A sweeping Senate bill that would have increased penalties for election-related crimes and made it harder for volunteers to help elderly and disabled voters effectively died on Sunday after missing a legislative deadline in the House. It was a victory for voting rights advocates, who said the measure, Senate Bill 9, which was prioritized by GOP leadership, would have suppressed voter turnout.
But in the final days of the legislative session, conservatives aren’t willing to give up. Since SB 9 was killed, Republican senators passed two other restrictive election bills. One would double down on the secretary of state’s ill-fated voter purge to weed out potentially ineligible voters. Another would effectively end mobile polling places, which some counties use to increase access to the polls and shorten lines at busy locations.
As filed by state Representative Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, House Bill 2911 merely cleaned up language related to voter registration in the Election Code. For example, a provision addressing identity theft concerns would require removing voters’ full date of birth from voter registration certificates sent in the mail.
But this week, state Senator Bryan Hughes, a Republican from Mineola who authored SB 9, added a major amendment with language similar to Senate Bill 903, another one of his bills that passed the Senate but died in the House. The amendment would require the secretary of state to verify voters’ eligibility by comparing voter information with Department of Public Safety records, which show citizenship status of driver’s license holders, on a monthly basis.
The amendment raised alarm bells for Senate Democrats and civil rights groups in light of the recently botched “voter purge” led by acting Secretary of State David Whitley. An advisory Whitley sent to local elections officials in January claimed that almost 95,000 “possible non-U.S. citizens” were registered to vote. That quickly proved to be false, as thousands of those registered voters were naturalized citizens, and the scandal turned into a lawsuit that was recently settled by the state. President Trump and Governor Greg Abbott, who had appointed Whitley just months earlier, peddled the claims as evidence of widespread voter fraud. But voting rights advocates said it was a smokescreen to lay the foundation for a legislative voter suppression effort.
To get the flawed numbers, the secretary of state’s office compared voter registration data with DPS records, but naturalized citizens aren’t required to notify DPS about their change of status, leading to the vastly inflated number of noncitizen voters. The fallout from the attempted voter purge showed that “database matching is suspect at best,” state Senator José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said during floor debate on the bill Monday.
“My concern is that we’re just going to put a target on naturalized citizens and keep them from being eligible to vote,” said San Antonio Democrat José Menéndez, calling Hughes’ amendment a “crackdown.”
In the face of repeated concerns from Democrats, Hughes insisted that the process outlined in his amendment would avert another botched voter purge because the amendment calls for a monthly review of voter data. Hughes said that meant the information would not be obsolete, and people who have been naturalized citizens for years wouldn’t be targeted.
That didn’t reassure advocacy groups like the Texas Civil Rights Project, which represented plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “At the end of the day, there are still some problems with tying in the review of the voter rolls with the DPS records, especially because that process has been exposed to be faulty to begin with,” said Zenén Jaimes Pérez, communications director of the group. “This process will be a waste of time and money on the part of the state.”
A day after passing the amended HB 2911 along party lines, the Senate approved another restrictive voting measure. House Bill 1888 would require temporary branch polling places, also known as mobile polling places, to remain in one location for the duration of the early voting period and stay open for eight hours a day, or three hours in territories with fewer than 1,000 registered voters. Currently, counties can move temporary branch polling places based on demand and wait times. State Senator Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican who sponsored the bill, said some communities have abused the option of mobile polling places by “targeting desirable voting populations at the exclusion of others.”
Rodríguez offered an amendment that would’ve softened the prohibition by allowing polling places to change locations once a day. It would also allow the use of temporary branch voting locations for state and county races in primary and general elections if the commissioners’ court adopted the locations by January 15 of the election year.
The amendment aimed to ensure access to early voting for groups that have the most difficulty finding transportation, including rural voters, college students and residents of long-term care facilities, Rodríguez said: “It’s basically providing more opportunities for voting, more access for potential voters. I think we’re all interested in that.”
Huffman, though, shot the amendment down, saying it was fair to voters to have “consistency” in polling locations, and that those who need to make arrangements to vote “have time to do that.”
Both measures are advancing just months after the worst midterm election for Republicans in a decade and ahead of the 2020 election, which is expected to draw even larger Democratic turnout. HB 2911 goes back to the House, where lawmakers must approve the Senate changes by Friday for it to land on Governor Abbott’s desk. HB 1888 is already on its way there.
The state should make voting easier, not harder, said San Antonio resident Charles Mario Henry. The 32-year-old Army veteran has impaired mobility in his left leg. Though he’s able to drive, he told the Observer he knows several disabled veterans whose mobility and transportation options are limited.
“This is going to take away their ability to access these polls. … We don’t need to have voter suppression laws, especially after serving the country honorably,” Henry said. “I’m sure, on both sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats, we can all agree that taking away those rights is not something we want to do as a state.”