State lawmakers’ plan to reform elections draws rebuke from Harris County leaders, voting rights groups

State lawmakers’ plan to reform elections draws rebuke from Harris County leaders, voting rights groups

Voters line up to cast ballots in the November 2020 election at Juergen’s Hall Community Center in Cypress. (Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)

As a band of state lawmakers looks to move forward with a bill they said would strengthen election integrity in Texas, leaders in Harris County and members of voter rights organizations said the legislation is likely to make it more difficult to vote, especially for vulnerable populations.

Senate Bill 7, jointly filed March 11 by 13 state senators, would prohibit polling locations from being open past 7 p.m., prevent local elections officials from sending out mail ballot applications unless requested by a voter, and prohibit drive-thru voting.

The bill was filed in the wake of an election in Harris County last November that yielded record-breaking turnout. In that election, the county operated several 24-hour voting locations and drive-thru voting locations. Additionally, the Harris County Clerk’s Office sent out mail ballot applications to all residents age 65 and older.

Under existing law, all Texas residents are allowed to vote by mail if they are disabled, and voters do not have to provide proof of disability in order to take advantage of that provision. Among SB 7’s changes is a new requirement for voters to provide medical proof of disability before being allowed to vote by mail.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo blasted the bill at a March 15 press conference, directing particular ire at the medical proof requirement, which she called a poll tax.

“Senate Bill 7 and related legislation is a poll tax designed or disguised as election integrity,” Hidalgo said. “It’s clearly a direct response to the massive success we had in Harris County last year in terms of accessible and secure elections.”

The bill has received the support of Gov. Greg Abbott, who named election reform an emergency item in advance of the 2021 legislative session. At a March 15 press conference of his own, Abbott—along with bill co-authors Sen. Briscoe Cain, R-Webster, and Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston—claimed that mail voting and drive-thru voting are vulnerable to abuse and that they put the state at risk of voter fraud. In his March 15 statement, Abbott did not cite specific examples of voter fraud but claimed that the 2020 election featured “actions throughout our state that could risk the integrity of our elections and enable voter fraud.”

“Our objective in Texas is to ensure that every eligible voter gets to vote and that only eligible ballots are counted,” Abbott said.

Harris County was one of many Texas counties that implemented new elements into its election system in 2020 in an effort to allow people to vote safely during the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to adding 24-hour and drive-thru voting centers, officials also tripled the number of early voting locations. As a result, the county saw more than 1.6 million ballots cast in the presidential race, up from 1.3 million in the 2016 presidential race.

The 24-hour polling locations were intended to help people vote who work unpredictable schedules, such as emergency repsonders and medical workers, Hidalgo said.

Isabel Longoria, the county’s elections administrator, noted that 54% of the people to use drive-thru polling places last year were Black, Hispanic or other racial minorities.

The county was taken to court over its efforts on several occasions. At one point, the Harris County Clerk’s Office intended to send mail ballot applications to all registered voters in the county, but the Texas Supreme Court ruled the county was not allowed to do so under the state election code. The county also won a separate lawsuit against the Texas Republican Party that challenged the legality of drive-thru voting.

Hidalgo called SB 7 “a solution in search of a problem” and refuted the idea that voter fraud is a widespread problem in Texas.

This stance was also echoed by Move Texas, a nonpartisan voting rights group. In a statement, Move Texas spokesperson Charlie Bonner said the 2020 election was one of the “one of the safest and most secure elections in the state’s history.”

“Let me be clear, MOVE Texas supports authentic reforms to improve election security; reforms like automatic voter registration and online voter registration that have been proven to shore up election security in other states while at the same time broadening access to all eligible voters,” Bonner said in a statement. “Texas ranked 44th in voter participation in 2020. We should be working together to make voting in the state easier and more convenient for Texans, not even harder and more confusing.”

On top of its other measures, SB 7 would also direct the secretary of state to create an online tool voters can use to track mail ballots and applications and would require mail ballots to be counted separately. The bill also seeks to protect poll watchers from having their views distanced or obstructed. Find the full text of the bill here.

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