Alexa Ura

Texas Republicans say their proposed voting restrictions are color blind. Critics see 'Jim Crow in a tuxedo'

"Texas Republicans say their proposed voting restrictions are color blind. But many see "Jim Crow in a tuxedo."" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Two nights of voting in Houston, eight months apart, each occurring as midnight slipped by, lay bare the fault line cutting through Texas' ongoing debate about voter suppression.

First, the March 3, 2020, presidential primary. On the campus of Texas Southern University, a historically Black college, hundreds waited in a line that wrapped through a campus library and out into a courtyard for four hours, then five, then six after polls were supposed to close at 7 p.m. — the result of an unexpected surge of Democratic voters and a mismanagement of voting machines.

Then in November, Houston residents — most of them people of color — were again voting after hours in the general election, but this time it was intentional. Harris County had set up a day of 24-hour voting to make it easier for voters, like shift workers, who face difficulty getting to the polls during traditional hours.

The first scene was one of frustration and disenfranchisement, not unusual in a state with some of the strictest voting rules in the nation. The second felt celebratory, a moment when it seemed democracy went right and people were welcomed to the voting booth.

It is the second scene that pushed Texas' Republican leaders to act.

Outlawing 24-hour voting is one part of Senate Bill 7, priority legislation backed by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and likely most Republicans in the ongoing legislative session. The bill would enact other sweeping changes to voting, including making it illegal for local election officials to proactively send applications for mail-in ballots to voters, even if they qualify, and restricting the distribution of polling places and voting machines in diverse, urban counties.

Their intent, GOP leaders say, is to protect the "integrity" and standardization of Texas elections from local efforts like those Harris County devised in November to expand voting access. But the pushback from local leaders, Democrats, big business and voting rights advocates has been intense, centering on concerns that the legislation's effects will almost certainly make voting harder for groups Texas' voting rules have long marginalized — voters of color, voters with disabilities, low-income voters and voters with limited English proficiency — and who are the most likely to be shut out when voting procedures are tightened.

In an angry press conference Tuesday, yelling at times, Patrick objected to suggestions that Republicans are deliberately targeting voters of color in Democratic strongholds.

"Senate Bill 7 is about voter security, not about voter suppression, and I'm tired of the lies and the nest of liars who continue to repeat them," Patrick said, focusing much of his ire on Fort Worth-based American Airlines and Harris County leaders who spoke up against the bill.

He continued: “You're questioning my integrity and the integrity of the governor and the integrity of the 18 Republicans who voted for this when you suggest that we're trying to suppress the vote. You are, in essence, between the lines, calling us racist, and that will not stand."

As they successfully shepherded SB 7 through the Senate over the last two weeks, Republicans argued that it is a race-neutral bill, not designed to discriminate, in part because the state's voter rolls are “color blind" and voters don't list their race or ethnicity when they register.

But to critics, especially those familiar with past election restrictions that Texas has passed that made it harder for already-marginalized voters to participate, "neutrality" is a false flag. The legislation passed the Senate with zero support from Democrats, including every senator of color in the chamber, who over seven hours of debate on the Senate floor listed concerns about the harmful effects the bill could have on voters of color.

“I'm in disbelief that our esteemed body would consider legislation we consider detrimental to countless persons of color. We urge you to hear our voice and public testimony," state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said just before the Senate advanced SB 7, noting that senators had not been provided with evidence that showed the 2020 election was anything other than “honestly run, fairly adjudicated and somewhat better attended."

“What we did hear, however, were numerous pleas from our fellow Texans not to do this," Zaffirini said. “We heard from men and women of color who interpret Senate Bill 7 as yet another sign that those who control their state do not welcome their participation."

The legislation is part of a broader Republican push to make changes to voting laws in a state with already restrictive rules. It echoes national efforts by Republicans in state legislatures across the country — largely built on claims of widespread voter fraud for which there is little to no evidence — to rework voting rules after voters of color helped flip key states to Democratic control.

