In case you hadn’t heard, Texas is the new battle ground in the fight for voting rights. Our state legislature is considering 49 new bills that would add significant hurdles to the voting process—a tall feat given we’re already the most difficult state to cast a ballot in.
“It’s not a badge of honor to say that Texas is leading that race,” says Thomas Buser-Clancy, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
With Harris County’s record-smashing 2020 voter turnout, many of these changes feel—welp—like they’re targeting Houston. As of this writing, none of these bills have reached the governor’s desk (where they would almost assuredly be signed). But if they were approved, they would dramatically alter our voting landscape.
Here’s exactly what’s on the line, and what it might mean for you come next election.
What could be changing?
A lot. The bills could prevent public officials from mailing out unsolicited absentee ballots or applications for them, make it more difficult to remove partisan poll watchers, known to target minority voters, from polling places, and more.
Another change? Election officials, campaign workers, voluntary registrars, and those who assist elderly, disabled, and non-English-speaking voters could face felony charges, severe fines, and jail time for mistakes, even accidental ones. Family members who offer to help loved ones fill out voting forms could now be penalized for “encouraging” voters to pick them as assistants, and officials who post about absentee ballots on social media could be charged with soliciting, explains Buser-Clancy. “Across the board, it will be harder to vote, and it will be scarier to vote for all Texans, and particularly communities of color, if these bills passed.”
Are they really targeting Houston?
Senate Bill 7, an omnibus bill passed by the Texas House of Representatives on May 7, originally had Harris County squarely in its sights. Though the House stripped it of several contentious restrictions—including bans on 24-hour and drive-thru voting, two legal strategies the county’s election administration office employed to help Houstonians vote more easily during the pandemic—that doesn't mean these provisions are off the table.
Also in the same boat: a new rule that places a formulaic limit on the number of polling places and voting resources in diverse, urban areas. The rule would only apply to counties exceeding a million residents—like, say, Harris County, the state’s largest Democratic stronghold (the others, San Antonio’s Bexar County, Dallas County, and Austin’s Travis County, also went blue in the most recent presidential race). This means no more mega centers like NRG stadium, says Buser-Clancy.
With two vastly different versions of the voting bill, the final language will be determined out of the public eye during a conference committee, made up of members of both chambers. And with less than a week left in the legislative session, we'll know exactly what makes the cut soon. “Whether those things come back or not will be negotiated behind closed doors,” explains Buser-Clancy. “That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work.”
Why is this happening?
Texas’s Republican lawmakers say all these changes are to prevent voter fraud, a widespread claim that gained traction during the 2020 election cycle. Here’s the catch: According to data from the attorney general’s office, there’s only 40-some voter fraud cases pending, says Buser-Clancy (though more than 11 million Texans cast ballots in the 2020 general election), “and importantly, those prosecutions are unproven allegations.”
What can Houston residents do?
Call your lawmakers or reach out to businesses and demand they take a stand. “Texas prides itself on being a business-friendly state,” Buser-Clancy explains. “That makes a huge difference in terms of what lawmakers are willing to do when they hear from businesses.” A recent report from Waco-based economic research firm The Perryman Group found Texas stands to lose billions from decreased business activity if these bills are enacted.
Most importantly, Buser-Clancy emphasizes, the fight doesn’t end if these bills become law. Officials from Harris County as well as organizations like the ACLU have already signaled plans to take the law, whatever it looks like, to court. Plus, Buser-Clancy notes, “the legislature can pass a law, but they can repeal a law as well, so keeping up that pressure is important.”