Politics

Civil Rights Groups Sue State Of Texas Over Restrictive Voting Rights Bill

The suit filed by MALDEF on behalf of several groups and the Harris County Elections Administrator says Senate Bill 1 threatens to criminalize voter engagement activities, limits voter assistance and allows voter intimidation by partisan poll watchers.

A voting bill passed by the Texas legislature now faces multiple legal challenges before it’s even been signed by Gov. Greg Abbott. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund is suing on behalf of several civil rights organizations in San Antonio's federal court.

The suit filed by MALDEF on behalf of several groups and the Harris County Elections Administrator says Senate Bill 1 threatens to criminalize voter engagement activities, limits voter assistance and allows voter intimidation by partisan poll watchers. A second and separate lawsuit was filed by Texas Civil Rights project, League of Women Voters, Asian American Legal Defense Fund, Disability Rights Texas and the ACLU.

"SB1 will reduce voter participation and discriminate on the basis of race, and for those reasons it should be struck down in court," Nina Perales, Vice President of Litigation for MALDEF said. "In addition to making voting more difficult for all voters, SB1 is aimed directly at Latinos and Asian Americans with specific provisions that cut back on assistance to limited English-proficient voters."

During the 2018 and 2020 elections, Texas saw increased voter turnout and a narrow win for the state's Republican candidates during the midterm and a narrow statewide victory for former President Donald Trump. Perales said under the provisions of the bill, voters would run into difficulties in trying to cast a ballot.

"The current legislative leadership has decided that they want to make voting harder in the wake of more people voting," she said.

Voter intimidation is a key deterrent.

"At the same time that SB1 makes it easier for partisan poll watchers to intimidate voters, SB1 makes it harder for election officials to take a disruptive pollwatcher out of the polling place and tell them to leave," she said.

"The current legislative leadership has decided that they want to make voting harder in the wake of more people voting," Perales said.

One of the named plaintiffs in the suit, Isabel Longoria, is the Harris County elections administrator, who took over the job from former County Clerk Chris Hollins in 2020.

Hollins was one of the driving forces behind 2020 Harris County election changes at the center of SB1, including drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting, both of which became illegal after the law's passage.

Longoria, who was appointed as the county's top election official in October, argues in the suit that SB1 violates her First Amendment rights by making it a crime to send mail-in ballot applications to all eligible voters.

"My first and only priority is to educate and help voters to lawfully cast their ballots," Longoria said in a press release. "Voting by mail is not simply another method to vote — for many senior voters and voters with disabilities, it’s their only option to vote. SB1 makes it a crime for me to encourage those who are eligible to vote by mail to do so, effectively making it impossible to fulfill my sworn duty as Elections Administrator."

Friday's lawsuit comes just days after Longoria herself was sued by conservative Houston activist Steve Hotze, who alleged her office is currently sending out mail-in ballot applications to every eligible voter 65 and older.

Hotze successfully sued Harris County in 2020 to block the blanket mailing of applications to all voters.

In Hotze's newest petition to the Texas Supreme Court, filed by attorney Jared Woodfill on Tuesday, he asked the high court to suspend that practice for voters 65 and older ahead of SB1's implementation.

"We've clearly got someone who's admitted that she's breaking the law and continues to do so," Woodfill said.

A second suit by multiple voting rights groups including the Texas Civil Rights project and League of Women Voters was filed on Friday.

"SB1 officially cements Texas as the hardest state to vote in the country," said Ryan V. Cox, Senior Attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. "For decades, voters of color have been silenced through voter suppression, gerrymandering, and deceptive tactics. We cannot allow our democracy to be undermined by these blatantly illegal voting restrictions aimed at disenfranchising communities of color and voters with disabilities."

SB1 triggered intense opposition from Democrats in the Texas House. Twice did members of the House Democratic Caucus break quorum to prevent the bill from passing. First during the regular session and second time during the first called regular session in July ultimately bringing any lawmaking to a standstill.

The legislature passed the bill in its second special session earlier this week. Gov. Abbott has yet to sign it into law, but has indicated he'd do so.

Additional reporting by Houston Public Media intern William Menjivar.

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