Despite new barriers, organizers in Texas boost voter turnout

November 12, 2020

By Jennifer Xia, Dex Parra and Tori Duff

Record levels of voter turnout during a pandemic could not have happened without the work of volunteers.

With COVID-19 restrictions, voters faced unprecedented challenges casting their ballots. States changed their rules on absentee voting and voting dates, sparking protests of voter fraud and suppression. However, Texas still broke records with the help of students, community organizers and civic engagement organizations.

The national voting-eligible turnout rate for the 2020 general election was 66.4%, an increase of more than 5% from 2016, according to the United State Elections Project. In Texas, more than 8.7 million voters headed to the polls adorned with masks during the extended early voting period, and more than 970,000 people cast mail-in ballots, according to the Texas Secretary of State.

Many campaign staffers and volunteers devised new methods to virtually spread information on registering to vote and civic engagement.

Instead of setting up voter registration booths on highly trafficked sidewalks, entering classrooms and meetings or going door-to-door, most civic engagement activities were largely online: social media campaigns, phone banks and Zoom presentations.

Campaign organizers and political advocates worried what the pandemic would mean for get-out-the-vote efforts and worked tirelessly to increase turnout.

Here are some of their stories.

Anjitha Nair, digital committee chair at TX Votes, computer science junior

By Jennifer Xia

After her midterms, Anjitha Nair would go to the Taco Bell Cantina on Guadalupe Street and order a chicken quesadilla and a medium Mountain Dew Baja Blast Freeze. Now, the Taco Bell sits vacant, another victim of the pandemic.

“Our country is really hurting,” said Nair, the digital committee chair at TX Votes. “What’s really motivating me is which candidates are providing the economic aid we need.”

Nair said she first heard of TX Votes, a nonpartisan student organization at the University of Texas at Austin, when the group came to register people during a class her freshman year.

That moment stuck with Nair because it showed her the possible outreach outside her own circle of friends and social media.

Just one month before COVID-19 hit the U.S., Nair joined the organization. By May, she was the digital committee chair and spearheading the organizations’ efforts to shift their operations completely digital.

Nair tirelessly worked on a new website for TX Votes and started a newsletter with information on voting deadlines and civic engagement opportunities.

Her work was driven by record unemployment levels and small business closures brought by the pandemic.

“Small businesses make Austin so rich and people come here for that,” Nair said. “I’m just scared that these businesses are left to dry for the harsh winter.”

Rather than setting up a table on Speedway or doing in-person presentations, TX Votes created online resources to provide students with information on registration and voting.

As self-proclaimed “voting nerds,” Nair said they flooded 50 Zoom classrooms a week, created 14 informational videos — two of which were offered in English, Chinese, Urdu and Spanish — and partnered with various organizations on campus. TX Votes’ goal was to disseminate information on as many platforms as possible.

“We won’t necessarily be able to reach out to everybody virtually, but making ourselves present in other platforms and areas really makes voting information and our voice heard,” Nair said.

Nair said she has only met five people in TX Votes in person. But after only five months in the organization, she said she found a second family.

“TX Votes really care about its members,” Nair said. “It gives you a platform to get involved as soon as possible. I’m so grateful for it.”

Moriah Powers, League of Women Voters, Austin-area president

By Dex Parra

In January 2019, Moriah Powers had never heard of the League of Women Voters, a group that encourages election participation and distributes a nonpartisan voter guide in all 50 states. By the end of the year, she was president of the Austin-area chapter.

She started as a new member at a coffee event and was asked to sit on the board and be the president-elect of the group within two months.

“I said yes, obviously,” Powers said.

Powers said she joined the League when she reached a breaking point and “needed to get involved” in political activism. For her, that meant giving others the resources she wished she knew of before 2019.

“I started looking for organizations in the Austin-area, and when I found League of Women Voters last January, that felt like a really good fit,” Powers said.

After the coffee event for newcomers, the nominating committee contacted her to be the communications director. Because she has a degree in graphic design, they thought Powers would be a good fit for the role. Several conversations later, the committee found her leadership skills to be more valuable as the next president of the League.

“Most of our new members don’t anticipate moving into a board position after joining,” Powers said. “I definitely didn’t, but I’m glad it happened.”

Powers said an educated voting population is important for a functioning democracy and that “we’re not a true democracy until we’re all voting.”

“There’s a lot of people out there who don’t cast their vote because they don’t feel confident about it,” Powers said. “Getting information out there to them so they feel prepared is what’s most important.”

As president of the League, Powers is in charge of overseeing community relations, voter

relations and advocacy. She said she devotes over 20 hours of unpaid work per week to the League, including coordinating over 600 volunteers and speaking with the media.

Although the League tallies more than 600 volunteers, many “help the organization through their membership dues” alone, Powers said. The League uses these funds to design and distribute the voter guides.

Powers still works remotely as a full-time insurance claims supervisor at Texas Mutual Insurance Company and raises a son with her wife.

Powers said the pandemic helped her balance her job and volunteer work. She finds time to email volunteers during downtime and attends Zoom calls with board members and news outlets during lunch breaks.

“I’m able to get so much more done, which might not be helping my mental health, but I’m so glad to be doing it,” Powers said. “It makes me feel good.”

Seth Krasne, lead virtual organizer for state Rep. James Talarico

By Tori Duff

Seth Krasne understands that a single phone call can make all the difference.

The 23-year-old spent the last few months calling voters about a candidate he believes in:

James Talarico, a Democrat who was recently reelected as state representative from Round Rock.

While most people hang up or do not want to talk, Krasne said there are few things more

fulfilling than helping a voter realize their rights.

“There was one lady I spoke to during a Spanish-language phone bank who said she wasn’t going to vote because she couldn’t vote using a Spanish ballot,” Krasne said. “I was able to help tell her you can vote with a Spanish ballot and where. I checked later and saw that she did go vote, so that was really awesome.”

Growing up in El Paso, Krasne said his parents emphasized the importance of voting, which instilled his passion for politics. Right after graduating from UT, he joined Talarico’s campaign as his lead virtual organizer. As his sole source of employment, the job does not pay the salary he imagined he would make after college. But Krasne said the positive impact he makes is the rewarding payoff.

“Elections have so many consequences that can either harm or improve people’s lives,” Krasne said. “I can best use my time and efforts for a cause bigger than myself.”

While campaigns have traditionally depended on personal contact with voters, Krasne had to figure out new ways to reach voters.

Krasne organized phone bank parties over Zoom three days of the week starting in August until Election Day. During these events, volunteers made calls to potential voters in Williamson County to help them solidify voting plans.

Sometimes he spoke to people who did not know who was running. Other times he helped people get information on voting locations, dates and times as well as how to request an absentee ballot.

“Our vote is our voice and our way of making sure that our needs are heard and that our society represents them,” Krasne said.

At the beginning of all of his phone bank events, Krasne asked his volunteers to dedicate their calls to someone or something to remember why they are doing this work. Having done so many events, Krasne said he has a lot of people he dedicates his work to.

“I do it for my friends, I do it for my family, for people who don’t feel like they have a voice, people who haven’t had the opportunity to go to college, friends who can’t vote or who have different citizenship status, and for folks who are treated differently for who they are,” Krasne said.

Writer by necessity. Lover of hot cheetos. Trying to share what it means to be human.

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