Politics

New Texas Election Bill Pushed By Gov. Greg Abbott Would Target Harris County

Gov. Greg Abbott came to Houston to promote the measure, which aims to ban election reforms enacted or attempted by Harris County last year.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Sen. Paul Bettencourt during a virtual press conference on March 15, 2021.

A newly proposed bill in the Texas Senate marked as a priority from the governor would ban voting measures Harris County implemented or attempted to implement in 2020.

Gov. Greg Abbott came to Houston Monday to push Senate Bill 7, a piece of legislation GOP lawmakers referred to the State Affairs committee last week after the governor identified the bill as an emergency item for the 2021 legislative session.

"Our objective is very simple, and that is to ensure that every eligible voter gets to vote,” Abbott said Monday. “It's also to ensure that only eligible votes are the ones that count at the ballot box.”

Six of the State Affairs committee's nine members are co-sponsors of the bill.

Much of SB 7 is aimed squarely at laws like those in Harris County, which enacted or attempted to enact a slew of new election procedures in 2020. Among other things, the bill would ban 24-hour voting – or, indeed, any expansion of voting hours beyond the 12-hour limit of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. It would require a doctor's note for curbside voting, effectively banning the use of drive-through voting as Harris County enacted in 2020. And it would bar the mass mailing of vote-by-mail applications, codifying a decision by Texas Supreme Court last fall.

Abbott said the bill was needed to prevent fraud, though when pressed, he said he was not aware of any fraud that occurred in Texas during the 2020 election.

But he also criticized Harris County's voting processes.

"Whether it's the unauthorized expansion of mail-in ballots, or the unauthorized expansion of drive-thru voting, we must pass laws to prevent election officials from jeopardizing the election process,” Abbott said.

An investigation by the Houston Chronicle in December found that the Texas Attorney General's Office had closed just 16 prosecutions for voter fraud in 2020, down from 32 in 2018, despite spending nearly twice as much time investigating and prosecuting such cases as two years ago.

Going back further, the attorney general's office closed cases on just 150 defendants for election fraud between 2004 and November 2020.

Joining Abbott were state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who is a cosponsor of SB 7 and author of seven other "election integrity bills," and state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, chair of the House Committee on Elections.

"We must, of course, snuff out fraud," Cain said. "The idea that voter fraud is a myth has been disproven time and time again."

But that’s not true, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy group. In its research, the center found that “most allegations of fraud turn out to be baseless and that most of the few remaining allegations reveal irregularities and other forms of election misconduct.”

And a voting integrity commission formed by President Donald Trump in 2018 also found no evidence of widespread voter fraud, according to the Associated Press.

Cain previously worked with the campaign of then-President Trump as it alleged fraud in the 2020 election results in Pennsylvania. A federal judge threw out the resulting lawsuit, saying the president's legal team gave "strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations" unsupported by the evidence.

Protestors outside Governor Greg Abbott’s press conference on SB 7.

Multiple groups condemned the legislation Monday, including Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

"SB 7 and related legislation is a poll tax...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."

Hidalgo said that the bill was being pushed by Republicans to suppress Democratic votes, but argued it would end up suppressing votes by members of both parties.

She also accused Abbott and his Republican colleagues of trying to change the subject from their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the February winter storm.

"I think that some of these folks are scared that voters are going to vote based on their performance, and so they're trying to win by simply keeping people from voting," Hidalgo said.

Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria likewise criticized SB 7, along with related legislation recently filed by GOP lawmakers.

"I can tell you, as the person running elections on behalf of Harris County, that these bills, in conjunction or alone, will do nothing but stop voters in Harris County from voting," Longoria said.

Additional reporting by Paul DeBenedetto and Texas Newsroom Legislative Fellow Haya Panjwani.

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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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