"Hervis Early Rogers," graphite on paper, 12¾″ × 17″. 2022
For Hervis Rogers, criminal justice and voter suppression fused on election night
On March 3, during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Hervis Rogers arrived at his polling location at Texas Southern University a little before 7 p.m. He was the last person in line to vote at the historically Black university in Houston. At first, he debated whether to stay for what would turn out to be a six-hour wait in line. But Rogers suspected that the long wait time was orchestrated to deter him and others from voting.
He was right.
Since the US Supreme Court invalidated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Texas–amongst other states and localities with a history of racial discrimination–has enacted a variety of strategies to suppress the vote of communities of color and the poor. Long wait lines in particular can occur on election day as a result of a combination of voter suppression tactics: photo ID requirements; eliminating early voting locations; cutting the number of early voting days to swell lines on election day; machine malfunctions; and distributing resources inequitably across polling locations including voting machines, poll workers, and poll books.
Rogers didn’t know all the details, but he could sense that something was wrong.
A combination of direct and indirect voter suppression strategies swelled lines at TSU and other locations across Texas throughout the 2020 election season.
Texas makes it harder to vote
Since 2012, Texas has closed more than 750 polling sites, including 52 in Harris County.
About half of these polling locations were closed as a result of the creation of countywide polling places called “vote centers.” On a bipartisan basis, Republicans and Democrats have advocated for vote centers as a way to make it more convenient for people to vote. Within this system, individuals can cast ballots anywhere within the county where they live rather than just at their local precinct. But Texas law does not require counties that make this transition to operate the same number of precinct polling locations. This means that across the state, fewer voting sites must accommodate a larger volume of voters. Some people choose not to vote if transportation or the wait time is inconvenient, especially if they can only vote between work schedules. Poor and low-wage workers are the most impacted.
Texas is not only the state with the highest number of poll location closures since the 2013 SCOTUS ruling; it is also a state where Republicans have enacted new voter ID requirements that make it more difficult for people to vote.
Explicit voter suppression in Texas
In 2011 Texas Gov. RIck Perry signed Senate Bill 14 into law, changing the voting criteria. Prior to this, voters were only required to show a voter registration certificate or a phone or utility bill that listed their name. Now, voters had to present an unexpired photo ID from a restrictive list of seven approved documents. As reported by the Houston Chronicle, an estimated 600,000 voters did not have an approved ID.
Over the next five years, back and forth legal battles ensued, leading Texas to pass a new voter ID law, Senate Bill 5, which enabled individuals without an approved ID to vote as long as they signed a declaration indicating why they were not able to obtain one. While the bill was challenged for racial discrimination, an appeals court allowed the law to go into effect in January 2018. Texas Republicans have also pushed a variety of other strategies, from taking away the rights of some people who can no longer request mail-in ballots to banning 24-hour voting locations that accommodate many poor and working class people.
The Democratic and Republican parties of Texas are also required to set primary guidelines jointly. In this particular election, the Harris County Republican Party refused to hold a joint primary. This meant that the voting machines at TSU had half of the machines (10) preloaded with Democratic candidates, and the other half of the machines (10), which “sat idle on the Republican side of the polling place,” preloaded with Republican candidates. The Democratic voters waiting in long lines could not use the available machines designated for Republicans, even if poll workers allowed them. In a politically purple county that can easily tilt Republican or Democrat, discouraging voters from voting at even a single polling location can have a sizable impact.
With fewer polling locations across the state, new voter ID requirements, restricted resources, and higher than expected turnout, the stage was set for long wait lines, voter fatigue, and explicit voter suppression.
The stage was set for long wait lines, voter fatigue, and explicit voter suppression.
But there was one additional complication.
Hervis Rogers was formerly incarcerated and completing the final months of a nearly 16-year parole period set to end in June of 2020.
Throughout most of his adult life, Rogers has moved in and out of the criminal justice system. He has had numerous burglary charges since the 1980s, culminating in a twenty-five year prison sentence for a felony burglary case in 1995. In the state of Texas, it is illegal to vote if you are serving any form of incarceration, including parole. As reported in The Texan, Rogers signed a voter registration card in 2016 “swearing that he was not finally convicted or on parole at the time” and voted in two elections.
Whether Rogers knowingly or unknowingly made the error, his case raises a more fundamental question: should the state be able to take voting rights away from any person, regardless of incarceration status? Maine and Vermont have answered this question with an unconditional “no,” while the remaining 48 states have said “yes” with varying degrees of disenfranchisement for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.
In July of 2021, the Republican attorney general of Texas ordered Roger’s arrest, setting bail at $100,000. A year later, a Texas judge would dismiss all voter fraud charges against him. With the rise of extremism, racism, and bigotry in US politics, Rogers unwittingly became a pawn in Republican efforts to litigate fictitious “voter fraud” as a way to justify racial discrimination in voting laws and policies.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was specifically created to mandate that Texas and other jurisdictions with a long history of voter disenfranchisement seek preclearance from the U.S. justice department before enacting any changes to voting policies. Since the Supreme Court invalidated preclearance protections in 2013, Texas Republicans have operated unchecked, adapting new strategies to suppress the votes of youth, communities of color, the poor and other demographic groups they believe are likely to vote for Democrats.
Today, an updated Voting Rights Act bill is needed to restore preclearance protections and prevent long lines, disparities in resources, and other voter suppression efforts that disadvantage historically marginalized communities. The federal government can also follow in the footsteps of both Vermont and Maine and ensure that, regardless of incarceration status, no citizen should ever have their voting rights taken away.
Artwork and essay by Joe Ward, published on April 5, 2023