The following editorial published in the Houston Chronicle on April 5:
Texas Republican senators disregarded the hours of expert testimony in committee and objections on the floor, they overlooked the full-page ads by advocates in newspapers and ignored bipartisan polls. Nothing — let alone the will of the people — was going to stop them from their mission: Making it harder to vote in a state that leads the nation in voter obstruction.
Never content with choosing their voters through gerrymandering, GOP lawmakers facing the existential crisis of irrelevance in our diversifying state are taking no chances on who gets to cast a ballot. They’ve done the math and they’re not willing to put in the work to become a more inclusive party or to try and win a war of ideas to retain power. Why bother when it’s easier to stop more people from voting?
That’s not how things work in a democracy, and that’s fine by them. Welcome to the Oligarchy of Texas.
In the dead of night and skirting public notice rules, legislators passed Senate Bill 7 last week. One of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s priorities, SB7 spells out voter suppression under the guise of election integrity and is mostly a compendium of bad policy. After moving quickly through the Senate, the legislation now heads to the House for consideration.
The bill’s fig leaf of legitimacy comes from requiring and funding voting machines that produce a paper trail — which experts point out should improve election security and which has been mostly ignored for more than a decade — and requiring that the Texas Secretary of State develop an electronic mail ballot tracking system.
Beyond those two measures, the legislation — approved 18-13 on a party line vote — does more harm than good, starting with giving partisan poll watchers almost unfettered access throughout a polling location and allowing them to record video or audio if they “reasonably believe” election laws are being broken.
The bill was amended so those recordings could only be shared with the secretary of state (sorry, Facebook), but it is still an invitation to intimidation, if not a twisted kind of voter vigilantism. While poll watchers are not allowed to see someone’s vote, there is nothing keeping them from hovering nearby, cell phone in hand, waiting to record and intimating fraud based on nothing more than a hunch.
SB7 also targets specific voting expansions implemented in Harris County and other large counties this past election that made it easier for more people to vote.
The proposal sets the number of polling places and voting machines that can be made available based on the number of eligible voters in each state House district. This would lead to fewer polling locations and longer lines, with state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, noting that out of the 14 House districts that would lose polling places, a dozen are districts represented by House members who are Black, Latino or of Asian descent.
Harris County voters who enjoyed the accessibility of voting in their car or having the option of visiting a 24-hour polling location will have to do without, as SB7 bans both. It limits polling hours during early voting from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. and does away with drive-thru voting all together.
Not because such votes were shown to be unreliable. It appears instead they that those methods proved to be popular with the wrong voters.
As reported in the Chronicle, more than 50 percent of ballots cast through drive-thru and 24-hour locations were by Black and Latino voters. State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said he wrote the bill with no intention to disenfranchise minorities.
“There’s nothing in this bill that has to do with targeting specific groups,” he said. “The rules apply across the board.”
He’s right, the rules apply to everyone, but that perpetuates the preposterous fiction that there’s no such legal concept as disparate impact. Lots of laws are neutral on their face when it comes to race but their effects are anything but. The Voting Rights Act used to target such bills for special scrutiny in states such as Texas, but not any more. Doing away with a method of voting favored by Black and Latino voters is just the kind of law that made the Voting Rights Act so necessary.
Neither is it reasonable to impose unnecessary paperwork on volunteers who assist elderly or disabled voters at the polls or who drive them to a polling location to access curbside voting, which SB7 does. Mercifully, a provision that would have required disabled voters to prove their disability before they could vote by mail was struck from the bill.
We continue to ask why these measures have been deemed an “emergency,” why Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott believe this is urgent legislation that needs to be rushed through this session, why almost every elections bill that stands a chance of passing this session makes it harder to vote, not easier.
SB7 makes it clear there is indeed a problem with voter fraud in Texas, one that has nothing to do with the folks casting ballots and everything to do with those trying to stand in their way.