At 10 am on a Tuesday morning in September, Babatunde Adeleye, a 33-year-old naturalized US citizen from Nigeria, arrived at the Bexar County Elections Department in San Antonio. It’s a brand-new building in an otherwise unappealing industrial park along the interstate, 10 minutes south of downtown. There were inspirational posters on the wall featuring American flags and sunsets, highlighting words like “success” and “momentum.” Tunde, as everyone calls him, stood up, raised his right hand, and took an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this State.” He was being deputized not as a cop, but instead to register voters. The parallels, however, were impossible to ignore: Texas treats voter registration like a criminal offense and makes it as difficult as possible to do. Tunde grew up in Lagos and studied petroleum engineering at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He got a job in the oil fields of Oklahoma but was laid off when the industry went bust. He became a citizen last year, so 2016 marks the first presidential election he can vote in. After moving to San Antonio three months ago, he began working with MOVE San Antonio, a progressive nonprofit that registers young voters. “I come from a background where poverty was the order of the day,” Tunde says. “The first step to empowering people to have a say in their community is to register them to vote. If you don’t vote, you don’t have a say.” Before he could register anyone, however, Tunde had to navigate Texas’s draconian voter-registration laws, beginning with this course. The state has no online registration, and anyone who registers voters must be deputized by the county at a training session that typically occurs once a month, sometimes less. The volunteer deputy registrars (VDRs), as they’re known, must be deputized on a county-by-county basis, and they can only be deputized in counties adjacent to their own, which makes statewide drives practically impossible in a massive state like Texas, with its 254 counties.
If Tunde led a registration drive outside a San Antonio Spurs basketball game, for example, he could collect forms only from people who live in Bexar County, where he’s deputized, and wouldn’t be able to register anyone attending the game from Austin, Dallas, or Houston. This is a huge problem in Texas, where many cities sprawl over multiple counties. A voter-registration drive in the state’s 13th Congressional District, which encompasses most of the Panhandle, would require deputizing workers in 41 counties.
“It’s a big barrier,” Tunde says. “We already have low turnout. By having all these new restrictions in place, it further draws down the number of people who vote.” In 2014, Texas ranked 45th in voter registration and dead last in voter turnout. Tunde was the 908th person deputized in Bexar County as of mid-September, which means there are roughly 1,000 people who can register voters in America’s seventh-biggest city during a critical presidential election.