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In Texas, Activists Enforce Election Rules In Place Of Federal Monitors

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is the first presidential election since 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. And that means there are many fewer federal observers watching polling places on Election Day. In Texas, there are none. As Ashley Lopez with member station KUT in Austin reports, activists are filling the void.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Even before early voting started in Texas, groups were putting election officials on notice. For example, Nina Perales with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, found a lot of county websites weren't providing voting information in Spanish. That's even though some of the counties have a large population that isn't proficient in English.

NINA PERALES: We haven't filed anything in court, but we did send letters to particular counties because we want to work with them to get their websites into good shape.

LOPEZ: By good shape, Perales means in line with civil rights laws, which require bilingual information in certain cases. She says some officials got in touch and changed their websites. Others haven't changed a thing. And at this point, only a judge could force a county clerk to follow the law. That's because, in Texas, it's not the state's job to enforce the law either.

ALICIA PIERCE: The secretary of state's office is not an investigator or an enforcement agency.

LOPEZ: That's Alicia Pierce with the Texas secretary of state's office.

PIERCE: So while we can definitely advise counties about ways to conduct the elections or what the laws on the books may be, we don't have any control on what they put on their side or what information they are providing.

LOPEZ: Texas used to be among a handful of states that had to clear election procedures with the federal government. The feds also sent monitors to watch polling locations. But when the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, all that went away. But Nina Perales says the underlying problems haven't gone anywhere.

PERALES: We still have the remnants of the past discrimination. And having lost federal oversight over election changes means that private organizations like MALDEF are stretched thinner.

LOPEZ: Thinner because now they have to do more work. And now, the stakes are higher because people are actually voting in Texas. So far, the biggest issue has been over the state's controversial photo ID law. A few months ago, a federal appeals court ordered the state loosen its rules because it discriminated against minorities. But that hasn't been enforced much, either. Matt Williams from Dripping Springs, which is right outside of Austin, says he ran into issues when he voted earlier this week.

MATT WILLIAMS: One of the poll workers started going out along the line to the people that were just getting there and going up and down the line shouting out that you had to have a valid photo ID to vote, which truthfully, because I hadn't been keeping track of it, I didn't even question that.

LOPEZ: But Williams says there were people in front of him who had been following the lengthy court battle over that law, and they spoke up.

WILLIAMS: The people in front of me said that that's been - that's been thrown out; the court struck that down. And the poll worker said, no, it has not.

LOPEZ: And Williams says that was that. A coalition of non-profits in the state are running a helpline just for situations like this. Groups say they can't monitor the whole state, so they're hoping voters like Williams will call in and report violations. That way, lawyers can deal with these issues as they arise. But that, of course, depends on whether voters know what laws the state should be following in the first place. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.