Politics

Here’s Why Texas Thinks Voter Restrictions Are Needed – And Why Critics Disagree

Republicans have produced few examples of fraud — and they’re seen as out of proportion to sweeping changes that seek to reshape the way many Texans vote.

 

“This is a preventative measure for us,” state Rep. Travis Clardy says of the Republican-backed Senate Bill 7, which sought to tighten voting rules, citing a need to prevent fraud. Here, opponents of the bill hold a rally last month at the Texas Capitol in Austin.

Texas Republicans say their controversial move to tighten voter restrictions is sorely needed to prevent fraud. But the few examples of fraud they cite have been out of proportion to the sweeping changes included in their legislation, which seeks to reshape the way many Texans exercise their fundamental democratic right.

Senate Bill 7 is now effectively dead after Democrats walked out of the Texas Capitol in a quorum-busting maneuver that prevented a final vote on the bill. But Republicans plan to call a special session of the state Legislature to revive their push for new controls.

“Election integrity legislation will pass during the special session. Period,” House Speaker Dade Phelan said late Monday.

The Republican election proposals we’ve seen so far are expansive. The failed bill sought to impose new limits on the vote-by-mail system and to restrict how and when people can vote in person. It also would have increased existing criminal penalties and created new criminal offenses around voting.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, a Republican who is listed as one of SB 7’s primary authors, said Monday that it included “common-sense reforms to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat.”

But Hughes and other Texas Republicans have produced little evidence to support the idea that their state’s political process is endangered by fraud. And critics say Republicans in Texas and other states, such as Georgia and Florida, are trying to put their thumbs on the scales after their party came up short in key races in 2020.

It’s not yet known when the Texas Legislature might return for a special session. Here’s a look at what the voting legislation’s supporters are saying and how their critics respond:

What supporters say: It’s meant to standardize how Texans vote

Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain, another prominent backer of SB 7, called the bill a “voter enhancement” measure whose main goals include standardizing how Texans vote. It’s one of several ways in which the GOP has sought to defuse accusations that the bill unfairly affects people of color and voters with disabilities.

What critics say: It adds more restrictions

If Texas lawmakers want to help voters, the Texas Civil Rights Project says, they should turn their attention elsewhere. The group says that “we have no online voter registration, only a fraction of Texans have the right to vote by mail, and 750 polling places were closed between 2013 and 2019, predominantly in communities of color.”

As NPR member station KUT reported:

“SB 7 outlawed 24-hour voting centers and drive-thru voting, which were disproportionately used by voters of color during the 2020 election. The bill also banned voting before 1 p.m. on Sundays, which voting rights groups warn would affect ‘Souls to the Polls’ campaigns led by Black churches.”

It’s unclear whether the next iteration of the bill might include the same prohibitions. In an interview, Republican state Rep. Travis Clardy told NPR’s Morning Edition that he viewed the 1 p.m. start time as a mistake, for instance.

Earlier versions of SB 7 would also have required disabled voters to produce proof of their status, such as documents from the Social Security Administration or the Department of Veterans Affairs. But that provision was later cut. The original requirements would have been unfeasible for many disabled people and would have exposed counties and the state to expensive lawsuits, according to Lauren Gerken, public policy analyst at the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities, a state agency.

What supporters say: It’s meant to cut down on fraud

SB 7 was introduced on March 11, titled the Election Integrity Protection Act of 2021. Its stated purpose is “to detect and punish fraud.” But the legislation’s backers have not been able to point to many specific examples of problems they want to fix.

In April, Hughes was asked to list the places where election fraud had occurred in Texas. Rather than echo former President Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread election fraud in the 2020 vote, he pointed to the previous midterm election.

“In my district over in East Texas, I have a county commissioner under felony indictment … over mail ballot fraud from the 2018 election cycle,” Hughes told Amarillo TV station ABC 7.

“That case in Gregg County involved 38 ballots” that were questioned, the station’s Morgan Duerden noted.

In the same interview, Hughes also said legislators have heard testimony describing the difficulties of getting election workers and poll watchers to polling places in 2020.

What critics say: There is no widespread fraud

But those problems resulted not from fraud but from changes counties adopted to make it easier and safer to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as extended hours and drive-through ballot drop-offs. Poll watchers were not barred from monitoring those activities.

“I’m very confident and comfortable” in the work of state and county election officials throughout Texas during November’s vote, Clardy told NPR.

Clardy, who voted in favor of SB 7, said the bill “had nothing to do with the Trump election,” adding, “I have zero doubt about the legitimacy of elections in Texas.”

What supporters say: It’s meant to inspire confidence in the voting process

“This is a preventative measure for us,” Clardy says, pointing to testimony about rising voter irregularities and voter fraud.

“It is a real thing,” the lawmaker said. “I think it is our job to make sure that doesn’t blossom into a problem that disturbs the underlying and one of the underpinnings of our democracy, and that is confidence in our elections.”

What critics say: It makes it easier to overturn an election

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas said the final version of SB 7 undermines voter confidence, noting that after both chambers approved different versions of the legislation, a conference committee added extensive revisions — including “an entirely new section that makes it easier to overturn an election.”

That section of the bill states, “If the number of votes illegally cast in the election is equal to or greater than the number of votes necessary to change the outcome of an election, the court may declare the election void without attempting to determine how individual voters voted.”

Texas’ most high-profile election problems are the state’s own doing

In recent years, the most high-profile problems with Texas’ elections and voting process have been seen emanating from the state government, not from fraudulent actors.

Almost exactly two years ago, then-Texas Secretary of State David Whitley resigned as the state’s top election official after attempting to remove up to 90,000 people from voter rolls on the grounds they were suspected of not being citizens, as KUT’s Ashley Lopez reported.

Whitley resigned at the end of the legislative session as it became clear he would not be confirmed to his appointed post.

Other voting problems have been more entrenched. As The Texas Tribune reported:

“Until 2013, Texas was among the states under federal supervision of its election and voting laws to ensure they did not hamper the voting rights of people of color. Federal courts repeatedly found that Texas lawmakers discriminated against voters of color in their political mapmaking and in writing up new voting requirements, including the state’s original voter ID law in 2011.”

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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