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

click to enlarge San Antonians line up outside of the Lion's Field voting site during the 2020 presidential election. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
San Antonians line up outside of the Lion's Field voting site during the 2020 presidential election.
Republican lawmakers in Texas are 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 was set to receive its first committee airing Monday, but Democrats delayed its consideration by invoking a rule that requires more public notice before the legislation is heard. 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.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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