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Eliminating drive-thru voting centers is one of the major features of Senate Bill 7, described by its Republican authors as an election security measure and by its Democratic detractors as an attempt to suppress the vote.
The bill would prohibit county election officials from allowing voters to cast ballots from within their vehicles by amending the state’s election code to make voting rules in this regard uniform across the state.
This provision is aimed at Harris County, which set up drive-thru voting centers last year as a safe way to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 127,000 voters cast ballots via the drive-thru centers during the 2020 general election, helping the county set a voter turnout record.
Democratic critics of SB 7 argue that eliminating drive-thru voting would disproportionality affect people of color, since many of the 10 drive-thru voting locations in Harris County were located near concentrations of Blacks and Latinos.
Earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pushed back against that argument by saying that most people of color don’t own vehicle.
"If they're worried about people of color — on the Democrats' side who came up with this drive-in voting — statistics show that more people of color don't have cars than not," Patrick said during an April 6 press conference. "So how do (drive-thru voting centers) help those folks?"
It's unclear what statistics Patrick was referring to. We sought clarification from his office, but his spokesperson did not respond to several messages. So we searched for sources that show rates of car ownership among different races and ethnicities.
The nearly 10 automotive and consumer analytic firms we reached out to — including IHS Markit, Cox Automotive, Experian, and J.D. Power — either don't collect racial data on car ownership rates or declined to share their research citing proprietary reasons.
So we turned to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey that collects social, economic and demographic data from 3.5 million households every year. The Census Bureau uses the survey data to create estimates on a broad range of population and economic characteristics at state and local levels, including rates of car ownership among racial and ethnic groups.
Among the state’s 3.4 million African Americans, 88% own at least one vehicle, according to the 2019 American Community Survey, an aggregation of five years of data, the most recent available. Of the state’s Asian population of 1.3 million, 95% own at least 1 vehicle. And of the state’s 11.1 million people who identify as of Latino or Hispanic origin, 95% own at least one vehicle. Vehicle ownerships rates are similarly high for the state’s white, native, mixed race and other racial groups.
The National Equity Atlas, a policy data firm that describes itself as "America's most detailed report card on racial and economic equity," also publishes a vehicle ownership analysis based on American Community Survey data from 2017. Its findings are largely the same: 93% of non-white households in Texas own a car compared to 96% of white households.
Vehicle ownership in Texas also is higher among all racial and ethnic groups than the national rate. Nine percent of households nationally are without a vehicle, the Atlas shows. In Texas, 12% of black households don’t own cars compared to 19% nationwide. And 6% of Latino households are car-less in Texas compared to 11% nationwide.
Vehicle ownership rates for Harris County alone are similar. About 89% of the county’s Black population owns at least one vehicle. And between 95% and 96% of the county’s other racial groups own at least one vehicle, according to the Census Bureau data.
Houston, a sprawling metropolitan area that is located primarily within Harris County, is one of the most car-dependent cities in the U.S. According to the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, Houston ranks near the top of vehicle miles traveled per capita among the largest U.S. cities.
Harris County became the first jurisdiction in Texas to open drive-thru voting centers at a scale "that allows any registered voter to cast their ballot without leaving the comfort of their vehicle," the county’s election administrator’s website says.
Ten drive-thru voting sites were open during the early voting period and one, the Toyota Center in downtown Houston, was open on Election Day.
An analysis of the county’s early voting rosters conducted by the Texas Civil Rights Project shows that people of color used the drive-thru voting sites at higher rates than whites. About 53% of the votes cast at the 10 drive-thru sites were by Hispanic, Black or Asian voters during the early voting period. Meanwhile, 38% of all early votes cast during the election were by people in those three demographic groups.
African American voters especially used drive-thru voting sites at higher rates. Fourteen percent of all early votes were cast by Black voters countywide, while 22% of all ballots cast at the drive-thru centers were by Blacks, according to the data.
Asian voters similarly took advantage of the drive-thru option. While 4% of the early votes in Harris County were cast by Asians, they accounted for 8% of the votes cast at the drive-thru centers.
"(Patrick’s) comment just doesn't make any sense to me as an actual counterpoint," said James Slattery, senior staff attorney of the Voting Rights Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project.
"Even if people of color did own cars at disproportionately lower rates, and yet still used drive-thru voting at a higher rate than their share of the population, then doesn't that actually bolster the case that this particular form of voting was vital to them in particular?" Slattery said.
In justifying a provision of SB 7 that would eliminate drive-thru voting, Patrick said that "statistics show that more people of color don’t have cars than not. So how do (drive-thru voting centers) help those folks?"
Estimates from the Census Bureau show that there is no racial or ethnic group, either in Texas or in Harris County specifically, in which more people don’t own cars than do. Blacks lag other groups in car ownership in Texas, but all groups in Texas own cars at higher rates than the national averages. Statewide and in Harris County, rates of car ownership among whites, Blacks, Hispanic or Latino, Native, mixed or other groups range from 88-96%.
An analysis of the Harris County voting rosters also shows people of color used drive-thru voting sites at higher rates than white voters.
We rate this claim False.
KETK-TV, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick defends Texas Senate Bill 7 for improving election security, April 6, 2021
PolitiFact, Yes, the Texas Senate's election bill SB7 changes early voting rules, April 9, 2021
U.S. Census Bureau, Public Use Microdata Sample, accessed April 22, 2021
Source, When and How to Use Census Microdata, Sept. 4, 2014
National Equity Atlas, Car access: Everyone needs reliable transportation access and in most American communities that means a car, 2017 data
Brookings Institute Metropolitan Policy Program, The Road…Less Traveled:
An Analysis of Vehicle Miles Traveled Trends in the U.S., Dec. 2008
Harris County Elections, Drive Thru Voting, accessed April 22, 2021
Texas Tribune, Harris County voters will only have one drive-thru polling site on Election Day, Nov. 2, 2020
Email with James Slattery, Senior Staff Attorney of the Voting Rights Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project, April 22, 2021
Texas Civil Rights Project, analysis of Harris County Early Voting Rosters; Targetsmart for race/ethnicity modeling
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