.”
The real story here is the people who run elections are our neighbors. They’re our friends. They’re the people we see in line at the grocery store. Those are the folks on the ground running elections, both at the elections office, as well as volunteering to work elections on election day and during early voting. It’s remembering that as much as we can and telling our friends, family and neighbors who are running our elections, and not to sew the disinformation that some scary person is running the elections. It truly is our friends in our communities that are doing that important work.
What else do you wish the public knew about the work that election offices do?
I wish the folks knew how much time and energy goes into running elections. I’ve worked on the voting rights volunteer side since 2008. 2016 shifted my career in this direction. Until I went and worked in an election office in Harris County, I had no idea the breadth of the amount of time and energy spent getting ready for an election. It starts many months in advance working with stakeholders in the county to get ready for the election, choosing the polling locations, helping recruit election workers, and finding different resources that you need to run the election. All of that work starts so far in advance.
A lot of folks have the perception that people who work in elections don’t do anything for a large period of the year, and then a month or two before the election starts, things get going and it couldn’t be further from the truth. It is a year-round job to get ready for this thing that is so crucial to making our democracy work. Having that general knowledge of how much goes into it by folks at all levels of the elections office is very important.
Maybe that’s the gift of this moment. It’s stressful and it can feel very frightening sometimes the threats that we’re getting against democracy. If we had to find the silver lining, it is this. It’s exposing the hidden mechanisms that we never stopped to think about what makes this thing work that we called democracy. I want to think of this as an opportunity to appreciate and value what is behind the curtain or behind the ballot.
It is an opportunity to look at who has been doing this work and who continues to do this work. Unfortunately, they’re under so much pressure at this moment in time. If we can recognize that and support and step up to the plate to appreciate this, that would be incredible. I need to do that switch in my mind.
I like that silver lining. It is an opportunity for us to know more about these processes that are so important to our democracy and hopefully, folks get interested in wanting to be election workers and volunteer their time to help this thing run because it’s so crucial.
We can uplift that. It is on the back of our heels responding and reacting. I love when we have these moments of what is a proactive strategy for what matters and what is meaningful and putting that message out.
It’s a good reminder too that if it’s a long line, be gracious. These people are trying their best and stick it out. It’s worth voting and waiting for your opportunity because we have to all be participants to make this work. You all are doing so much for us. Thank you, Beth, for you and your team and all the other people that you helped. Nicole, do you have anything else we should touch on before we move to our attention mentions?
I’m just so grateful for this conversation. It’s like light bulbs going off. There are so many important pieces that I did not understand. Your knowledge is deep and so helpful, so thank you, Beth.
Thank you all. This has been fantastic. It’s good to talk to you. I appreciate it very much.
I feel like I have a lot more questions, but we don’t want to take too much of your time. Maybe down the road on another day, we’ll dig deeper, a part two of elections administration. Let’s move into our attention mentions, which is where we share something that has our attention, a show, an article, a book or experiences we had.
I already mentioned Eaarth by Bill McKibben. Mentioning it to you all made me want to go reread that book. It was eye-opening for me. This was 2008, so he may have a new book or something else current to read, but it was pivotal for me. He’s out there on environmental science. I don’t know if he’s got any other areas of expertise or not.
I’ll go next because this a little bit connects to Eaarth, which I haven’t read, but I will go seek it out at my library or I’ll buy it. I look at half-price books a lot. They have great stuff. I never finished this book, but I picked it back up. It’s called The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee. There’s a subheading to the book. It’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. She talks about so many things, even voting rights, climate crisis, and public education, and how they’re also interwoven, but too often we don’t think about them as a collective struggle. It somehow filters out based on your race. She does a great job at learning these things very cohesively.
Her book is amazing. When I was reading it, she was talking about these articles she had been reading in the news about the climate and how our poor planet is suffering, and the anxiety it creates for her, and how interestingly enough, this isn’t something that registers very highly with white voters for some reason, even though it affects all of us. We all are breathing the same air and drinking the same water. It’s interesting why that’s the case. She digs into that. It’s a great book.
My attention mention is the Revisionist History Podcast, Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast. I love the podcast in general, but there is one episode in particular that still sticks out in my mind. It was about Brown versus the Board of Education. The title of that episode was Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment. It’s interesting because it outlines the effect of Brown versus Board of Education, particularly in Black communities and Black schools. It decimated the education infrastructure of schools that have previously been exclusively Black and the effects are still felt today. There are not as many Black teachers. It is an interesting take on the actual effect of Brown versus the Board of Education.
The podcast Throughline, NPR’s podcast. Have you heard of this?
I listen to a lot of NPR. I love 1A, but I have not listened to Throughline.
Their shtick is they take a current event and they tell you the history of it in an hour. It’s different current events and it goes back to 2019. The first one I heard is from 2021. I went back and started listening to all of them, and it is a little mind-bending to go back and listen to them talk about a thing that was current in 2019, but it is so well done. I highly recommend it. They’re really good.
Thank you. We love a good podcast recommendation because we are podcasters. We love listening to podcasts and sharing them with our audience because if you like this, you’re probably looking for others. Here is a couple to add to your list and to subscribe to. Don’t forget to subscribe to our show. Thank you so much, Beth. This was great. I learned a lot more. I had questions that I didn’t even know I had questions. There are a lot.
Thank you all so much. I appreciate you all having me.
- Texas Civil Rights Project
- League of Women Voters
- The Sum of Us
- Revisionist History Podcast
- Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment
About Beth Stevens
Beth Stevens is a voting rights expert & an advocate for voters and election officials. She’s a Texan–born and raised, and trained in the law in her home state. Since 2008, she has dedicated volunteer time to voter protection efforts. In 2016, she shifted her career to join the fight for the fundamental right to vote for Texans, especially for those who have historically been excluded from the franchise. Beth was the Voting Rights Program Legal Director at the Texas Civil Rights Project and subsequently became the Chief Director of Voting at the Harris County Elections Office, helping run the biggest voting jurisdiction in the state and the third-largest in the country.