SB 7 targets Harris County initiatives like extended early voting hours and drive-thru voting, which were disproportionately used by voters of color in November. The bill also singles out voters receiving assistance inside the polling place, including in filling out their ballot, by allowing poll watchers to record them if the poll watcher “reasonably believes" that the assistance is “unlawful." That provision has drawn particular concerns about the policing of voters with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency — most of whom are Hispanic and historical targets of voter intimidation in Texas — who would be among those most likely to receive help to vote.

Hours after SB 7 cleared the Senate, American Airlines became the first corporate giant to come out against the bill, citing provisions “that limit access to voting" and the need to break down barriers “to diversity, equity and inclusion in our society" instead of creating them. That opposition teed up a series of broader statements from other corporations calling for equal access to voting and came ahead of Major League Baseball's decision to pull its All-Star Game from Georgia in response to new voting restrictions there.

The pressure on corporate America to lend its weight against Republican proposals has continued to swell this week as voting rights advocates worked to frame the fight as one rooted in the civil rights movement and meant to protect the right to vote, especially for Black and Hispanic voters, whose access to the ballot box has been historically undermined.

Over the weekend, Black leaders in the Dallas-Fort Worth area took out a full-page ad in The Dallas Morning News calling on local corporate leaders to work against the provisions of SB 7, which they called “unfair, unequitable and immoral," that make it easy for some Texans to vote while creating obstacles for others using a “familiar strategy." Its signatories included former Dallas Mayor and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, Paul Quinn College President Michael Sorrell and Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynt Marshall.

“Texas continues to engage in the same kinds of practices that produced the oppression that this great cloud of witnesses had to overcome," the Rev. Frederick Haynes III, a pastor at the Friendship-West Baptist Church of Dallas and a signatory on the ad, said Wednesday while standing with other faith leaders in front of the Texas African American History Memorial monument on the Capitol grounds. “Because unfortunately we have those in leadership in Texas government who have in their ideological DNA the same mindset … of those individuals who upheld Jim and Jane Crow segregation. Gov. Abbott and his Republican cronies have decided to dress up Jim and Jane Crow in a tuxedo of what they call voter integrity."

In response to the corporate blowback, Abbott — who declared “election integrity" a priority for the 2021 legislative session — announced he would no longer throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Texas Rangers' home opening game and would boycott any other Major League Baseball events over “false political narratives" he claimed the league was pushing.

In a Fox News television interview Tuesday, Abbott said he was sending a message to Texas-based companies that have “made the very same mistake" of coming out against Republican proposals to change the state's voting laws.

“What we need to do is have these business leaders realize they don't need to be responding to tweets or these bogus arguments that were put forth by people like Stacey Abrams and others in Georgia," Abbott said.

Abrams, a former Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia and a prominent voting rights advocate, has denounced restrictions recently signed into law in Georgia, where she said Republicans had “outperformed in the category of suppressive laws" by shrinking the window for voters to request absentee ballots, imposing new voter ID requirements for absentee voting, and banning the handing out of water and food to people waiting in line to vote, among several other new restrictions. Like in Texas, the new rules were passed under the banner of securing elections.

Even in defending their proposals, Texas Republicans have run into the Legislature's own history of passing voting laws that were later found to unequally burden voters of color.

The lieutenant governor on Tuesday attempted to characterize the criticism of SB 7 as “race baiting" by those raising concerns about how it could suppress the votes of Texans of color, pointing to similar criticism Republicans faced when they worked to pass one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country in 2011. His defense was based on the increased voter participation the state has seen in recent elections — in part a result of a growing Democratic electorate and the draw of more competitive races. (Patrick cited the large increase in the raw numbers of votes cast, which is generally a reflection of the state's rapidly growing population and doesn't accurately capture increases in voter turnout over time.)

But Patrick left out that a federal judge and the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals — considered to be among the country's most conservative appellate courts — ultimately found the state's voter ID law disproportionately harmed voters of color, who were less likely to have one of the seven forms of identification the state required voters to present before they could cast their ballots. The law was blocked for years after it was passed and was eventually eased to match a judge's suggested rules.

As part of call on corporations to stand against SB 7 and other Republican proposals, Texas voting rights advocates and organizers also pointed to the state's increased turnout, and the voters of color behind it, to identify what they see as the genesis for the changes the Legislature is considering.

