Texas is largest battleground in struggle over voting rights, secure elections
Republicans in Texas and across the country push “voting integrity” legislation that Democrats say is designed to suppress voting.
By Gromer Jeffers Jr., Dallas Morning News
Texas is America’s largest battleground for the struggle over voting rights, with Republicans pushing legislation that they contend protects against fraud, and Democrats countering that the GOP’s efforts are modern-day Jim Crow policies.
On Monday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott held a news conference to say the measures are needed to prevent voter fraud. Democrats quickly responded, calling for expanded access.
The Lone Star fight mirrors the national debate that observers say is the Republican response to Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump. Trump and his supporters have clung to unproven allegations that voter fraud is the reason for the controversial former president’s defeat. In state legislatures across the nation, GOP lawmakers have proposed legislation that would restrict mail-in voting by enacting cumbersome requirements, particularly for the disabled.
Republicans in Texas in 2020 rolled up impressive victories over Democrats and now say their goal is to weed out fraud and create a uniform elections system. The Texas GOP proposals include forcing residents to prove they are disabled before being allowed to vote by mail and penalizing election officials for not aggressively purging voter rolls.
“So much of the legislation that we’re seeing introduced across the states is so obviously targeted and is aimed at rolling back participation,” said Myrna Pérez, a native Texan who directs the Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Rights and Elections Program. “It stems, especially in a place like Texas, from anxiety over changing demographics and reflects an intent on the part of certain politicians to manipulate the political process so that some people can participate and some people can’t.”
According to the Brennan Center, as of Feb. 19 there were 253 bills with provisions that restrict voting access in 43 states, and 704 bills with provisions that expand voting access in a different set of 43 states.
Pérez said that Texas already has restrictive voting laws, so much so that Georgia Republicans pushing voter integrity bills there use the Texas Legislature as a model.
“Texas is already so restrictive and so much more closed in terms of access than other states,” she said. “It would almost be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic.”
But officials at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation on Monday cheered the Republican proposals.
“The governor has rightly prioritized election integrity and protecting our most essential of rights,” said Kevin Roberts, the group’s executive director. “We applaud his designation of this as an emergency item and further remarks that if our legislators get him a strong package that protects and improves our system, he will sign it.”
State Rep. Briscoe Cain, the Deer Park Republican and chairman of the House Elections Committee, said Monday the proposals are necessary. In November Cain traveled to Pennsylvania to work with other lawyers trying to overturn presidential election results. The allegations put forward by the Trump campaign were without merit.
“We must, of course, snuff out fraud,” Cain said Monday in Houston. “The idea that voter fraud is a myth that’s been disproven, time and time again,” Cain said Monday.
Rep. Jessica González, a Dallas Democrat and vice chairwoman of the House Elections Committee, said lawmakers should expand voting, not suppress it.
“For decades, Texas Republicans have been guilty of adding unnecessary obstacles to the ballot box and undermining our trust in our elections processes with these kinds of bills,” she said, adding that it was time to “prioritize policy proposals and increase our citizens accessibility to the ballot box, rather than adding unnecessary obstacles.”
Dueling news conferences
Abbott held his news conference just days after GOP lawmakers introduced a bevy of election bills. Democrats quickly added their rebuttal.
Since his days as attorney general, Abbott has made curbing voter fraud a cornerstone of his public policy. While there has been mail-in ballot fraud in Texas, including several instances in Dallas County earlier this decade, fraud cases are rare.
“There is voter fraud,” said state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth. “There is not widespread voter fraud.”
Abbott conceded that there has been no reported instances of fraud in the 2020 elections.
“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.
Instead, Abbott complained that in Harris County “the integrity of elections in 2020 were questioned” when “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,” Abbott said.
But Democrats contend that Abbott should be trying to make voting easier, not harder. And they point out that Abbott and other Republicans never raise issues of voter fraud in races that they win.
At a Texas Democratic House Caucus news conference Monday, leading Democrats said they would work to expand voting.
