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Texas Matters: How Gov. Abbott Is Pushing Voter Suppression Bills

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This week Gov. Greg Abbott held a press event in Harris County where he, again, made it clear: He wanted the Texas legislature to pass bills that would make voting harder. “Our objective is very simple and that is to ensure that every eligible voter guest to vote is also to ensure that only eligible votes are the ones that count at the ballot box,” he said.

Sitting next to Abbott was State Sen. Paul Bentencourt, a Republican from Houston, who is the author of Senate Bill Seven. “No, we're not a universal ballot state like Oregon and others. And more importantly, we didn't need that 2 million absentee ballots to set a record vote total in Harris County, which isn’t only high numerically, but the highest percentage in over 30 years. But the first bill was to stop the absentee ballot mailings,” said Bentencourt.

If passed, SB 7 would bar local election officials and voter fraud, advocacy groups from distributing mail in vote applications, place the responsibility for clerical errors on election officials and grant more power to the attorney general to hunt down suspected voter fraud.

“I want to make sure that people understand that there's uniformity what the laws are," he explained, "and that's why I filed a bill that wouldn't have uniform election laws in the state that I think are picked up both in House Bill 6, as well as instead of Senate Bill 7, just to have 'seven to seven' hours for early voting. And obviously for Election Day, that would increase the number of hours in rural. In some cases suburban Texas, it may decrease from what the attempt was in Harris County,” he said.

SB 7 would also limit mail in voting to voters who provide medical documentation, proving that they cannot vote in person at a voting center while also preventing local officials from implementing measures that would facilitate voting, making it more convenient. “And, and whether they're working a shift or not, they've got a chance to work on that during the work on that effort over the weekend, et cetera. So I don't think there's any denial of voter rights with that. I think uniformity is what we need in Texas. So rural voters coming home from work at the same access as, as urban voters,” said Bentencourt.

On the other side at the press event was State Rep. Briscoe Cain, a Republican from Deer Park who chairs the House Elections Committee. “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.

Cain was active in former President Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the presidential election in Pennsylvania. He helped file a lawsuit, alleging widespread issues with mail-in voting there. That lawsuit was tossed out due to lack of evidence. Cain is the chairman of the House Elections Committee. He filed House Bill 6, which includes a prohibition on proactively sending out applications to vote by mail.

“At the main point of House Bill 6 ... is this idea that we should have standardized and uniform elections, that the rules are the rules, what the legislature said and how an election should be conducted," he explained. "That's the rule — it's predictable. Everyone should know that you don't in the Texas House right now. We've got members that are rural and urban, and there's different rules that apply depending where you live. I would say that a Texan from Lubbock should be able to move to Harris County or Liberty County and know when they'll vote and the times and hours of those voting again, that makes it fair. It helps rural Texans feel like they have the same opportunity as urban Texas," Cain said.

'Smooth and secure'

It's worth again highlighting that there was no meaningful fraud in the last election. That's true nationally and in Texas. And this was made clear in the recent testimony of Keith Ingram from the Texas secretary of state's office at an elections committee hearing.

“In spite of all the circumstances, Texas had an election that was smooth and secure,” Ingram said. “Texans can be justifiably proud of the hard work and creativity shown by local County election officials. I am happy to report. The Texas elections are in good shape. Last year was very challenging in a number of respects. Obviously presidential elections are the largest turnout and most visible elections that we do in any ordinary year. A presidential election would be a big deal. It would feature a high turnout and much scrutiny. However, in 2020, there was the added complication of a global pandemic with which election officials had to contend. The elections in Texas last year were a success. The governor extended early voting by a week in order to spread out voters. And this resulted in, um, as well as the high high level of interest on the part of the voters. 87% of voters who voted last year, voted early, not withstanding the extraordinarily high turnout, the county's reported their results earlier than normal,” he said.

Those are the facts from the Texas secretary of state's office, which is in charge of running elections. There was no fraud, no confusion. We had secure and timely results, but this is what Gov. Abbott said: “The integrity of elections in 2020 were questioned right here in Harris County with the mail-in ballot application process, the County elections clerk attempted to sin 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. And that's exactly why the Texas Supreme Court was right to put a stop to what Harris County was trying to do,” Abbott said.

'It's common sense'

So what's wrong with this picture? Remember President Trump, when he was seeking reelection, and then after he lost, he made case after case that there were problems with the ballots based on lies.

“And you see what's happening with so many different places they're doing even trial runs. They're a disaster. And I don't want to see an election. You know, so many years I've been watching elections and they say the projected winner or the winner of the election. I don't want to see that take place in a week after November 3rd or a month, or frankly, with litigation and everything else that can happen years, years, or you never even know who won the election. You're sending out hundreds of millions of universal mail-in ballots, hundreds of millions, where are they going? Who are they being sent to? It's common sense. You don't have to know anything about politics,” Trump said.

President Trump based many of his unfounded claims of voter fraud on a postal worker story in Erie, Pennsylvania, but according to a new report that didn't happen. Agents from the Postal Service Inspector General's office found no evidence of backdated ballots after interviewing county and post office employees and reviewing ballots received by the Erie post office on Nov. 3 and thereafter.

The report has been kept under wraps by the inspector general's office until it was posted without announcement on Feb. 26.

Those allegations by the postal employee, Richard Hopkins became public on Nov. 5 in a video release by project Veritas, a discredited conservative group that is promoting voter fraud accusations on social media. That story was picked up and amplified by right wing media, which has not provided an on-air correction now that the story has been proven to be false.

But false or not , it had the effect of generating distrust in the election system. And now that very distrust and lack of confidence in voting is being used by Abbott and others to justify pushing forth these new laws that will end up making voting more difficult.

