Texas Legislature poised to enact restrictive voting law

Abbott, Patrick, Paxton are all in favor

Last Friday, in a session that lasted until approximately 3 a.m., Texas’ House of Representatives conducted an intense debate on proposed legislation that markedly restricts voting rights. The proposed House bill is House Bill 6. Its counterpart in the State Senate is Senate Bill 7. Each chamber has now passed a version of the proposed law.

Essentially, Republican leaders in Texas and across the nation have fallen into a lockstep response to former President Donald Trump’s lament that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law legislation that places new limitations on voting by mail, restricts the use of drop boxes and outlaws any actions that may influence voters standing in line, such as providing tired voters with bottles of water.

This is the 87th session of the Texas Legislature, which regularly meets in odd-numbered years for a period of 140 days. This year’s session of the Legislature convened Jan. 12 and will end May 31.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott designated “election integrity” as a state emergency meriting the Legislature’s immediate attention when he announced his agenda for legislators in February. Abbott obviously is troubled by Texas’ operative election laws, although the 2020 presidential election had the largest turnout of Texas voters, more than 11.5 million out of the state’s almost 17 million registered voters.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton are in agreement with Abbott in endeavoring to restrict voters’ rights. These leaders espouse the view that our state confronts a tangible peril of thousands of potential illegal mail-in ballots being cast in future elections. For the November election, the Harris County Clerk’s office mailed out absentee ballots to every registered voter in its records. The proposed legislation would limit county clerks to providing absentee ballots only to voters who request them.

During the late-night session on May 6, Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) struggled to answer questions from Rep. Rafael Anchía (D-Dallas) about racial implications of the stated purpose of House Bill 6 to “preserve the purity of the ballot box.”

Cain responded that “purity of the ballot box” is a phrase in the Texas Constitution. When Anchía asked Cain if he was aware that the phrase originated during the post-Reconstruction period in Texas, a time of unbridled racism, Briscoe acknowledged that he did not know the history of the legislative language he had proposed.

While not knowing the history of every nuance of a proposed phrase in a complex bill may be forgivable, given that Texas’ top elected leaders — Gov. Abbott, Lt. Gov. Patrick and AG Paxton — have touted the need to tighten Texas’ voting laws as a state emergency, it’s important to ask why the proposed changes are necessary.

The Dallas Morning News reported that Cain conceded in debate on the bill that the 2020 election was “free and fair.”

Despite his characterization of “election integrity” as a state emergency, Abbott has acknowledged that he is unaware of any fraud that would call into question the results of the 2020 presidential election.

One bugaboo that Texas’ Republican leaders are determined to curb is so-called “ballot harvesting” — laws that allow third parties to deliver absentee ballots to the polls. For elderly, disabled or impaired voters who may have difficulty going to the polls, or for poorer voters without available transportation, assistance in delivering such absentee ballots is a pragmatic means of overcoming their inherent limitations.

Proponents of outlawing third parties from helping other voters fear that unscrupulous political operatives will stuff ballot boxes and combine to alter the outcome of elections.

The House version of the bill reduced the criminal penalty for vote harvesting from a third-degree felony to a Class A misdemeanor.

It’s only reasonable to consider why Texas’ highest statewide elected officials and Republican legislators are so adamant about rewriting Texas’ voting laws if there are not numerous incidents of voter fraud.

Cain has said he does not believe there have to be widespread incidents of voter irregularities to change the law.

Perhaps what really concerns Texas’ Republican statewide leaders and legislators is the prediction of demographers that statewide elections will become increasingly competitive.

Texas elections “will start to look like Florida with a large population and lots of turnover in office,” said University of Texas at Austin’s professor Jim Henson last November. Henson is also director of the Texas Politics Project, which is a nonpartisan research effort at UT-Austin.

“Even at the state level, as Republicans fight harder in the general elections to keep the state, they are going to become more open to issues and be less alienating to the more moderate voters,” Henson told mysantonio.com, a news website.

The respective voting bills passed by the Texas House and Senate will now be reconciled by conferees from each chamber, and then will be voted upon in a final version by each chamber, barring unforeseen developments.

The frustrations of many Democratic legislators were explained by Rep. Jessica González (D-Dallas): “It’s old Jim Crow, dressed up in what our colleagues are calling ‘election integrity.’ This is by far the worst piece of legislation that Texans have seen.”

The battle over the rights of Texas voters is unlikely to end when Gov. Abbott signs a bill into law. The Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) have been openly critical of the proposed legislation. Court challenges to a new law are virtually certain.

A version of this editorial appeared in the May 13, 2021, issue of the Jewish Herald-Voice in Houston. Reprinted with permission.

Leave a Reply