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The Guardian

Texas Republicans pushing slate of bills to make voting even harder in state

Restrictions would include prohibiting drive-thru voting and cut early voting hours in already one of the hardest states to vote in US A voter casts their ballot at an early voting polling location for the presidential election in Houston, Texas, on 15 October 2020. Photograph: Aaron M Sprecher/EPA Texas Republicans are pushing new legislation that would make it even more difficult to cast a ballot in a state that is already one of the hardest places to vote in America. Sign up for the Guardian’s Fight to Vote newsletter There was no evidence of widespread fraud in Texas or elsewhere in 2020, but Governor Greg Abbott in February declared “election integrity” an emergency item for the legislature to consider. Bills introduced so far would prohibit counties from allowing drive-thru voting, curtail early voting hours, restrict the number of voting machines allowed at countywide polling centers, and block local election officials from sending out mail-in ballot applications to all voters. One bill would also make it easier for prosecutors to bring charges against Texans for technical violations and require those who cite a disability to vote by mail – one of a handful of approved excuses in Texas – to provide proof. Such a requirement would amount to a poll tax, critics say, because there is a cost to a doctor’s visit. “These exact kinds of lies about voting led to people dying in the insurrection at the Capitol. This goes way beyond politicians playing legislative chess to retain power,” Anthony Gutierrez, the executive director of the Texas chapter of Common Cause, a watchdog group, wrote in an email. Texas saw record turnout in the 2020 election, but still had one of the lowest turnout rates among eligible voters in the US. Many of the Republican bills appear aimed at Harris county, the state’s most populous and home to 2.4 million voters, where county officials took a number of creative steps last year to try to expand access to voting. That included setting up 24-hour drive-thru voting and trying to send a mail-in ballot application to all voters. But Republicans went to court to block those measures in the weeks leading up to the election. Abbott issued a proclamation in October only allowing counties to offer a single absentee ballot drop box. The order meant that Harris county, which stretches over nearly 2,000 sq miles, could only have a single drop box location instead of the 11 it intended to offer. Abbott pointed specifically to Harris county’s efforts to expand voting access during a Monday press conference introducing the new restrictive voting bills. “The integrity of elections in 2020 were questioned right here in Harris county with the mail-in ballot application process,” Abbott said. “The county elections clerk attempted to send unsolicited mail-in ballot applications to millions of voters, many of whom would not be eligible to vote by mail. Election officials should be working to stop potential mail ballot fraud, not facilitate it.” Isabel Longoria, a Harris county election official credited with developing the 24-hour drive-thru voting, blasted the proposals. The Republican proposals come amid a wave of similar efforts in state legislatures across the country. Photograph: Aaron M Sprecher/EPA “To micromanage the creative solutions that we have had to come up with in Harris county under the auspices of some false election integrity narrative, is a bill not based in reality,” she said in an interview. The Republican proposals come amid a wave of similar efforts in state legislatures across the country. But the restrictions in Texas are notable for two reasons. First, Texas already has extremely restrictive voting laws – it doesn’t allow voters to register online (there is currently a limited workaround because of a federal lawsuit), requires voters under 65 to provide an excuse if they want to vote by mail, cuts off voter registration 30 days before an election, and places strict limits on who can register voters. Second, Republicans did extremely well in the state in November; Donald Trump overwhelmingly carried the state and Democrats did poorly in state legislative races. This signals how eagerly the party has embraced efforts to make it more difficult to vote. Voting advocates say the measures are designed to block local officials from taking any action to make voting easier. “It’s really kneecapping local election officials from really adopting to facilitate voting that have proved really popular,” said Zenen Pérez, the advocacy director at Move Texas, a grassroots group that works to improve civic participation. One measure would prohibit early voting after 7pm, a time during which more than 17,000 people cast their ballots, Longoria said. Many of those people were medical workers, parents with young children, and workers at the port of Houston. “There’s some theory out there that nothing good happens after dark … the last time we built laws based on sunset was in the Jim Crow era so I don’t think we should base any more laws based on when the sun sets,” she added. Abbott and the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, a Trump ally, have been among those who have loudly claimed voter fraud is a problem. According to the Houston Chronicle, the election integrity division in Paxton’s office dedicated 22,000 hours in 2020 to investigating voter fraud cases but has found only 16 cases of any actual voter fraud. Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in Harris county, criticized the measures. “What these folks are doing are simply continuing the trend that’s been going on since Reconstruction, through Jim Crow and up to today: trying to confuse voters, intimidate voters and enact policies that keep people from the ballot box.” Longoria said she planned to contest the slate of bills, but thinks the likelihood they will become law is a “coin toss”. “My job is to be a public servant protecting the voters of Harris county, point blank. Voters have told me directly they love drive-through voting. They love 24-hour voting. They love mail ballot voting,” she said. “I will fight for what they love to do and their right to vote until the very last breath I have on this earth. That’s what I’m here to do and that’s what I’m going to keep doing. Anyone who thinks differently, well, good luck to ’em.”

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