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An early voting poll location for the 2020 presidential elections in Houston.
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The next big voting rights fight is in Texas

Texas is already one of the most restrictive states in the country. Republicans want new rules that would make things worse.

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Texas has, by one measure, the harshest voting rules of any state in the country. Now the Republican-controlled state government is working to make voting even harder — pushing legislation, similar to Georgia’s SB 202, that appears designed to suppress votes in Democratic-leaning areas of the increasingly purple state.

One of the two big bills, SB 7, has already passed the Texas Senate. The other, HB 6, has been approved for a floor vote by the House Elections Committee. Together, these bills contain a series of provisions that seem likely to suppress voter turnout.

The Senate bill imposes new rules limiting precinct placement that only apply to large urban counties. It punishes county registrars who don’t sufficiently purge the voter rolls, threatening a repeat of a 2019 fiasco in Texas in which nearly 100,000 recently naturalized citizens were pushed off the rolls. And it prohibits practices pioneered in Democratic-leaning counties designed to improve ballot access during the pandemic, like 24-hour voting.

The House bill, meanwhile, makes it nearly impossible to kick partisan poll watchers, who have historically been used to intimidate Black voters, out of precincts.

“SB 7 looks at what made it easier for people to vote in 2020, particularly communities of color — and then with a laser focus goes and removes those [rules],” says Thomas Buser-Clancy, a staff attorney at the Texas ACLU.

Voters line up outside Vickery Baptist Church in Dallas on Election Day in 2020.
LM Otero/AP

Whether these bills will succeed at giving the GOP an advantage is an open question. Some provisions likely would hurt Democrats, while others might have little effect or even backfire against Republicans. But the anti-democratic intent of the Texas bills is clear: They are at once an attempt to codify Trump’s “Big Lie” about a stolen election — a conspiracy theory widely embraced by Texas Republicans — and an effort to give the state GOP a leg up in future elections.

In the wake of the Georgia fight, Texas legislators are facing a preemptive backlash, with major corporations based in the state weighing in against SB 7 and HB 6. The biggest question now is whether the pressure will be sufficient to get Texas Republicans to back off before it’s too late.

The Texas bills mount assaults on ballot box access

The Senate and House bills both contain a large number of revisions affecting different aspects of state election law — some trivial, others potentially significant.

One of the most notable, according to experts and activists, are the Senate bill’s new rules about the placement of voting precincts and the allocation of election resources, like staff and voting machines.

Under current law, Texas counties have significant discretion about where to set up precincts and where to put their resources. The Senate bill changes these rules, but only for counties with more than 1 million residents. There are five such counties in Texas, all of them urban Democratic strongholds: Harris County (Houston), Dallas County (Dallas), Tarrant County (Fort Worth), Bexar County (San Antonio), and Travis County (Austin).

In these five counties, SB 7 would require that precincts and resources be allocated proportional to the percentage of the county’s eligible voters living in specific areas. This method has two major features that are likely to make voting in Democratic-leaning areas harder.

First, any measure of “eligible voters” would have trouble accounting for very recent population change — likely undercounting younger, heavily minority areas with high growth rates while overcounting older, whiter ones. Second, many Texans vote near their place of work in the city center, so allocating resources by population would underserve urban areas with lots of offices.

The result? In the big Democratic-leaning counties, precincts will be less conveniently located and more likely to have long lines. This could have an effect on outcomes: Studies of elections in California and Texas have found that cutting the number of precincts in a county leads to a measurable decrease in local voter turnout.

“Harris County and Travis County did a good job at distributing polling places in areas where there was a high number of potential voters and where there was a likelihood of higher turnout among ethnic and racial minorities,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. If SB 7 is passed, “that’s going to change.”

Another important provision of SB 7 requires county registrars to check their voter logs against state data on individuals “determined to be ineligible to vote because of citizenship status.” The registrar must remove voters on these lists from the voter registration lists; they would be personally fined $100 for each name they left on the voter rolls.

Voting rights activists worry that this is a backdoor effort to revive a 2019 voter purge struck down in court, an effort that tried to kick tens of thousands of recently naturalized voters off the rolls by using outdated citizenship status for them. The provision would also serve as a deterrent to people working as volunteer registrars — nobody wants to be fined hundreds of dollars for simple mistakes — which would significantly undermine the in-person voter registration drives that depend on their work.

“It’s kind of underrated but might be the biggest provision of SB 7,” says Joseph Fishkin, an election law expert at the University of Texas Austin. “There’s a real partisan skew as to who benefits from drying up the pool of new voters.”

The two bills would also significantly expand the powers of poll watchers, partisan operatives who observe the voting process to protect the party’s interests.

SB 7 allows poll watchers to film voters while they are getting assistance from poll workers, potentially intimidating voters with disabilities and non-English speakers. They are nominally prohibited from distributing their footage publicly, but there’s no enforcement mechanism or punishment — so there’s nothing really stopping them from sending misleading footage to fringe-right websites and claiming they prove “fraud.”

HB 6 makes matters worse by making it impossible to kick out poll watchers for any reason other than facilitating voter fraud, even if they are disrupting the voting process in other ways. The experts I spoke to said this applies even in extreme cases: a drunk and disorderly poll watcher, for example, or a jilted spouse who starts a fight when their ex shows up to vote.

It’s hard to say how these provisions would affect elections; poll watchers have had little impact on recent American elections. But the history of the practice gives us reasons to be skeptical about expanding their powers: Watchers have historically menaced Black voters trying to exercise their rights.

And there are many other notable aspects of the two laws.

SB 7 extends voter ID requirements to absentee ballots, requiring voters to submit information like their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on their mail-in ballot application. HB 6 requires voting assistance volunteers to take an oath foreswearing telling voters which candidates to vote for “by word, sign, or gesture.” Violating this oath, even unintentionally, is a felony comparable to criminally negligent homicide.

From these provisions, you can get a clear sense of what SB 7 and HB 6 are all about: making it harder for voters to access the ballot box and harder for election workers to do their jobs, often in ways that seem designed to hand Republicans a partisan advantage.

Trump’s “Big Lie” and the war on Houston

Ostensibly, SB 7 and HB 6 are about preventing voter fraud. “In the 2020 election, we witnessed actions throughout our state that could risk the integrity of our elections and enable voter fraud,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a press conference.

This is a phantom problem. There is only one case of criminal fraud in the 2020 election currently pending out of the 11 million ballots cast in Texas in 2020, according to data from the state attorney general’s office reported by the Houston Chronicle.

The better way to understand the Texas bill, like its cousin in Georgia, is as a ratification of Trump’s Big Lie: a formal codification of the conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

Campaign posters outside an early voting location in El Paso on October 24, 2020.
Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

HB 6’s lead sponsor, Texas’s House Elections Committee Chair Briscoe Cain, flew to Pennsylvania after the 2020 election to assist in Trump’s efforts to overturn the results via litigation. SB 7’s author, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, argued that his bill was necessary to address a lack of public confidence in electoral results. (Neither responded to a request for comment.)

“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 a Senate address.

It’s true that 73 percent of Texas Republicans, per a February 2021 poll, believed that the national election results were inaccurate. But this is a problem entirely of the GOP’s making: If it weren’t for Trump crying foul, after years of Republicans both in Texas and nationally warning their voters of the threat of voting fraud, their rank and file wouldn’t be particularly concerned.

“The latest efforts by Texas Republicans seem another manifestation of a well-established case of political Munchausen syndrome by proxy,” UT’s Jim Henson and Joshua Blank write. “Having spent the better part of the last few years trumpeting unverifiable signs of a non-existent illness in the body politic, they are once again making herculean efforts to administer various cures to a symptom that they have created along the way: a lack of trust in the system.”

You can see the influence of Trump’s lies in the way SB 7 targets Harris County’s pandemic voting innovations.

In 2020, Houston and its environs led the way in facilitating mail-in voting. Election officials instituted 24-hour early voting, proactively sent vote-by-mail applications to elderly residents, and invented a drive-through voting method allowing citizens to cast ballots from their cars.

A poll worker helps a voter at a mail-in ballot drop-off location in Austin, Texas, on October 13, 2020.
Sergio Flores/Getty Images

SB 7 undoes these innovations. It sets a 12-hour-per-day limit on early voting, bans drive-through voting with limited exceptions, and prohibits election officials from proactively providing vote-by-mail applications to voters (HB 6 also does this).

There’s no evidence that any of these Harris County initiatives facilitated fraud in any way. Surprisingly, banning them might not even be good for Republicans on pure partisan grounds: A New York Times analysis found that “in Houston’s 245 precincts with the largest share of Latinos, turnout was up sharply from 2016, and Mr. Trump won nearly two-thirds of the additional votes.”

It seems plausible that, if the Harris County innovations had any clear partisan effect, it was facilitating turnout from a more conservative segment of the Latino population. That’s something Republicans should obviously want, especially in a state where the rapidly rising Hispanic population is widely seen as a threat to GOP political hegemony.

But the Trump narrative is that the mail-in voting rules created for the pandemic facilitated fraud, especially in cities with high minority populations. This requires a crackdown on Covid-related innovations specifically — so Hughes put them in SB 7, as did dozens of Republican state legislators in bills restricting early voting around the country.