Although it topped out at 66% participation, Texas saw the highest turnout in decades in 2020. After the election, Republicans remain in full control of state government, but Democrats have continued to drive up their vote counts as the electorate continues to expand in the state's urban centers and diversifying suburban communities.

In a virtual press conference Tuesday, those advocates called Republicans out for imposing more restrictions on voting while refusing to consider measures like online voter registration that could open the door to more participation. The state should be building on the progress it made on turnout in 2020 instead of “advancing the path toward voter suppression," said Devin Branch of the Texas Organizing Project, which advocates for communities of color and low-income Texans.

“Every person who genuinely believes in democracy abhors attempts to undermine it, and these bills are harmful to democracy," Branch said. “This is about those in power seeking to retain power by disempowering and disenfranchising Black and Latino voters. Full stop."

Disclosure: Texas Southern University's Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/04/09/Texas-voting-GOP-suppression/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas GOP-led Senate advances highly restrictive voting legislation as part of a bigger agenda

Senate Republicans on Thursday cleared the way for new, sweeping restrictions to voting in Texas that take particular aim at forbidding local efforts meant to widen access.

In an overnight vote after more than seven hours of debate, the Texas Senate signed off on Senate Bill 7, which would limit extended early voting hours, prohibit drive-thru voting and make it illegal for local election officials to proactively send applications to vote by mail to voters, even if they qualify.

The legislation is at the forefront of Texas Republicans' crusade to further restrict voting in the state following last year's election. Though Republicans remain in full control of state government, Texas saw the highest turnout in decades in 2020, with Democrats continuing to drive up their vote counts in the state's urban centers and diversifying suburban communities.

Like other proposals under consideration at the Texas Capitol, many of the restrictions in SB 7 would target initiatives championed in those areas to make it easier for more voters to participate in elections.

The bill — deemed a priority by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — now heads to the House for consideration after moving rapidly through the Senate. Just two weeks after it was filed, a Senate committee advanced it Friday. That approval followed more than five hours of public testimony, largely in opposition over concerns it would be detrimental to voters who already struggle to vote under the state's strict rules for elections.

While presenting the bill to the Senate, Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes said the legislation "standardizes and clarifies" voting rules so that "every Texan has a fair and equal opportunity to vote, regardless of where they live in the state."

"Overall, this bill is designed to address areas throughout the process where bad actors can take advantage, so Texans can feel confident that their elections are fair, honest and open," Hughes said.

In Texas and nationally, the Republican campaign to change voting rules in the name of "election integrity" has been largely built on concerns over widespread voter fraud for which there is little to no evidence. More recently, Texas Republican lawmakers have attempted to reframe their legislative proposals by offering that even one instance of fraud undermines the voice of a legitimate voter.

But Hughes was met by fierce opposition from Senate Democrats who took turns arguing the legislation would make wholesale changes to address isolated — and rare — incidents of fraud at the expense of voting initiatives that were particularly successful in reaching voters of color.

"As I see this bill, it's a pure case of suppression. There are some things in here that are really offensive," said state Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston. "This hurts to the core."

The bill originally limited early voting hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., curtailing the extended hours offered last year in Harris County and other large counties where voting ran until 10 p.m. for several days to accommodate people like shift workers for whom regular hours don't work. The bill was rewritten before it reached the Senate floor to allow for voting only between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.

But those hours will still prohibit the day of 24-hour voting Harris County offered last November. The legislation would also outlaw the drive-thru voting set up at 10 polling places in the county for the general election.

While questioning Hughes, Democratic state Sen. Carol Alvarado of Houston referenced an analysis by Harris County's election office that estimated that Black and Hispanic voters cast more than half of the votes counted at both drive-thru sites and during extended hours.

"Knowing that, who are you really targeting?" Alvarado asked.

"There's nothing in this bill that has to do with targeting specific groups. The rules apply across the board," Hughes replied.

In defending the portions of the bill that target Harris County's initiatives, Hughes in part pointed to the limitations he claimed drive-thru and overnight voting presented for poll watchers' oversight, characterizing them as the "eyes and ears of the public." Poll watchers are not public watchdogs but instead inherently partisan figures, appointed by candidates and political parties to serve at polling places. And poll watchers did have access to observe drive-thru and 24-hour voting last year.

If passed into law, the legislation would broaden poll watchers' access at polling places, even giving them power to video record voters receiving assistance in filling out their ballots if the poll watcher "reasonably believes" the help is unlawful. That provision has drawn particular concerns about possible intimidation of voters who speak languages other than English as well as voters with intellectual or developmental disabilities who may require assistance through prompting or questioning which could be misconstrued as coercion.

The collection of civil rights organizations that have warned the bill could lead to disenfranchisement of voters of color and voters with disabilities did see one of their most prominent concerns addressed in the version of the bill passed by the Senate.

Texas allows people looking to vote by mail based on a disability to request a ballot for an individual election or apply once for ballots in every election in a calendar year. Originally, the bill would have required voters citing a disability to provide proof of their condition or illness, including written documentation from the Social Security Administration or a doctor's note, to qualify for the latter. Hughes endorsed an amendment by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, to nix that requirement, citing the "confusion" it had created and feedback from advocates for people with disabilities.

But Republicans rejected more than a dozen amendments offered by Democrats to strike other portions of the bill, clarify language on how local elections officials could make vote by mail applications available to voters seeking them, and an amendment that appeared to affirm the right to vote.

Just before the Senate's vote to advance the bill, state Sen. Royce West, of Dallas, criticized Republicans for not listening to Democrats' concerns about how the bill would harm communities of color represented by senators of color — all of whom are Democrats — who have faced a legacy of suppression when it comes to voting.

"I hope that one day you hear us — not only hear us but listen to us," West said. "Passage of this bill tonight makes clear that on these issues you have not understood our plight in this country."

SB 7's prohibition on sending vote-by-mail applications to voters who haven't requested them comes after a pandemic-era election that saw a significant increase in votes cast by mail as voters tried to keep safe from a deadly virus. Other Texas counties proactively sent applications to voters 65 and older who automatically qualify to vote by mail, but Harris County came under Republicans' scrutiny for attempting to send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county with specific instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. The Texas Supreme Court ultimately blocked that effort.

Texas Republicans' attempt to prevent a repeated attempt echoes efforts in other states, including Georgia where Republican lawmakers recently passed a similar prohibition. After voters of color helped flip key states into Democrats' column.during the presidential election, Republicans have channeled their myth that the election was stolen into legislative pushback in state Capitols across the U.S.

Hughes rejected Texas Democrats' inferences throughout the debate that his bill is part of a national push from his party. He noted aspects of the SB 7 carried over from failed legislation proposed during the 2019 legislative session.

"If we focus on the provisions of this bill — not what the feds are doing but what's in this bill and Texas elections — we'll have to agree these are provisions that will apply across the board, they're consistent, they're fair," Hughes said.

But Democrats pointed to the focus on increased voting regulations in diverse, urban areas as proof. Beyond the restrictions targeting Harris County, the legislation would also set specific rules for the distribution of polling places in only the handful of counties with a population of at least 1 million — most of which are either under Democratic control or won by Democrats in recent national and statewide elections.

"It's a strange, strange coincidence that all of these laws are being filed right now," West said. "That's all I'm saying."

Texas GOP joins the voter suppression wave by with restrictive voting bill advanced by state's Senate committee

After more than five hours of public testimony, largely in opposition, a Texas Senate committee on Friday night advanced a wide-ranging elections bill that would further tighten the state's already restrictive voting rules and clamp down on local efforts to make it easier to vote.

Senate Bill 7 — one of Texas Republicans' priority elections bills — would limit extended early voting hours, prohibit drive-thru voting and allow partisan poll watchers to record voters who receive help filling out their ballots. It would also forbid local election officials from encouraging voters to fill out applications to vote by mail, even if they qualify.

They also would not be able to proactively send out applications to voters who do not request them — a practice that is commonly used by political parties. Texans would also have to provide proof of disability to qualify for mail-in voting under the bill.