“Any voter fraud that takes place sows seeds of distrust in the election process. The more distrust in the election process the more that it challenges the fundamentals of democracy itself. There is an obligation not only in the Texas constitution, but as articulated by the United States Supreme Court, that we remove that distrust by ensuring that we do all we can to ensure that every eligible voter will be able to cast a vote, but no one will be able to cast an illegal vote,” said Abbott.

'Bend and break the rules'

Voting rights advocates are sounding the alarm that Texas is pushing forth the harshest voting rights restrictions since the Jim Crow, Whites Only Primary and the Poll Tax, because they say these are voting laws that are designed to hurt minority voters.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez is the founder and chief strategy officer at JOLT, a Texas wide organization that lifts up the voice vote and issues impacting Latinos.

"Texas historically has had one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country. And we've started to see that shift," she said. "And you would hope that our elected officials would applaud that because democracy is about participation and that elected officials should have to win on the merit of their ideas with a mandate, but it looks like our elected officials have actually been happy to hold power with a minority of voter participation, and they want to keep it that way. And they are willing to bend and break the rules, to try and keep as few people voting as possible."

Q: Gov. Abbott says we need these new voting restrictions in order to preserve the purity of the ballot box. He is making a case that this last election was filled with abuse in Harris County. How do you respond?

Ramirez: You saw a great turnout and Harris County, a great job by local officials that really wanted to ensure that even in the difficult circumstances of a pandemic that everyone could vote. And what we saw was that these tools of drive-through voting of making it easier and accessible increasing hours increased turnout. And so again, you would hope that our legislators would applaud that, but no they're threatened by it. And they're also trying to threaten local officials, you'll see in some of the legislation that are proposing, that it would also create fines and penalties for local elected officials that are simply trying to do their job. When the state has really been failing year after year to do the work, to expand the franchise in this state, we have to remember that Texas is the South and that these are the same tools of poll taxes and literacy tests repackaged with the same purpose, their purpose are to deny communities of color, the right to vote.

Q: Why do you think, Gov Abbott is targeting Harris County in particular. And yet we haven't seen any evidence or even a real argument as to how does making voting more convenient -how does it make it less secure?

Ramirez: Harris County is under attack because it's a very diverse community. You've seen local elected officials, really try and increase turnout. And again, that threatens them. There has been next to no fraudulent cases that they themselves can find. Instead of being concerned about the historic low voter participation, that's not their concern.

I've always been led by the idea that we try and make it as easy and accessible as possible for everyone to vote because people should have to win on the merit of their ideas. And that means that we want the most people voting as possible. Harris County is under attack because it's a huge County, it's a hugely diverse County and they want to keep as few people voting as possible.

Q: We have a lot of policies in Texas that we know that the public supports; things like Medicaid expansion, sick leave for workers, Climate Change action. But addressing these concerns stall in the legislature. Is there a connection between having voter suppression in the state and not actually being able to have these policies put into law in the state government

Ramirez: We all lived through the results of having a government that doesn't feel like they answer to their voters during the historic Texas freeze, where millions of us were left in the cold, nearly half of our state didn't have clean drinking water. That was the result of one feeling like they don't answer to voters too, that they don't have to address issues like climate change. You know, if we had a government that actually won on a mandate that had to represent the needs of Texans, you, we would have a state, you know, popular polling shows time.

And again, that most texts and support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, most texts and support action on climate change and transitioning our economy to a clean energy economy, most texts and support legalizing marijuana. And they explored, uh, support Medicaid expansion. We would look a lot different in the needs of millions of people would be met if we actually had greater participation in our democracy.

While the new proposed voting restrictions are designed to disenfranchise mainly urban and minority voters, they're also going to impact Republican voters.

An analysis of voter data from 2020 by Secure Democracy showed that significant numbers of voters from both major parties took advantage of expanded early and mail-in voting. And they say that if election security is Gov. Abbott’s goal, there is a way to do that without make voting more difficult.

'That just doesn't make sense'

Sarah Walker is with Secure Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit that seeks to increase election security.

"Just like to put this in a national context we've seen over ... almost nearly 500 bills that would restrict access to the ballot ... in our in 43 different states," she explained. "And one of the reasons why this is so confusing and can be really confusing, particularly in Texas, is that many of the things that they're attacking are things like early voting and absentee balloting, but what the data shows in terms of who used absentee balloting and who used early voting, and what it shows is that this was tremendously popular amongst all citizens in Texas.

"And in fact, fewer than one in five Republican voters in Texas voted in person on election day in 2020. So restricting access to absentee and early voting options could actually really disenfranchise the leaderships, their leadership's own voters. And to me that just doesn't make sense.

"Additionally, I would say that Texans across the political spectrum are the ones who would benefit from preserving and even looking at expanding some of the voting access, um, you know, 64% of Republicans who voted cast early and early votes and nearly one quarter voted by mail statewide.

Q: The Texas Republican leadership has a pretty good idea of what they're doing. If there are some Republicans who can’t vote because of the new laws, but there are more Democrats that can't vote – then that's a win for the Republicans isn't it?

Walker: I think there was a lot of unique things about the 2020 election, but one of them, which I don't think was a result of being in a pandemic is that there are fundamental changes going in, going on in the electorate. And I'll appoint to a few of them. One Republicans actually registered more new voters and Democrats. And so this old idea that Republicans don't do well, if there's more participation, just isn't true.

And in fact, I think given numerous factors, demographic shifts, the emerging youth population vote, there are a lot of reasons to believe that in fact Republicans, if they want to maintain control, need to be reaching out to new demographic graphics and also reaching out to new voters and registering more people. So, some of the restrictions might very well unintentionally cause less participation amongst some of their own voters.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi