Politics

Controversial Texas Voting Laws Overshadowed By Quorum Break Set To Take Effect Next Week

While lawmakers in Austin continue to spar over an omnibus voting bill that would tighten voter restrictions, other voting laws are set to take effect Sept. 1.

An election poll worker stands among voting machines Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Houston.

Much of the drama over this summer's special legislative sessions has focused on Gov. Greg Abbott's priority elections bill, which spurred a quorum-breaking walkout from Texas Democrats that ended this week.

Overshadowed by the political battle in Austin: the Texas Legislature did in fact pass several bills on voting during the regular session. And only a few of the new voting laws come without controversy.

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Some of the more controversial bills were spearheaded by Republican state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who before being elected in 2014 served as Harris County's Tax Assessor-Collector, which at the time was the the county's voter registrar.

Bettencourt has remained outspoken about elections ever since, and this past March, he filed seven proposals he termed "election integrity bills.”

Those include Senate Bill 1111, which bans Texas voters from registering using a post office box as their address.

Bettencourt's argument: no one lives in a two-by-three-inch P.O. Box.

“We have 4,800 people registered at private UPS boxes around the county, and that’s certainly enough to influence the outcome of local legislative races or district races of all types," Bettencourt said.

SB 1111 is one of three Bettencourt bills that passed and will take effect Sept. 1 among more than 650 new state laws.

Another new Bettencourt law going into effect: SB 1113, which enables the Secretary of State to deny voter registrars funds if they fail to remove certain individuals from the rolls. If you don’t work, he argued, you shouldn't get paid.

The laws’ effective date come as Texas Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature spar over an omnibus elections bill that would add new voting restrictions in the state. The GOP-sponsored bill would ban drive-thru and 24-hour voting — both measures that Harris County enacted in the 2020 election to expand voter access during the COVID-19 pandemic — and make mail-in voting more difficult, among other things.

Texas House Democrats broke quorum to end the regular session in May, and then did so again last month to derail the first special session, after criticizing the omnibus bill — SB 1 — as an attempt at voter suppression.

Democrats again broke quorum earlier this month to block the bill’s passage in a second special session, but some have since returned, making its passage more likely.

Voters go to the polls at the Williamson County Jester Annex on Election Day 2020.

Not all of the voting bills have been controversial. Bettencourt's third law, SB 1116, is designed to increase transparency on local governments' websites, making election details easier to find. It passed with bipartisan support, sponsored in the House by Democratic state Rep. John Bucy of Austin.

But Bettencourt's other measures have aroused some fierce opposition by local officials and civil rights advocates. His successor as Harris County's voter registrar, Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria, said his argument about no one physically living inside a P.O. Box misses the point.

"It both assumes that voters are liars, assumes that voters all have a typical situation of living at, you know, a home with four walls and a door, and then on top of that creates this very vague idea of who is supposed to get kicked off (the voter rolls) and how they get kicked off," Longoria said.

SB 1111 specifically discriminates against minority and younger voters, Longoria argued. The Latino civil rights organization LULAC is currently suing Harris County over its enforcement.

The Harris County official accused her predecessor of attempting to suppress the vote by changing the law so that it would require current voter registrars to do things he was not allowed to do when he held the office. After the 2008 elections, Democrats sued Bettencourt for rejecting voter applications. That suit was eventually settled.

“Ostensibly, he thought maybe some of them lived at addresses that weren’t really home addresses,” Longoria said. “So, he removed people from the voter rolls illegally."

SB 1113 troubles voting rights advocates for a similar reason. It harkens back to a failed 2019 effort by then-Texas Secretary of State David Whitley to purge the voter rolls of more than 90,000 alleged noncitizens.

"I have thought of this bill and others like it as essentially a form of extortion by the state government," said James Slattery, staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. "This is a very big stick for the secretary to wield, and we know that they have not always been a good faith actor."

Then there's House Bill 3920, authored by Republican state Rep. Jay Dean of Longview. It makes it harder to apply for a mail-in ballot for medical reasons.

Disability advocates say the new law may discriminate against people with disabilities that can flare up without warning, like multiple sclerosis.

"I think for many in the disability community it’s just making sure that the idea behind this isn’t to be a ‘gotcha moment’ to come back and say, ‘well, your disability doesn’t make you disabled enough,’" said Chase Bearden, deputy director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities.

Neither Dean nor the bill’s Senate sponsor, Republican Bryan Hughes of Mineola, responded to requests for comment.

HB 3920 does appear to make it easier for pregnant women due around Election Day to request a mail-in ballot. That’s a welcome addition to some voting watchdogs.

"We know this is a from actual testimony in the (Texas) Capitol that this is a vulnerable time for both the mother and the child, and we appreciate that being in the bill," said Cinde Weatherby, voting rights and elections issue chair for the League of Women Voters of Texas

There's also a bipartisan piece of legislation going into effect Sept. 1. HB 1382, produced by state Bucy and state Sen. Bryan Hughes, and cosponsored by Bettencourt, would enable people to track their mail-in ballots online to make sure they've been received.

"We hope that voters will take advantage of this and will be able to safeguard their ballots from things going wrong," said James Slattery of the Texas Civil Rights Project.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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