One week after the country’s most restrictive abortion ban was signed into law in Texas, the state has passed another piece of legislation aimed at restricting how and when voters cast ballots.
Senate Bill 1, also known as the “election integrity bill,” sets new restrictions for voting by mail, rolls back efforts to make it easier to vote, and more. In the months, weeks, and days before it passed, activists across the state attended public hearings to fight it. One young couple stayed and testified in the early morning hours while their young children slept behind them in the hearing room.
“They wanted their kids to see that when our democracy was under attack that there were people who showed up and spoke out and fought back,” said Charlie Bonner, communications director of MOVE (Mobilize, Organize, Vote, Empower) Texas.
Despite the new law going into effect on Sept. 7, voting rights activists are continuing to work hard to fight voter suppression across the state and ensure that everyone is able to cast a ballot when the time comes.
The new law has capitalized on the progress made in Harris County, home to one of the nation’s most diverse populations, in increasing voter turnout during the pandemic.
“Anything that increases voter turnout amongst communities of color must be a threat to those in power in Texas,” Bonner said.
The bill includes:
- A ban on 24-hour voting and drive through voting. Bill proponents said only during the peak of COVID-19 were these deemed necessary.
- A ban on mailing unsolicited absentee ballot applications so organizations such as MOVE cannot pick up blank applications and distribute them.
- Restrictions on assisting the disabled when voting like forcing assistants to provide additional documentation and pledging an oath they will limit how they help.
- Monthly voter roll checks by the secretary of state’s office to make sure only citizens are registered to vote. Bonner said this has to be done on a county-by-county basis and Texas has 254 counties.
The new law also poses unique problems for voters and election officials by requiring increased voter documentation and expanding poll worker privileges. These provisions include:
Additional requirements for absentee voters
Absentee ballots can only be cast by those over 65 years old, away from home on Election Day, or disabled or ill and unable to vote in person. Voters must now include either their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security Number (SSN) on the absentee ballot application and the outer envelope, which has alarmed election administrators.
“These laws are not well thought out,” Bonner said. “They are used for their intention is to win Republican primaries. Their intent is not to actually hold safe elections and so they don’t really care about the ramifications of what this means.”
An additional hurdle is that millions of envelopes have already been pre-printed for upcoming elections. Instead of signatures, this information will be matched to voting records to determine if the person is an eligible voter.
Expands powers of poll watchers
Poll watchers will have more “freedom of movement” under the bill. They can watch all the proceedings at the polls except for looking at voters marking ballots. Bonner said this is concerning given the “long, storied racist history of voter intimidation at the polls” in Texas. Pairing this with a previous law allowing election judges to carry guns at certain polling places could be a volatile combination.
For Stephanie Gómez, associate director of the voting advocacy nonprofit Common Cause, empowering partisan poll watchers is one of the most alarming parts of this new bill. In the past, Republican poll watchers have aggressively targeted communities of color, and this bill encourages them to intimidate even more voters.
Bonner said election officials have already been vilified and getting death threats. These additional poll watcher privileges are a “master class in gaslighting and codified conspiracy theories in convincing folks that there are problems that exist that simply do not.”
He said the bill “is limiting the ability of these local election officials to meet voters where they are, whether that’s in a pandemic, a natural disaster, or a massive population growth in the next several years.”
To combat the challenges presented by this new bill, MOVE and Common Cause are doubling down on public education. MOVE’s focus is compensating for the lack of civics education by working with young Black and brown voters.
“If you can tear down those walls and make someone feel empowered with the information they need, even more importantly, maybe empowered with the information to share with a friend or bring a neighbor with you,” Bonner said. “That is how we’re going to fundamentally change things.”
Redistricting education is central to the goals of Common Cause. Making sure maps are fair and equitable is a key component to their public education efforts, which includes looking ahead to election protection in 2022.
Bonner said states like Texas are often written off as a lost cause and the rest of the country sees its citizens as “worthy of our oppression because of where we live and where our families are from.”
Despite the one-two punch of the abortion and voting bills, activists like Bonner and Gómez are heartened by the mobilization of everyday citizens fighting for democracy.
Seeing voting rights become a dinner table issue is encouraging to Gómez.
“It’s just been really inspiring to see throughout my career that the people of Texas are at the heart of democracy,” she said. “We keep doing this because we believe in the people of Texas.”
Bonner said voting rights activism has strengthened as a result of this fight. Texas has made this issue part of the national conversation and that engagement isn’t something that can be taken away by the passage of a restrictive bill.
“This story of this fight is an inspirational one of people who showed up for the first time to make their voices heard,” Bonner said, including the couple who attended a public hearing with their young family. “That’s a story of hope.”