“They have a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist, and the solution is what will take away people’s right to vote and ability to cast their ballot. States and governments should be about opening up the voting process, not closing it down,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, calling the GOP proposals “veiled racism.”
Following Trump’s lead
Even before the election, Trump complained that the mail-in ballot process was fraudulent, setting up an excuse for his defeat which would ultimately lead to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, where he urged supporters to peacefully march on the Capitol to stop lawmakers from certifying Biden’s victory, as required by the Constitution. Marauders then stormed the Capitol, which resulted in five deaths, including a Capitol police officer.
Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston and a former tax assessor, is the author of most of the proposals.
“I don’t think there’s any denial of voter rights with that,” Bettencourt said. “I think uniformity is what we need in Texas. So rural voters coming home from work have the same access as urban voters.”
At the news conference with Abbott, Bettencourt said that critics of the proposals should not be worried about purging the names of qualified voters, which has happened in Texas.
“How you do it is up to good operational control,” Bettencourt said.
Texans want election reform
Elections are important to most Texans.
A poll by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas-Tyler revealed that “election integrity” was the top choice of the emergency items Abbott has given to the Legislature for action.
Election integrity was the top priority of 35% of poll respondents and it drew support from Democrats, Republicans, independents and all racial demographics.
Protecting businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits ranked as voters’ second favorite among Abbott’s priorities, at 23%, followed by penalizing cities that reduce police budgets (18%) and developing high-speed internet for underserved areas (15%).
The poll found that Texans support requirements beyond signature verification for absentee ballots by a whopping 63% to 17%, and 20% were neutral.
“I believe it’s incumbent on the Texas Legislature to get this right, that elections, the bedrock of our Republic should be free, fair and secure,” Cain said. “The polling numbers are very clear that a majority of Republicans and Democrats want to see election reforms.”
But Sarah Walker, executive director of the nonprofit Secure Democracy, said Republicans should be encouraging voting.
“Fewer than 1 in 5 Republican voters in Texas voted in person on Election Day in 2020, so restricting access to absentee and early voting options could really disenfranchise these leaders’ own voters,” she said. “We urge Texas lawmakers to adopt measures that bolster election integrity while expanding voter access uniformly across the state. The facts make it plain: Texans across the political spectrum are the ones that would benefit.”
Options for Democrats
With Republicans in control of the Legislature, most of the elections proposals are expected to be approved and signed by Abbott. Democrats are hoping to pass legislation that expands voting. Proposals include allowing online voter registration, placing polling places at more colleges, allowing voters to use their student identifications to vote, expanding voting centers and improving access to the ballot box for those with disabilities or language barriers.
And at least one Democrat said there could be a bipartisan compromise on an election bill.
“Let’s strike out the provisions that are patently designed to suppress the vote,” said state Sen. Nathan Johnson of Dallas about a Senate bill on election laws filed last week. “Let’s go ahead and hone and make effective those that truly do contribute to the election to the integrity of our election systems, because we’ll all benefit from that.”
On the federal level, Democrats are pushing proposals to protect against voter discrimination. They include the John Lewis Voter Rights Advance Act that would restore a requirement from the original Voting Rights Act of 1965 that mandated any changes in election law by states with a history of discrimination get approval from federal authorities. The Department of Justice lost that power when the Supreme Court struck down the practice and suggested lawmakers update the law.
Another proposal, the For the People Act, would set federal standards in federal elections across the country.
“We continue to need leadership from politicians and Americans of good faith who will keep sounding the alarm and spreading the message that that voter suppression has no place in our electorate,” Pérez said.
Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause in Texas, said the Republican bills in Texas could backfire.
“There’s going to be a pretty big uprising here,” he said. “We’ll see whether or not we’ll be able to actually stop the bill, but this is a pretty egregious sort of overreach by the Republicans in Texas.”
This article originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News at https://www.dallasnews.com/news/politics/2021/03/16/texas-is-largest-battleground-in-struggle-over-voting-rights-secure-elections/.