Austin, Texas – The sweeping changes to the Texas electoral law now awaiting GOP Governor Greg Abbott’s signature would make it more difficult – sometimes legally riskier – to cast a vote in the state that already has some of the most restrictive electoral laws in the country .
Democrats blocked the state Capitol for 38 consecutive days after more than 50 fled to Washington, DC, in July to deny Republicans a quorum necessary to run the state’s affairs. Enough of them returned less than two weeks ago to end the impasse, and GOP leaders quickly got the bill through both houses on Tuesday. Abbott immediately said he would sign it.
Here is a closer look at the contents of the final version of the law:
REINFORCING SURVEY OBSERVER
Some of the most significant changes in Texas law affect partisan election observers, the volunteers deployed by both major parties to monitor voting and counting. As recently as 1962, Republican election observers in some parts of Texas were urging black and Latin American voters to read and explain the US Constitution before voting in a campaign called Operation Eagle Eye. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump cited unconfirmed observations from GOP survey observers to cast doubt on the results and make false claims about fraud.
The final language of the Omnibus Act gives the partisan election observers new access, protection and power. Legislation makes it a class A offense for an election officer – comparable to breaking into a vehicle – to refuse an appointed election observer. As part of the measure, anyone who knowingly obstructs the view of an election observer is also committing a violation of the law. The bill states that observers can “move freely” in the voting facilities and “sit or stand close enough to hear or see the activity”. Texas law still prohibits election observers from watching the vote, but they are allowed to observe the transmission of voting data.
The law empowers election observers to bring legal action against election officials who get in their way and to obtain injunctions. The new proposals would also require election observers to swear an oath not to harass voters and receive training prior to participation, for which they must provide certification upon arrival.
Election observers may only be removed for violations of the electoral law if the violation is observed by the election officer or judge and in the event of violations of the criminal code.
Republicans argue that these changes are necessary because voters will only trust the election if their representatives have free access to almost all aspects of voting and counting. But Democrats and civil rights organizations worry about the history of the Conservatives in Texas using election monitors to intimidate ethnic and ethnic minority voters.
LIMITATION OF THE POSSIBILITIES TO VOTE
The Republicans-drafted bill specifically reverses how democratic circles have made it easier for people to vote, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. It bans mailboxes for postal ballot papers – a practice that has been practiced in other states for years without major problems – and prohibits the sending of postal ballot applications and ballot papers to all eligible voters. The bill also makes it a crime for any election official who sends unsolicited applications or ballot papers for postal voting.
The GOP law also bans drive-through voting for most voters and regulates the times that district governments can keep polling stations open. That would put an end to the 24-hour voting sites. Houston’s Harris County – one of the largest and most racially diverse areas in the country – said 140,000 voters took advantage of its drive-through and 24-hour locations as of November.
Republicans argue that these procedures were used during the ongoing but one-time pandemic and should not be regular elections in the state. Democrats and constituencies say these measures are simply making it easier for people to vote and, in particular, making it easier for workers, young and sick voters to access polling stations.
Two provisions of the bill make voting more convenient by extending early voting times and requiring that workplaces allow workers to travel to polling stations either during early voting or on polling day.
NEW BARRIERS IN EMAIL VOTING
Texas is already one of the toughest states in the nation to vote by postal vote. The process is restricted to those aged 65 and over, voters who will not be in the country during the election, or people with disabilities. But after Trump objected to the postal vote during his failed re-election bid, Republicans in Texas and elsewhere turned against the method, keen to tighten regulations on it.
Texas law adds additional steps and paperwork for voters, including the requirement to provide their driver’s license number, an election certificate, or the last four digits of their social security number and an “ink on paper” signature that can be verifiably matched with any previously filed signature in the appropriate Texas Department of Public Safety records.
Opponents of the provision – similar to the one passed in Georgia – say it provides voters with yet another opportunity to make minor mistakes that could lead to ballot papers being thrown away.
The new proposals partially address this concern. Voters who submit ballots before election day will be notified of problems and allowed to go to an election office to fix some issues that may disqualify the vote, such as:
The Texas bill, like others proposed earlier this year, creates or expands several criminal violations related to elections, some of which are broad and could ensnare voters or those who help them. Republicans claim they are necessary to prevent fraud or undue influence on voters. The Democrats clearly state that electoral fraud is extremely rare. The state’s Republican attorney general has spent millions of dollars on electoral fraud investigations since last year, but has only uncovered a handful of cases in a state where more than 11 million people were elected in November.
The bill extends an existing mandate for people helping voters to vote to include information on the envelope to certify their role. Under the law, anyone helping a voter conduct a vote must also give their name, address, relatives, and details of whether they have been paid by a campaign or political committee, under threat of perjury, and take an oath . Voters who cannot fill out a ballot on their own or who cannot read the ballot may vote with support.
In a victory for disability advocates who said the clause required the disclosure of personal or medical information, the final wording of the bill changed the oath not to oblige electoral assistants to promise that they affirmed the voter because of a disability or incapacity Reading ballot papers was entitled.
The law also requires that local election officials refer all cases of incorrectly cast ballot papers to the attorney general. Constituencies fear that this could be abused to track down common mistakes such as: Republicans argue that this is a sensible way of preventing fraud.
Language that would have protected people with criminal convictions from prosecution if they cast a vote without knowing they were not eligible to vote was removed at the last minute. It was one of the few areas of bipartisan settlement and was overwhelmingly approved in the House of Representatives following the backlash against the arrests of two Texas voters, both black. The GOP legislators in the Senate rejected the change.
Riccardi reported from Denver.
Coronado is a corps member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a not-for-profit national utility that places journalists on local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.
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