By: Ilana Foggle
Last week, we wrote you with good news: states across the country are passing laws increasing access to the polls.
Well, this week, we have some not-so-good news to share. Buckle up.
On August 31, both houses of the Texas legislature passed a restrictive elections bill, SB1, and on September 7, Governor Abbott signed the bill into law.
Now, this may not be the first time you’ve heard about this bill. In July, dozens of Texas legislators fled the state in an unsuccessful, yet valiant attempt to block SB1 by denying a required quorum of two-thirds presence in both houses. This dramatic standoff between pro-democracy legislators and their rivals lasted weeks. Even so, the moment enough legislators returned to the state, the fight was over. The bill was passed &ndahs; despite the brave efforts of pro-democracy lawmakers.
So, let’s break down this new law that has rightfully riled up voting rights advocates throughout the nation.
SB1 includes several provisions that make it harder to vote and blatantly favors one side of the political spectrum.
Take Harris County, one of the largest, most racially diverse counties, for example. In 2020, a few polling places in the county remained open for 24 hours to increase access to the polls during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in a highly-populated area. In counties with a population of 55,000 or more, SB1 requires at least 12 hours of early voting, but sets the cap at 16 hours of early voting in cities like Houston. This provision essentially restricts early voting hours in more populated counties, while expanding them in smaller counties – disenfranchising voters in urban areas.
SB1 also imposes new restrictions on absentee voting. Texas voters voting by mail must now provide their driver’s license number or social security number, and it is now a felony for election officials to send unsolicited absentee ballot applications to voters throughout the state. Texas already had some of the most restrictive vote by mail practices in the country: most Texans under the age of 65 are already barred from voting by mail. This is despite the fact that vote by mail has been in use since the Civil War in all 50 states.
Drop boxes for mail-in ballots? Banned. Drive-through voting? Banned. The list keeps going.
The new law includes a particularly concerning provision that requires election officials to conduct monthly purges of the state’s voting rolls. We’ve seen this in Texas before. In 2019, then-Texas Secretary of State David Whitley created a list of more than 100,000 registered voters he claimed might not be US citizens. The method for determining citizenship was flawed, and the list was wrong. Many of the voters were lawful, naturalized citizens, and Whitley resigned in shame.
This is part of the problem: mass voter purges are unreliable. Though it is necessary to remove dead voters and residents who have moved from the voter rolls, politicians have weaponized voter purges to oppress minority voters. Lawful voters will inevitably be purged from Texas voter rolls due to false positives and discriminatory profiling. This is voter disenfranchisement, plain and simple.
SB1 isn’t only going to make it harder for voters to vote. It will also put election officials and workers at risk. Like many states throughout the country, Texas permits candidates and political parties to appoint poll watchers to observe the counting of ballots. In 2020, poll watchers appointed by the Trump campaign disrupted the electoral process and made false legal claims against election officials.
SB1 doesn’t protect election officials – but it does protect partisan poll watchers. The law makes it a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail, if an election official knowingly removes a poll watcher. Now, poll watchers are necessary to ensure a fair, free process. That said, in recent years, some political parties and campaigns have used poll watchers to intimidate voters – especially voters of color.
In addition, if an election official sends an unsolicited vote by mail application or early voting materials to voters, they are risking up to 180 days in jail. We need poll workers and election officials to keep our democratic processes secure, accessible, and reliable. The threat of jail time will curb the ability of election officials to do their jobs.
So, what do we do?
This week, The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund announced a lawsuit on behalf of several civil rights organizations and the Harris County Elections Administrator in San Antonio’s federal court. Another lawsuit was filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project, League of Women Voters, Asian American Legal Defense Fund, Disability Rights Texas, and the ACLU. These legal challenges will provide obstacles to the establishment of SB1. Even so, SB1 became law.
We need your help.
We know first-hand the power that grassroots advocacy holds. Our coalition of voting rights advocates has challenged restrictive laws like this before, and we will do it again.
There’s a bill in the Senate right now that would increase voting access, make Election Day a holiday, and end partisan gerrymandering. Congress has just weeks left to pass it, so the time to act is now.
Add your name to send an immediate message to your senators urging them to pass the For the People Act.