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Polling sites on Texas college campuses would be banned under proposed bill

People walk into a UT Austin building to vote.
Gabriel C. Pérez
People walk into a UT Austin building to vote.

A bill was filed in the Texas Legislature on Thursday that would prohibit polling locations on college campuses throughout the state.

State Rep. Carrie Isaac (R) of Wimberley filed House Bill 2390, one of over 100 election-related bills that have been filed this session. Voting rights advocates say the bill is a targeted attack on the political power of young voters.

Isaac represents Comal County and parts of Hays County, which flipped Democratic during the 2018 U.S. Senate race. The county later favored Democrats Joe Biden and Beto O'Rourke by over 10 points in the 2020 presidential election and 2022 governor's race, respectively.

Alex Birnel, advocacy director for MOVE Texas, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on increasing voter engagement, credits the flip to the large number of young voters at Texas State University, located in Hays County. In 2018, Texas State's early voting location closed after the first three days of the early voting period, during which students faced hour-and-a-half-long waits to cast a ballot. The location reopened after the Texas Civil Rights Project threatened Hays County with a lawsuit unless it allowed Texas State's on-campus polling station to remain open for the duration of the early voting period and expanded the location's hours to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Birnel said House Bill 2390 has no clear purpose other than to decrease young voter turnout.

"The bill text is so short that it doesn't illuminate any further why this bill would be filed other than to directly target places where universities have large enough voting populations to flip the county, like we saw in Hays County back in 2018," he said.

Rep. Isaac has not responded to requests for comment regarding the bill.

Birnel believes the bill is a targeted partisan power grab.

"Because the folks in power don't believe they can win on the issues, they change the rules and eliminate access," he said. "Campus-based voting is one of the primary ways that that new generation of voters in Texas is going to participate. This is a direct attack on Texas's largest and most diverse electorate: young people."

In the last 10 years, Texas has closed a total of 750 polling locations — the most of any state — in favor of fewer centralized voting locations in order to cut costs, according to the Leadership Conference of Civil and Human Rights. This came after the Supreme Court's ruling in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, which eliminated pre-clearance from the Voting Rights Act of 1965. "Pre-clearance" required jurisdictions with a history of racially discriminatory election procedures to get federal approval of any proposed changes to election practices. With the provision's repeal, states can now implement new voting laws and procedures — such as polling location closures — without oversight from the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.

Many worry the closure of polling facilities with disproportionately disenfranchise people of color. One 2020 study from the American Economic Association found that a one-mile increase in distance to a polling location reduced voter turnout from districts with minority residents by 19%. Meanwhile, for predominantly white communities, voter turnout decreased by only 5%.

House Bill 2390 is, however, only one of a slew of wide-ranging election bills this session, several of which aim to make voting more accessible to young people.

State Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D) of Austin introduced House Bill 644 in November which would require colleges with 8,000 students or more to have at least one polling location — essentially the opposite of House Bill 2390. Also in November, State Rep. Erin Zwiener (D) of Hays County filed House Bill 75, which would make student I.D.'s acceptable identification for voting, as they are in most other states. Currently, Texas recognizes concealed handgun carry licenses, but not student I.D. cards, as acceptable voter I.D.

"When you're selecting some forms of I.D. but not selecting others, what you're doing is shaping the electorate," said Birnel. "It's the same thing with prohibiting campus polling locations; these are conscious choices to keep some people from participating and to elevate the participation of others."

None of the election bills have been brought up in committees for a vote.

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