The state’s biggest counties took action to make it easier to vote during the pandemic, helping spur record-level turnout. Now, Texas Republicans are vying to prohibit those measures in future elections.
Welcome to the 87th Legislative Session. Since the last session came to a close in June 2019, Texas has been hit by an unrestrained pandemic and a crippling economic crisis—and now the fallout from deadly blackouts. Under unprecedented circumstances, lawmakers are faced with a number of urgent challenges. The Texas Observer is following along every step of the way.
Go here for last week’s dispatch from the state Capitol.
What We’re Following:
Top Texas Republicans launched a legislative offensive this week to tighten the state’s voting and election laws, which are already among the most restrictive in the country.
At a press conference in Houston on Monday, Governor Greg Abbott urged lawmakers to pass a slate of measures that he claims would address rampant voter fraud, which he and other GOP leaders have claimed—without evidence—to exist in Texas and across the country. “What we’ve seen in the past is that election fraud takes place,” Abbott said. “Have no doubt that it took place here in the state of Texas.”
Abbott has made “election integrity” one of his emergency items for the 2021 legislative session, mirroring Republican priorities across the country who are advancing anti-voter legislation after former President Donald Trump’s incessantly-debunked conspiracies that the presidential election was stolen due to mass fraud. Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and Attorney General Ken Paxton have been among the most vocal promoters of Trump’s election conspiracies. According to a statewide poll in February, the vast majority of GOP voters in Texas believe the election was rigged.
Republican legislators in Texas have introduced numerous bills that would limit the powers of local election officials, put new restrictions on the early voting and mail-in ballot processes, and purge suspected ineligible voters from the rolls.
The Texas GOP’s proposed “election integrity” legislation is largely aimed at the state’s major urban areas like Harris County, where local election officials took a number of steps ahead of last year’s elections to make it easier for voters to cast their ballots during the pandemic. This included the creation of drive-through polling locations, expanded early voting hours, and other moves that sought to encourage the use of mail-in ballots. Unsurprisingly, making it easier to vote meant more people voted: Houston, home to a huge number of Democratic voters, saw historic voter turnout.
Abbott and Co. claimed then—and now—that these moves invited voter fraud. In the lead up to Election Day, Republicans desperately scrambled to stop counties from adopting new election procedures, but were largely rebutted by the courts because it would have invalidated hundreds of thousands of votes.
Of course, there is no proof of any sort of widespread voter fraud—and that’s not because Republicans haven’t tried to find it. As the Houston Chronicle reported, Ken Paxton has made election fraud a top investigative priority for his office, spending 22,000 staff hours on voter fraud cases in 2020 (a doubling of effort since 2018). All they had to show for it were 16 prosecutions for minor cases of voters putting the wrong address on their registration forms.
That’s not stopping Republicans from pushing forward with their anti-voter crusade. Senate Bill 7, introduced this week by Senator Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, is the GOP’s omnibus “election integrity” package that includes a number of new restrictions. Those include giving the state attorney general new prosecutorial powers over potential voter registration violations, prohibiting counties from sending out mail ballot applications unless requested, barring drive-through voting, and banning expanded hours for early voting.
Local Democatic leaders have pushed back against what they see as clear endeavors to suppress the vote in a state where elections are becoming increasingly competitive.
“These kinds of attempts to confuse, to intimidate, to suppress are a continuation of policies we’ve seen in this state since Reconstruction,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “It is a continuation as well of the big lie that’s being peddled by some far-right elements that the election in 2020 was somehow not true and should be overturned.”
Just two years after Governor Abbott’s secretary of state botched an attempted purge of suspected non-citizen voters that would have taken almost 60,000 eligible voters off the rolls, Republicans are yet again attempting to purge the state’s voter rolls of purportedly ineligible people. Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, authored a bill that would establish a new procedure for the Department of Public Safety and the Secretary of State to coordinate and identify ineligible voters.
The House Elections Committee heard testimony on a number of election bills in a hearing on Thursday. The committee is chaired by state Representative Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, a right-winger who traveled to Pennsylvania last year to help the Trump campaign challenge the results of the election.
What We’re Reading:
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has made a ERCOT repricing proposal his first political crusade of this year’s session, creating tensions with Governor Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan. In doing so, he made Abbott’s newly appointed PUC Chair Arthur D’Andrea his personal punching bag. / Dallas Morning News
Abbott’s aforementioned new Public Utility Commission Chair Arthur D’Andrea was heard on a leaked private phone call assuring Wall Street investors that he would help protect the millions in profits they made during the Texas winter storm by opposing the Texas Senate’s proposed clawback of exorbitant electricity prices in the final days of the storm. He also boasted that he was untouchable in his new position as head of the powerful regulator. Hours after Texas Monthly broke news of his comments, Abbott demanded his resignation. D’Andrea will be the third of the PUC’s three commissioners to step down since the power outages. / Texas Monthly
The Senate Committee on State Affairs approved several pieces of anti-abortion legislation Tuesday afternoon, including a “heartbeat bill” that would ban abortion at six weeks. The votes came after marathon hearings on Monday that went past midnight. However, the overwhelming majority who testified were anti-abortion advocates. That’s because public testimony was limited only to those who came in person. Abortion rights advocates said they didn’t show up in droves to speak against the bills—as they have in past sessions—because of safety concerns from the pandemic. / Dallas Morning News
Two former members of the Governor’s strike force said communication between Abbott and the strike force typically was a one-way street, with the governor informing the panel on conference calls about his plans—leaving little time for questions and no time for any real discussion. / Austin American-Statesman
All Hat, No Cattle
The Texas Legislature is known for its outlandish members, ludicrous antics, and right-wing flare-ups. Here’s your weekly dose.
Somewhat belatedly, we’re featuring State Representative Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, for a bill he filed earlier this month that would establish the “Texas 1836 Project.” A Texas-specific version of former President Donald Trump’s now-defunct “1776 Commission,” which sought to promote a purported “pro-American curriculum.” Both projects come as responses to the New York Times own “1619 Project,” which aimed to reframe U.S. history by centering the wide-ranging consequences of slavery and contributions of Black Americans.
Parker says the 1836 Project, named for the year Texas gained its independence from Mexico, is about protecting the state’s history. “Throughout recent years, we have witnessed the destruction of historical monuments as many attempt to rewrite the past. Many of our children are taught to denounce Texas history and do not understand what it means to be a virtuous citizen,” Parker said in a statement announcing the bill.
His bill, HB 2497, would create a committee “to promote patriotic education and increase awareness of the Texas values that continue to stimulate boundless prosperity across this state.” The governor, lieutenant governor, and House speaker (all of whom are currently white conservative men) would each appoint a member to the committee. As the Dallas Morning News reported, this committee would be charged with creating a pamphlet to be handed out when Texans get their driver’s license that describes that specific historical narrative and how Texas fosters “liberty and freedom for businesses and families.” The committee would also be responsible for advising state agencies on how to best ensure “patriotic education is provided to the public” at state parks, museums, and landmarks.
Texas, which already mandates state history curriculum in public schools, has a notorious penchant for historical whitewashing. Just one example: it took 60 years and intense pressure for state leaders to finally agree to remove a plaque in the Texas Capitol that said the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery.