In 2020 in Texas, depending on which county they live in, a voter can head to the polls at 3 a.m. Or they can drive for several hours to drop their ballot off at the one box in their county of millions, and then wait to see if their ballot will be thrown out later in court. Some voters surround campaign buses in trucks festooned with “Back the Blue” flags so tall they block traffic, and other voters could be the ones run off the road.
Texas may be the future: both energizing left and progressive victories to protect voting rights and build power through grassroots movements, and the threat of right-wing violence pushing back. Harris County, home to Houston, is the backdrop for much of this speculation. In 2018, 27-year-old Lina Hidalgo was elected as Harris County’s chief executive—her title is County Judge—on the Harris County Commissioners Court. The body oversees the county’s jails and hospital system, and this year, it appointed the current county clerk, Chris Hollins, the first Black county clerk in Harris County’s history (and its youngest), who oversees elections. Hollins has significantly expanded access to the vote for people in Harris County, which in turn has met with backlash from conservatives in the state legislature and courts. Over the last few days alone, the Texas Republican Party has tried to get more than 120,000 votes tossed out. And when Texas Trump supporters swarmed a Biden campaign bus in dozens of vehicles, one colliding with a car that was with the Biden campaign, the state Republican Party railed against the media and Democrats in the Trump Train’s support.
“Against all odds,” reported the Texas Tribune when County Judge Hidalgo assumed office in 2019, “she’s running the most populous county in Texas—the first woman and Latina to do so—after riding a blue tsunami in Harris County that swept away several countywide Republican officials and saw Democrats prevail in every county judicial race.” After those wins, the county increased election budgets from the $4 million allocated by the prior Republican administration to $31 million for 2020. Eric Levitz at New York magazine noted, “If Biden carries Texas Tuesday, it’s quite plausible that a razor-thin Democratic victory in a county-judge race will be a (if not the) reason why.”
The decision to keep eight polling places open all night the Thursday before the election was the work of County Clerk Hollins. On the first night of 24-hour voting, County Judge Hildago announced on Twitter, “We just hit our highest voter turnout. Ever. Nearly 1.4 million votes have been cast in Harris County and we’re not even done with Early Vote yet.” (Overall, 9.7 million people voted in Texas by October 30, surpassing, before Election Day, the total number of voters who turned out in the 2016 election. “More Texans have now voted in this election than in any election ever—by about 700,000 and counting, as of Sunday afternoon,” according to NPR.) As Texas Monthly reported on the all-night voting scene, voters arrived from their late shifts—public transit workers, Amazon delivery drivers. One voter, an engineer at an oil-field services company who showed up to vote at 1 a.m., told the Monthly, “What I like about engineering is that you can’t manipulate the laws of physics and mathematics. As we’ve seen lately, election laws are not the same.”
As another way to expand access to the polls, Harris County proposed drive-through voting this year, which was approved by the Secretary of State and tested in an election in July. The Texas Republican Party filed suit against Hollins over drive-through voting several months later (in part, making an equal protection argument akin to the one that handed George W. Bush the presidency in 2000—essentially arguing that different counties having different election policies is a violation of the Constitution—and which Justice Brett Kavanaugh has resurrected in a Supreme Court ruling concerning Wisconsin voters). “Those folks will stop at nothing to make sure that the right to vote in this country is limited to a select few,” Hollins told local radio station KTSU2. “There is no other way to describe it … than voter suppression.”
One plaintiff is Texas Republican power broker Steven Hotze, “one of the most prolific culture warriors on the right,” according to the Texas Tribune, who has lobbied for an anti-trans “bathroom bill” in the Texas legislature, unsuccessfully, and who has sued Harris County Judge Hidalgo over coronavirus policies on mask-wearing and stay-at-home orders. In June, days after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, Hotze called Texas Governor Gregg Abbot and left a voice message with his chief of staff, which said, “I want to make sure that [Abbott] has National Guard down here, and they have the order to shoot to kill if any of these son-of-a-bitch people start rioting like they have in Dallas, start tearing down businesses—shoot to kill the son of a bitches. That’s the only way you restore order. Kill ’em. Thank you.” He has also used the QAnon oath and espoused some of its conspiracy theories.
As the suit wound through the courts over the last week, some Texas Trump supporters took voter suppression into their own hands—targeting campaign vehicles and the staffers inside. On Friday, Donald Trump Jr. beckoned supporters in a video message: “Hey Laredo, Don Jr. here. I heard you had an awesome turnout for the Trump Train. It’d be great if you guys would all get together, head down to McAllen and give Kamala Harris a nice Trump Train welcome. Get out there, have some fun, enjoy it. Don’t forget to vote and bring all of your friends. Let’s show them how strong Texas still is as Trump country. Get out there, guys.” Later that day, a Biden-Harris campaign bus en route from San Antonio to Austin was surrounded by Trump supporters in trucks, with Trump flags waving behind them. “The confrontation, captured on video, featured at least one minor collision and led to Texas Democrats canceling three scheduled campaign events on Friday,” reported the Texas Tribune. “The campaign officials cited ‘safety concerns’ for the cancellations.”
Over the next few days, the president offered his repeated support to those who tried to intimidate the Biden campaign. He retweeted a video of the trucks trailing the bus, adding, “I LOVE TEXAS.” A Texas GOP statement called the incident “more fake news and propaganda,” adding, “Prepare to lose … stop bothering me. Maybe Soros can cut y’all another check in 2022.” Trump echoed this Monday, when the Federal Bureau of Investigations in San Antonio announced it was opening an investigation: “This story is FALSE. They did nothing wrong. But the ANTIFA Anarchists, Rioters and Looters, who have caused so much harm and destruction in Democrat run cities, are being seriously looked at!”
But later that day, the Texas GOP play to get the 127,000 drive-through votes tossed failed in federal court. U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled Hotze and his co-plaintiffs lacked standing to bring their legal challenge to drive-through voting. They have already appealed, but for now, the votes are preserved. In the courtroom Monday, after Judge Hanen’s decision came down, the plaintiffs’ attorney said what was interpreted as an admission: “If Harris County goes against Trump in large numbers, then he could lose Texas.… As far as I’m concerned, this is ground zero.” Though the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the Texas GOP’s request for a preliminary injunction late on Monday, which would have blocked drive-through voting on Election Day, County Clerk Hollins announced he would close all but one of the drive-through voting sites in Harris County for those still going to the polls on Tuesday—not wanting those votes to be challenged later.
Tuesday may be seen as a referendum on Harris County and its progressive turn, how much it might matter in the long run. It is also a glimpse into what happens when progressives do win: The Republican Party will not only turn to the courts to try to save itself, but it will ally itself with right-wing conspiracy theories and threats of violence. The right has invested decades in seating judges it believed would be on its side to bend the law in its favor. And whether or not that works, it’s also allied itself with others on the ground, who will go further for it to get the power they believe is theirs.
Updated on November 3 at 8:35 a.m. ET