SB 7, which was offered under the banner of "election integrity," sailed out of the Republican-dominated Senate State Affairs Committee on a party-line vote and now heads to the full Senate. The bill is a significant piece in a broader legislative effort by Texas Republicans this year to enact sweeping changes to elections in the state that would scale up already restrictive election rules.

In presenting the bill to the committee on Friday, Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes described the legislation as an effort to strike a balance between "maintaining fair and honest elections with the opportunity to exercise one's right to vote."

But the bill was met with a chorus of opposition. Advocates for people with disabilities and voting rights tagged the proof of disability requirement as harmful and potentially unlawful. The bill was also widely panned as detrimental to local efforts that would widen access to voting, particularly extended early voting hours and drive-thru voting offered in Harris County in November.

In written testimony delivered to the committee, the AARP warned the bill would result in "disproportionate and unnecessary risks of disenfranchising older voters in Texas." The League of Women Voters raised concerns about increased barriers in urban areas home to Black and Hispanic voters and voters with disabilities. And organizations with histories of fighting unlawful voting rules, including the Texas Civil Rights Project, the NAACP and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, raised the prospect of litigation if the legislation became law.

"What this bill does, whether intentionally or not, is in several ways treats voters with disabilities differently than other voters — both in terms of having to prove their disability and not trusting the people that assist them," said Jeff Miller, a policy specialist with Disability Rights Texas. "And that's problematic on lots of levels, but fundamentally it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act."

Texas voters can qualify for mail-in ballots only if they are 65 years or older, have a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period, or are confined in jail. The Texas election code defines disability as a "sickness or physical condition" that prevents a voter from appearing in person without the risk of "injuring the voter's health."

But under SB 7, voters wanting to request a ballot based on a disability would have to provide proof, including written documentation from the Social Security Administration or a doctor's note, to qualify.

After a pandemic-era election with increased voting by mail, Republicans have partly focused on limiting a method of voting that until last year was lightly used and largely uncontroversial.

Some Texas counties, including Hidalgo County on the border, sent applications to voters 65 and older who automatically qualify. But Texas Republicans' ire fell on Harris County when it moved to send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county with instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. The Texas Supreme Court ultimately blocked that effort.

On Friday, Hughes also framed the legislation as a response to some local officials who he said went beyond the letter or "the spirit of the law" in 2020.

"We're all big on local control to varying degrees, in different circumstances to let local communities adjust to their own needs," Hughes said. "We like this approach because, again, each community varies. But we also recognize that that power — that local control, that power to decentralize — can be abused."

The bill was originally written to limit early voting hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. That would pull back efforts like those recently adopted in Harris and Bexar counties — home to Houston and San Antonio — where voting ran until 10 p.m. for several days to accommodate people like shift workers for whom regular hours don't work. A slightly reworked version adopted by the committee on Friday would allow for voting only between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. — a revision that would still outlaw initiatives like the day of 24-hour voting Harris County offered last November.

During the hearing, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, attempted to question Keith Ingram — the chief of elections at the Texas secretary of state's office — about any evidence of increased fraud at night or a rationale for how prohibiting 24-hour voting would enhance the security of Texas elections.

Ingram, who recently told House lawmakers that "Texas had an election that was smooth and secure," replied that the state had "very little experience with voting at night."

"I think after a certain period people get tired and are more likely to have mistakes," Ingram replied. "I don't know if that is necessarily related to security, but I think that if you want to keep people in their best frame of mind for doing the activity, then you need to limit the hours in which it is happening."

But Harris County's election administrator Isabel Longoria defended the efforts before the committee late Friday evening, noting they were particularly successful in reaching Black and Hispanic voters who cast more than half the ballots counted at both drive-thru sites and during extended hours. Longoria also rebutted Ingram's comments, telling lawmakers that the county staffed the 24-hour polling places without issue so voting during extended hours was carried out under the same conditions and strict state rules that exist during daytime hours.

"Voting happened at the 24th hour like it did at the first hour — exactly as the law prescribes," Longoria said.

