Mary Ibarra of Voto Latino registers voters at the Brass Monkey in El Paso, Texas. (Photo: Christopher Wilson/Yahoo News)
EL PASO, Texas — Like millions of other Americans, Mary Ibarra started settling into a sports bar on Super Bowl Sunday hours before kickoff, a long day still ahead of her. But unlike most of the Brass Monkey bar’s patrons, she was not sporting Eagles green or Patriots blue, but instead a shirt that read “When they go low, we go local.”
Ibarra was at the Brass Monkey not to watch the game — as a Cowboys fan, she wasn’t enamored with either option — but to register voters for next month’s primaries. Texas’s primaries are early (March 6) and citizens have to be registered 30 days before. As a staffer for the voter outreach organization Voto Latino, Ibarra had been on the ground for three weeks organizing volunteers to expand the base of voters and encourage turnout in an area that’s highly populated (El Paso County is the eighth largest county in the state) and heavily Latino (82.2 percent, per 2016 census estimates). The Super Bowl registration effort, here and at another bar across town, was part of a final push. (Texans will still have until Oct. 9 to register to vote in the general election, and Voto Latino plans to keep up its efforts until then. But with studies showing voting as habitual, getting people to the polls for the primary is a good way to improve their chances of showing up in the general election.)
Voto Latino is one of the many groups addressing the biennial question posed by political prognosticators — “Is this the year Texas turns blue?” The Lone Star state hasn’t gone for a Democrat in a statewide race since 1994, and no Democratic presidential candidate has won here since Jimmy Carter in 1976, but there’s a belief that it’s just a matter of time. Texas is becoming more and more Latino, and because Latinos generally vote Democratic, turning blue regarded as a foregone conclusion. There are encouraging signs for Democrats: Hillary Clinton lost the state by 9 points, the first single-digit margin for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1996. A January poll puts President Trump at 54 percent disapproval among Texans, at a sample size of over 13,000 respondents.
But hopes for a Democratic wave depend on correcting the extremely low turnout and registration among Texans, particularly among the Latino population. So there is plenty of work to be done on the ground, which is where Ibarra and other organizers across the 268,580-square-mile state come in.
(Voto Latino bills itself as nonpartisan, but it’s closely connected to a number of Democratic politicians, and polling says its target demographic of young Latinos strongly support Democratic candidates.)
“Voto Latino does national work, we register voters in all 50 states,” said Jessica Reeves, the group’s chief operating officer. “But places like Texas are incredibly hard because we focus on young Latinos who are very digitally savvy and trendsetters in terms of consuming social media … but when it comes to registering and becoming a voter in Texas, it’s incredibly hard and incredibly old school.”
The difficulty Reeves mentions is that Texas voters cannot just register online, because the state requires mailing in a form or in-person registration. The in-person option is tricky in Texas, which requires that voters be registered by a volunteer deputy registrar certified in a specific county to be legally permitted to register voters there. The process varies from county to county, but in some areas, the training or test might be offered only once a month. With 254 counties, it makes coordinating a statewide drive nearly impossible, leaving it to local organizations to do the work county by county.
Compared to other states that offer same-day or even automatic voter registration, Texas’s process is exceptionally difficult to navigate. When combined with strict voter I.D. laws that hinder turnout of the voters who are registered, it creates a major challenge for organizers.