Confederate Heroes Day, honoring the likes of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, has been a state holiday in Texas since 1973. But during a House Committee on State Affairs hearing on Wednesday, two Republican lawmakers chafed at a proposal to give Election Day the same status.
House Bill 935, filed by state Representative John Bucy, D-Austin, would make November elections in even-numbered years — midterms and presidential elections — a holiday for state employees, though most state offices would remain open. Thirteen states have passed similar legislation.
The measure is one of multiple bills filed this session that aim to make voting and registering to vote more accessible in a state with notoriously low voter turnout. Despite a surge in the 2018 midterms, only 46 percent of eligible voters showed up, putting Texas’ turnout rate behind those of all but nine other states and the District of Columbia. Other legislation filed this session would expand acceptable forms of voter identification to include college IDs; allow registration online and during early voting; and extend polling hours. Bucy’s bill is comparatively simple: Only state workers would get the day off, or receive compensation leave or time-and-a-half pay.
But in the Wednesday hearing, Republican state Representatives Phil King, of Weatherford, and Sam Harless, of Spring, pushed back against the incremental effort on the grounds that it may lead to a loss of “productivity.” Their criticism reflects long-standing efforts by GOP legislators to tighten or complicate voting access — efforts that have shut out minority groups, college students and urban and elderly voters.
As he laid out his bill before the committee, Bucy noted that the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board estimates no fiscal impact would result from creating the holiday. “The bill would not change employees’ compensation … This analysis anticipates no essential services would be endangered and any lost work time could be reasonably absorbed,” the state budget analysts wrote.
State Representative Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, noted that atop the list of state holidays in the Texas Government Code — including Texas Independence Day, San Jacinto Day and Lyndon Baines Johnson Day — was Confederate Heroes Day, on January 19. To avoid adding a new holiday, he suggested replacing it with Election Day. “In the modern age, I think it’s more important that we make it easier for people to vote than it is probably to honor Robert E. Lee,” Raymond said.
In recent years, cities across the state have removed, renamed and replaced Confederate monuments and markers. At the beginning of the session and after a long effort by activists and some lawmakers, Republican state leadership quietly voted to remove a plaque from the Capitol that explicitly and wrongly claimed that slavery was not the main cause of the Civil War.
Neither King nor Harless responded to the idea of replacing the Confederate holiday in the hearing, nor did they immediately answer the Observer’s requests for comment.
Bucy pointed out that state agencies aren’t required to give days off, or pay time-and-a-half, if doing so would adversely affect operations during most of the holidays on the list, including Confederate Heroes Day. But the bill wasn’t just about a day off, Bucy said. It’s also about promoting civic engagement — taking one’s kids to the polls, volunteering, giving neighbors a ride to their election site.
Harless wondered if the state has already done enough by allowing two weeks of early voting, including one weekend in large counties. When Bucy mentioned a Texas law that allows state employees at least two hours of paid time off to vote, Harless asked, “You don’t think two hours is enough time?” He said his main gripe was a loss of productivity. “As a business person, I hate giving people a reason not to go to work,” he said.
Bucy shot back: “I think taking a day every two years to emphasize the importance [of voting] from the state is worth the trade-off.” Bucy and Raymond said that two hours is not necessarily enough time to vote — not if you’re in an urban area with heavy traffic or if your voting precinct is far from your workplace.
But Harless didn’t budge. “I think those that want to vote are going to vote, those who are going to make an excuse are going to make an excuse,” he said. “I’m not opposed [to the bill], and I’m not trying to suppress the vote. I just don’t want to put a burden on the state of Texas.” The bill was left pending Wednesday.
State Representative Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said in the hearing that HB 935 was mostly symbolic. If it’s not mandatory, he said, and if there’s already a law granting workers two hours to vote, “then what your bill is saying is that the state of Texas puts Election Day as just as important as Confederate Heroes Day, as LBJ Day.”
James Slattery, senior staff attorney at Texas Civil Rights Project, said Texas has historically fallen short of making voting easy. Texas is one of 12 states without online voter registration, despite several attempts by Democrats to change the law in past sessions. Fifteen states and D.C. have automatic voter registration, which could add up to 2 million voters to the rolls in Texas. The state also has some of the strictest voter ID laws in the country.
“At the end of the day, it’s not the responsibility of ordinary citizens to twist themselves into knots to vote,” Slattery said.