During her testimony, Nina Perales, MALDEF's vice president for litigation, told lawmakers the bill would violate the federal Voting Rights Act by policing the assistance voters can get to fill out their ballots. She also raised concerns about widening access for partisan poll watchers in a way that could result in increased intimidation of Latino voters "who are the historical targets of vigilante activity at the polls in Texas."

Her concerns focused, in part, on a provision that would allow partisan poll watchers to video record voters if they are receiving assistance the poll watcher "reasonably believes to be unlawful."

"Only voters who receive assistance are singled out in this way by these provisions," Perales said. "Most limited English proficient voters in Texas are Latino; many use assisters to vote and will be intimidated and deterred from voting by having poll watchers record them and stand close to them while they vote."

Texas Republicans pursuing new voting restrictions as they work to protect their hold on power

By

Alexa Ura, The Texas Tribune

March 22, 2021

"Texas Republicans begin pursuing new voting restrictions as they work to protect their hold on power" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Today, Republican lawmakers in Texas will begin attempting to cement more bricks into the wall they hope will shield their hold on power from the state's changing electorate.

After more than 20 years in firm control, the GOP is seeing its dominance of Texas politics slowly slip away, with some once reliable suburbs following big cities into the Democratic party's fold.

This legislative session, Republicans are staging a sweeping legislative campaign to further tighten the state's already restrictive voting rules and raise new barriers for some voters, clamping down in particular on local efforts to make voting easier.

If legislation they have introduced passes, future elections in Texas will look something like this: Voters with disabilities will be required to prove they can't make it to the polls before they can get mail-in ballots. County election officials won't be able to keep polling places open late to give voters like shift workers more time to cast their ballots. Partisan poll watchers will be allowed to record voters who receive help filling out their ballots at a polling place. Drive-thru voting would be outlawed. And local election officials may be forbidden from encouraging Texans to fill out applications to vote by mail, even if they meet the state's strict eligibility rules.

Those provisions are in a Senate priority bill that will receive its first committee airing Monday. Senate Bill 7 is part of a broader package of proposals to constrain local initiatives widening voter access in urban areas, made up largely by people of color, that favor Democrats.

The wave of new restrictions would crash up against an emerging Texas electorate that every election cycle includes more and more younger voters and voters of color. They risk compounding the hurdles marginalized people already face making themselves heard at the ballot box.

“I think Texans should be really frustrated with their politicians, because it is so obvious that there's a lot of work that needs to be done to put itself in a place where its people are safe with all the challenges we could be expecting to be facing in the modern era, and instead they're figuring out how to stay in power," said Myrna Pérez, director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which is analyzing and tracking proposed voting restrictions across the country.

“Their manipulation has got a shelf life, and I think that's part of the reason why they're so desperate to do it right now because they see the end. They see what's coming down the road for them."

The months since the presidential election have been roiled by unsuccessful Republican attempts to overturn its outcome by pushing disproven claims of widespread voter fraud, and legislative pushback in state Capitols across the country in light of those defeats. Key states like Georgia and Arizona, which voters of color helped flip into Democrats' column last year, are at the center of growing Republican efforts to tighten voting rules or rollback access that could suppress those voters.

Republican maneuvering to change voting rules state by state comes as Democrats in Washington D.C., try to pass a national voting rights bill that would upend key elements of Texas election laws. The wide-ranging legislation, which has passed in the U.S. House but faces stiff GOP opposition in the Senate, would require online voter registration systems and the automatic registration of eligible people who interact with certain government agencies. It would open up mail in voting to any registered voter and ban partisan gerrymandering, among other measures.

Texas remains a red state under complete Republican control, even after seeing the highest turnout in decades in 2020. But last year's election continued a trend of waning.

Former president Donald Trump's victory by about 5.6 percentage points was smaller than his nine-point margin four years before, making it the state's closest race for the White House since 1996, when GOP nominee Bob Dole won by 5 points. Democrats continued to drive up their margins in large cities and fast-growing, diversifying suburbs. And while they fell significantly short of their self-imposed expectations to take back the Texas House, Democrats held onto most of their 2018 wins in newly-competitive suburban districts.

