Whatever their causes, Super Tuesday primary election problems poison already toxic public attitudes toward the electoral process in Texas

The long lines and cascading glitches in Texas’ primary contests on Super Tuesday raises yet again the issue of how politics shapes perceptions about the conduct of elections in Texas. While the multiple causes of the Super Tuesday breakdown in some of the state’s largest cities will continue to be dissected in the weeks and months ahead, we know one thing for sure: The public response to failures in the voting process will be viewed through darkly shaded partisan lenses.

Polling within the last year reveals how much skepticism about the integrity of voting and elections in Texas pervades the electorate, though with completely different suspicions fueling the concerns of Democrats and Republicans. As recently as June, 2019, the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll found that 35% of Texas voters thought that the state’s election system discriminates against ethnic and racial minorities, while 50% said that it doesn’t - the remainder didn’t know or express an opinion. The partisan differences were stark: 66% of Democrats thought there was racial discrimination, 80% of Republicans disagreed.

Loading chart...
Don’t know/No opinion20%18%9%

In the same poll, Republicans project wholly different suspicions. Asked how often voters “knowingly break election laws”, two-thirds of Republicans said either “frequently” (30%) or “sometimes” (39%). An only slightly smaller share of Democrats said “rarely” (46%) or “never” (12%) -- only 2% of Republicans said “never”. Responses to another item on the same poll reflect a related set of dispositions. Asked, "How often do you think that people who are not U.S. citizens vote in Texas Elections?", 42% of Republicans said “frequently” and 33% said “sometimes.” Among Democrats, only 6% said “frequently”; 27% said “never” and 37%, “rarely.”

Loading chart...
Don’t know/No opinion17%22%12%

Loading chart...
Don’t know/No opinion16%17%9%

These attitudes about perceived threats to the integrity of the electoral process don’t have equal empirical support. For example, the high visibility effort of then-acting Secretary of State David Whitley to point Attorney General Ken Paxton and county clerks across the state to 95,000 registered voters suspected of being non-citizens, including 58,000 alleged to have voted, initially amplified by Paxton, Governor Abbott, and no less than the President of the United States, turned out to be deeply defective. The affair resulted in no revelations of large scale voter registration, let alone voting, by non-citizens, and coverage and headlines  referred to Texas’ aborted investigation as “bungled,” “ham-handed,” and “botched.” Per reporting by The New York Times, out of the original list, approximately 80 ineligible voters were discovered, about .08% of the original list. The website for the Attorney General’s Election Integrity initiative currently claims (in big red boxes) that they have “successfully prosecuted” 457 election fraud offenses since 2004, including 97 voilations in 2018, and have 75 active election fraud investigations. For a sense of scale, 8,371,655 Texans voted in the 2018 elections. By no measure can this be considered “frequently,” even if you think even once is too many.

On the other hand, Texas has spent much of the last two decades in court defending itself against claims of various forms of discrimination in its electoral system as a result of laws passed by the legislature, often finding itself on the losing side. From adjustments to district maps found to be racially discriminatory to the reversal of the key elements of the state’s voter identification law to the aforementioned attempt to purge the voter roles, state and federal courts have repeatedly found evidence of discrimination in the state’s electoral laws or practices. However mutually exclusive the predispositions of partisans in determining problems in the electoral system, the empirical evidence over the last two decades (and more, for that matter) warrants against any false equivalencies between Republican and Democratic concerns. 

Such evidence about what happened on Super Tuesday to cause long lines and the reported extension of voting hours into the wee hours of Wednesday morning in some locations is yet to be comprehensively gathered. Some excellent early reporting by Alexa Ura in The Texas Tribune suggests an alignment of local political sparring between Republican and Democratic parties, with the county clerk stuck in the middle, that resulted in a question deployment of voting machines that ensured long waits for the expected high turnout concentrated in Democratic districts with large numbers of Latino and black voters in Harris County. Add to this staffing shortages at polling places, and fewer temporary voting locations as a result of a bill passed in the last legislative session, and the result is a cascade failure that is unlikely to fit easily into either partisan frame. The likelihood of racial discrimination hovers over the reports and images of people of color standing in long lines in Houston, or exiting those lines wearily rather than voting. Yet there are also legitimate questions to be asked about execution by election officials in some places.

But whatever facts emerge, the ongoing negative publicity around the conduct of elections finds a ready audience among a public made skeptical, if not cynical, through the incorporation of dark, partisan rhetoric surrounding voting and elections into their polarized partisan world views. 

As far back the final weeks of the 2016 residential campaign, then-candidate Trump played on suspicions of the electoral process by warning his followers that the process was “rigged” against him -- and by extension, against them. The October 2016 UT/TT poll found that a majority of Texans – and among them, vast majorities of Trump supportersr –expected a range of possible problems to be extremely serious in the upcoming election, including voting machines being hacked, votes being counted inaccurately, people voting multiple times, and ineligible voters casting ballots. For a time after being elected, the president continued to encourage some of these doubts, particularly the last one, in an effort to inflate his margin of victory.

Loading chart...
Extremely serious45%
Somewhat serious14%
Not too serious12%
Not serious at all27%
Don't know2%

Loading chart...
categoryNot supporting Donald TrumpSupporting Donald Trump
Extremely serious18%77%
Somewhat serious11%18%
Not too serious19%3%
Not serious at all48%1%
Don't know3%0%

Loading chart...
categoryNot supporting Donald TrumpSupporting Donald Trump
Extremely serious25%60%
Somewhat serious20%25%
Not too serious21%12%
Not serious at all29%3%
Don't know4%2%

The Super Tuesday difficulties in Texas further fan widespread doubts about the election process inflamed by more recent events, from the debacle of the Democratic caucuses in Iowa to the ongoing reminders that, despite the denial of established fact, Russia and other foreign powers certainly influenced the 2016 elections and are actively trying to do so again in 2020. The impeachment drama was also part of this arc. Trump’s impeachment and trial were rooted in his efforts to use the powers of his office to further his re-election campaign. In the end, his acquittal was justified among many of his defenders by the assessment that he had indeed been seeking to further his re-election, but that doing so didn’t merit removing him from office. Whether one supports the president or not, this outcome at best lowers one’s moral expectations of the election process, and at worst provides more evidence that it can’t be trusted. The result is a public that stands ever ready to feed the flames of their own doubts and anxieties about elections. Super Tuesday in Texas threw more fuel on the fire.