Texas, democracy, and the stakes of what happens next

Some anti-democratic state bills, like Georgia’s SB 202, have already passed into law. But Texas is at an inflection point: SB 7 and HB 6 could be still be stopped — or made even worse.

Texas political observers expect each legislative chamber will prioritize its own bill: the House will pass HB 6 before it passes SB 7, forcing the Senate to consider the House legislation before SB 7 is enacted. Given that the two bills overlap in a number of areas, it’s unlikely that both laws will pass in their current forms. The most likely result is that a conference committee works to combine them.

That means there’s plenty of time for amendments that could substantially alter the bills’ effects. Members of the Republican legislative majority have proposed a number of dangerous standalone election bills that could be added to the final product.

“Often these are fodder for amendments to election bills later on,” says James Slattery, a senior staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project. “Remember, in Georgia, the bill was two pages long — and then all of a sudden it was 90 pages.”

Two proposals, for example, are similar to the most dangerous provision of Georgia’s new law: a partisan takeover of local election administration.

HB 329 would allow the Texas secretary of state to suspend funding for voter registration in specific counties “in amounts determined by the secretary of state based on the registrar’s compliance with this code and the secretary of state’s directives.” HB 1026 would go even further by turning the secretary of state into the county registrar for every county in the state, effectively giving an appointed Republican power over the registration process and voter roll maintenance.

“It’s hard to see these bills as anything but a blatant power grab by Republicans who don’t want to see Democrats win any more elections,” says Charlotte Hill, a PhD candidate at the University of California Berkeley who studies elections.

Other bills enlist Texas police in bizarre voter intimidation schemes. HB 895, for example, would allow poll workers to photograph “the entire face of a voter” if they have questions about their authenticity of their ID, and allows police to use the photographs in criminal investigations. HB 3080 would require voters to submit a thumbprint as part of the vote-by-mail process — which, according to Slattery, may require voters to get fingerprinted at a police station.

Strange as some of these proposals seem, there’s no guarantee that they won’t end up becoming law.

“I wouldn’t sleep on these other bills,” says Buser-Clancy, the Texas ACLU attorney. “The legislature has shown it has an appetite to pass extreme voter suppression bills and we don’t know their limit.”

One crucial difference between this round of Texas legislation and past ones, however, is that it’s happening directly after the national furor surrounding Georgia’s voting law. The backlash to that law ranged from top Democrats to corporate America to professional sports. Delta Air Lines, which uses Atlanta as a major air travel hub, condemned the law; Major League Baseball pulled the All-Star Game from Atlanta in protest.

But while this mostly happened after the fact in Georgia, the criticism in Texas is coming in before the bill is passed. Two major corporations headquartered in the state, American Airlines and Dell Computing, have condemned SB 7 and HB 6 (respectively). A new statement from hundreds of corporations and business leaders, including Starbucks and Amazon, denounced the wave of voter suppression bills sweeping the country.

So far, Texas politicians have been defiant. Gov. Abbott, for example, refused to throw the ceremonial first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ home opener in protest of MLB’s stance on the Georgia bill. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick threatened Texas corporations that get involved in the voting rights battle with unspecified financial punishments: “if they think they’re going to attack the legislature on issues they have no knowledge about and come to us with their hand out, well that’s just not going to be the way we do business.”

Then-President Donald Trump speaks with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (right) and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (left) in 2017.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The next few weeks will show whether this is mere bluster; whether the national backlash to Georgia’s law, from both activists and big corporations, actually has the potential to change the GOP’s calculus over voting rights.

The Republican Party has been engaged in a long-running, at times systematic attempt to change the rules in their favor. Not every tactic they’ve used in the fight has been equally effective; gerrymandering, at both the state and national level, has a much clearer partisan effect than voter ID laws. But overall, there’s been a clear effect on electoral fairness — academic research has found a large and measurable decline in the quality of democracy in GOP-controlled states between 2000 and 2018.

After Trump’s attempt to overturn the election, this partisan split on democracy itself became fully solidified. Democrats doubled down on their belief that the fraud is a non-problem and access to the ballot box should be expanded; Republicans became even more convinced that widespread fraud demanded more restrictions on the franchise. This makes state laws like those in Georgia and Texas seem a fait accompli: At the national level, virtually nothing has been able to derail the power of partisan polarization and group identity.

Texas’s state government, like Georgia’s, is dominated by Republicans; Democrats don’t have any real power to stop them.

But if the fight in Texas ultimately sees the corporate pressure and national attention that Georgia did, Republicans would face a potentially unprecedented level of pressure over proposed voting reforms. The bigger question is whether that pressure would work.


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