Even with the state having some of the strictest voting rules in the country on the books, Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this year aligned Texas with the party's national movement, which has been reenergized by the Republican-pushed myth that the presidential election was stolen. He deemed what he called “election integrity" an emergency item for the 2021 legislative session. Weeks later, he had backing from the national Republican Party, which echoed Abbott's “election integrity" designation when it announced a committee to push for changes to state election laws.

But the connection between some GOP proposals and the soundness of Texas elections is tenuous. One proposal would shorten the window for requesting a mail-in ballot. Another would limit eligibility to vote by mail based on a disability to voters who are homebound. One bill would prohibit voters from dropping off absentee ballots in person on Election Day. And in a state without online voter registration, another bill would eliminate the volunteer deputy registrars that counties often use to help Texans register on paper.

Several Republicans have filed or signed onto legislation that would impose limits on early voting hours, with a particular nod toward pulling back on Harris County's extended hours. Last November, the county's 122 early voting sites stayed open three hours past their usual 7 p.m. closing time for three days, and the county hosted a day of 24-hour voting at eight locations.

In the Senate, Houston Republican Paul Bettencourt filed legislation that would set uniform schedules across the state, limiting poll hours during the first week of early voting from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the second week.

Bettencourt defended his bill as a starting point to discuss uniform access across the state. But his proposal would result in cuts to early voting, particularly in urban counties like Harris, Dallas and Travis that have recently hosted voting for 12 hours throughout the early voting period.

“I'm trying to strike a midrange solution," Bettencourt said. “I'm not trying to disadvantage anybody or create an advantage for anybody. I'm trying to come up with a uniform answer."

Other Republicans have explained their bills as efforts to close off opportunities for voting fraud during extended hours, even though there is no evidence that it has occurred under the state's already strict system.

“Momma always said nothing good happens after midnight. That includes at polling places," state Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, posted to Twitter regarding legislation that appears to be aimed at outlawing Harris County's 24-hour voting initiative. “I filed HB 2293 because of irregularities in Harris County polling hours of operation and the opportunity for voter fraud when no one is looking."

In Harris County, elections administrator Isabel Longoria said uniformity was the point in widening access during the November election. Extended hours — especially 24-hour voting — were meant to accommodate shift workers for whom regular voting hours don't work, including the doctors, construction workers and port workers that came out at midnight. Those ballots were cast under the same conditions and state rules that exist during daytime hours.

“I'm hoping they're all here to stay," Longoria said of the county's new initiatives. “What we took up in 2020 was about being creative and helping voters."

By the county's account, they worked. One in every 10 of Harris County's in-person early voters cast their ballots at the county's 10 drive-thru polling places. And Black and Hispanic voters cast more than half the ballots counted at both drive-thru sites and during extended hours, according to an analysis by the Harris County elections office. The county estimates Black and Hispanic voters cast 47.5% of the total ballots in the election.

“If you total up everyone who did drive-thru voting, everyone who voted after 7 p.m. and everyone who voted by mail, that's 300,000 voters," Longoria said. “Number of voter fraud attempts? Truly unknown. Number of Harris County voters who used these methods? 300,000."

Abbott has raised the suggestion that the “integrity of elections in 2020 were questioned" by the actions of officials in Harris County — the state's most populous and a Democratically controlled county — when they enacted measures like drive-thru voting for the 2020 election and attempted to send applications for mail-in ballots to every registered voter in the county. The governor laid his criticism of Harris County against broader concerns about fraud in the state, but he could not offer specific instances.

“Right now I don't know how many or if any elections in the state of Texas in 2020 were altered because of voter fraud," Abbott said. “What I can tell you is this, and that is any voter fraud that takes place sow seeds of distrust in the election process."

Though there are documented cases of fraud in Texas, it remains rare. There have been no reports or evidence that there were widespread issues concerning fraud during the 2020 election, and Keith Ingram — the chief of elections at the Texas secretary of state's office — recently told House lawmakers that “Texas had an election that was smooth and secure."

