In the latest move by Republicans to make voting harder for Texans, the Senate passed a high-priority omnibus “election integrity” bill this week. The measure, Senate Bill 9, would raise criminal penalties for certain election-related offenses and create tighter rules for assisting disabled, elderly or absentee voters at the polls. The legislation has drawn ire from civil rights advocates who say it’s a solution in search of a problem and an effort by the GOP to tamp down growing voter turnout by making felonies out of what are often honest mistakes.
While SB 9 is the most high-profile election-related bill this session, GOP lawmakers and officials have spent the session quietly stonewalling attempts to increase voting access and participation, both dramatic and incremental.
Bills to implement online voter registration, which a majority of states use, haven’t been given committee hearing this session. One measure that initially included automatically registering driver’s license applicants to vote was heard last week in committee. After GOP pushback, the Democratic author changed the bill to remove the automatic registration provision. Automatic and online voter registration systems could add millions of Texans to the rolls. Other stalled bills would make Election Day a state holiday, automatically register college students and count state agency-issued IDs and college IDs as valid voter identification. Republicans who oppose other efforts to improve voting access cite lost worker productivity, heavier burdens on the state, potential voter fraud and, oddly, a need to focus on education.
Take House Bill 552, which would require the Secretary of State to make voter registration forms available in high schools year-round. Under current law, high schools are required to make registration forms available to students and staff twice a year. But the schools must submit requests to the state to receive the forms, and a 2018 report showed about two-thirds of Texas schools were not in compliance — meaning hundreds of thousands of potential young voters were left off the rolls.
All five witnesses who testified against the high school registration bill in the House Committee on Elections last week are official members of the Republican Party. That includes James Dickey, chair of the Republican Party of Texas, who cited educational efficiency as a reason for his opposition.
“It would send a conflicting message at best for the Legislature after just making such a big commitment to education [with billions in new funding] to then divert some of the schools’ attention to complying with new requirements,” he told lawmakers. “Even though the goal is worthwhile, it’s not part of the core educational mission.”
David Covey, chair of the Orange County Republican Party, also opposed the measure in committee, saying HB 552 would “open up the door where we could then start requiring these applications to be in just about any location.” Another opponent was Ed Johnson, a former Harris County elections official who moonlighted as a paid Republican political consultant. He said young people “do not use paper and pencil anymore; they use their phone and iPad” — wrongly implying that it’s possible to vote online.
Terry Canales, the Democratic state representative from Edinburg who authored the bill, told committee members that the testimony they’d heard from GOP officials was “not only disingenuous, it was incorrect.”
In the same hearing, members considered a bill by state Representative Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, that would add identification cards issued by federally recognized Native American tribes to the acceptable forms of ID for voting. (There are three such tribes in Texas, and together their populations amount to less than 2,000 people, according to the U.S. Census.)
Tribal members across the country face barriers to accessing the ballot box, including long distances between polling sites and their homes, inadequate translation services and voter purges; Native American voter turnout is 5 to 14 percentage points lower than that of other racial and ethnic groups. More than a dozen states permit tribal IDs as an acceptable form of voter ID.
But two witnesses, including Johnson, said they opposed the measure because there is no state agency that oversees tribes’ IDs to ensure their “accuracy and integrity.”
Rick Sylestine, vice chair of the tribal council for the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, testified in favor of the bill. Responding to concerns from Republicans about the integrity of tribal IDs, he said the tribe’s enrollment office verifies members’ identities with birth certificates and DNA testing. That’s beyond the requirements for a drivers’ license in Texas, the most common form of identification.
“It’s bullshit,” Nevárez told the Observer. “[Republicans are] coming from a position of foolishness and mendacity.”
State Representative Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, said she has heard similar “misinformation” about the validity of college student IDs. She filed a bill that would add college IDs to the list of acceptable voter identification, a simple measure that could add hundreds of thousands more voters. The bill follows alleged voter suppression at universities in November. “My view is if you’re afraid of more people voting, you’re in the wrong business,” Zwiener said.
Civil rights advocates say this session is just another entry into conservatives’ long history of voter suppression in Texas. Republicans have fought tooth and nail for gerrymandered district lines and strict voter ID laws that courts have repeatedly labeled discriminatory. The GOP has falsely stoked fears of voter fraud in an effort to further restrict access, as with this session’s SB 9. And that’s just within the last decade. For nearly half a century, Texas, along with several other Southern states that passed racist voter suppression laws, was prohibited by the Voting Rights Act from passing any election procedures without the federal government’s approval. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively struck down a section of the law that had placed Texas under “preclearance,” setting the stage for new disenfranchisement of minority voters.
It all comes down to preserving political power, said James Slattery, senior staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project.
“The people in power are afraid, and they feel the need to take steps to make sure that their hold on power is not loosened,” Slattery told the Observer. “The fact that [incremental reforms] are having a more uphill climb than a monster voting bill in the Senate that will make it harder for so many Texans to vote tells you a lot about the warped priorities and values of certain leadership in the state.”