Texas Republicans have for many years used concerns about fraud to push voting restrictions, including some that were later found to harm voters of color. One prominent example is the state's voter ID law, which requires voters to show one of a handful of allowable photo identification cards before they can cast their ballots. Republicans passed the law claiming it would help prevent voter fraud, even though there was little evidence for the kind of in-person fraud that law purported to prevent.

A federal judge and the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals — considered to be among the country's most conservative appellate courts — found the law disproportionately burdened voters of color who were less likely to have one of the seven forms of identification the state required. The law was eventually rewritten to match temporary rules a judge put in place for the 2016 election in an effort to ease the state's requirements.

“From our perspective, the most important single issue facing Texas elections is a crisis of voter suppression that has been getting worse over time and brought about ever-tightening restrictions on the right to vote because of mythical concerns about voter fraud," said James Slattery, a senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project.

The Republican push for "integrity" also ushered in a botched scouring for noncitizens on the voter rolls in 2019 that instead jeopardized the registrations of nearly 100,000 voters — the bulk of whom were likely naturalized citizens. Now, Republicans are trying to write that effort into law.

To question their citizenship and flag them for review, the state compared registered voters to a Texas Department of Public Safety database of people who provided some form of documentation, such as a green card or a work visa, that showed they were not citizens when they obtained driver's licenses or ID cards. But the database was flawed because in between renewals, Texans aren't required to notify DPS about changes in citizenship status. That means many of the people on the list could have become citizens and registered to vote without DPS knowing.

One proposal by Bettencourt would mandate “proof of citizenship" notices be sent to those voters with a demand to provide documentation to keep their registration.

In recent weeks, Bettencourt and other Texas Republicans have used broader language to categorize their proposals as part of an effort to raise trust and faith in the election process and results — even though they are among the most prominent voices casting doubt on the system that put them in office.

Deer Park Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain — who has filed legislation to prohibit counties from sending out mail-in applications unless they're requested by a voter — has said he wants to protect the voices of American citizens who are eligible to vote. In November, Cain volunteered with the Trump campaign in Pennsylvania as it attempted to overturn the outcome of the election. The campaign eventually filed a lawsuit to essentially toss the results of that state's election. A federal judge instead threw out the lawsuit.

“Texans deserve to have trust and confidence in the process and outcome of our elections," Cain previously said in response to questions about his involvement with the Trump campaign.

During the election season, voters faced a similar blur in messaging. The state's Republican leadership reprimanded local officials for attempting to proactively send out applications for mail-in ballots raising claims it would facilitate fraud, even as the state GOP sent unsolicited applications to voters urging them to fill them out.

“Let's be clear about this: This is a national rollout. It's a national rollout that started before today and it's picked up again with this idea that there's widespread fraud everywhere that doesn't exist," state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said at a House Democratic press conference addressing Republican's proposed legislation.

To Coleman, Republican proposals to narrow access to voting based on purported concerns of fraud amounted to veiled racism over the implication that voters of color — who exercised their political weight in greater force during the 2020 election — “are going to cheat."

“As a matter of fact, we had to fight harder for it," said Coleman, who is Black. “Of course we want integrity in the voting system but we don't want the voting system to work against the voters. And that's what this legislation and this rhetoric does."

Disclosure: The Texas Secretary of State has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/03/22/texas-republicans-voting-restrictions/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

In a rare move, Republicans tell President Trump ‘no’

In a rare moment in the Trump era, several Texas Republicans pushed back against President Donald Trump on Thursday when he floated in a tweet the idea of delaying the presidential election in November. The president does not have the legal authority to move Election Day; that power resides with Congress.

Keep reading... Show less

How this Texas school district found itself at risk of returning to a segregated past

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared racially segregated public education unconstitutional. The Brown v. Board of Education ruling called school districts across the nation to action to declare all-white institutions of learning relics of a white supremacy that America wanted to leave behind.

Keep reading... Show less

Tens of thousands of registered voters in Texas are being asked to provide proof of citizenship

Following the state’s announcement that it was flagging tens of thousands of registered voters for possible citizenship checks, some Texas voters could be receiving requests to prove their citizenship this week.

Keep reading... Show less
BRAND NEW STORIES

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.