Texas Republicans are targeting Houston’s efforts to expand voting access during the 2020 election with a series of measures that would limit early voting, make it harder to get and return absentee ballots, and more.
GOP lawmakers introduced two dozen bills that would make it harder to vote in Texas ahead of Friday’s filing deadline. Those bills would bar counties from sending absentee ballot request forms to people who did not ask for them, limit counties’ authority to expand voting hours, require faster purges of voter rolls, make it easier to challenge signatures on absentee ballots and more.
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Gov. Greg Abbott and the Republican sponsors of two of those bills on Monday identified the bogeyman that inspired the legislative pushes: Harris County, the state’s largest county and the home of Houston. Democrats have made major gains in recent elections in what was once a conservative-leaning area, helping the party narrow the GOP’s margins in statewide elections and giving Republicans incentive to seek to limit votes there.
In a news conference in Houston, Abbott, state Rep. Briscoe Cain and state Sen. Paul Bettencourt criticized Harris County’s 2020 moves to try to expand access to the ballot box amid the coronavirus pandemic. The county kept early voting locations open for 24 hours and opened drive-through polling places. County officials also sought to send mass mail-in ballot applications, but were blocked from doing so by the Texas Supreme Court.
“We must pass laws to prevent election officials from jeopardizing the election process,” Abbott said after detailing Harris County’s handling of the 2020 election.
The bills are part of a larger push across Republican-controlled statehouses – including Georgia and Arizona – to implement new laws to suppress votes following former President Donald Trump’s lie that voter fraud was to blame for his loss last year to President Joe Biden.
Abbott and other Republicans have offered no evidence of widespread fraud in Texas. The only example Abbott cited Monday was a 2014 case in which a man was charged with offering cocaine and cash for votes in a school board race in Donna, Texas.
Still, Abbott claimed that efforts to broaden voting access such as those of Harris County introduce “the potential for voter fraud.”
“There’s really one thing all of us can and should agree upon, and that is we must have trust and confidence in our elections,” Abbott said. “One way to do that is to make sure that we reduce the potential for voter fraud in our elections.”
He made no mention of Republicans’ role in undermining that trust by falsely claiming that the results in several swing states were tainted and attempting to overturn them in courts and in Congress.
Matt Angle, a Democratic strategist who founded the Lone Star Project, a political action committee that backs Democrats, said Republicans are targeting Harris County because of Democrats’ rising vote share in – along with Tarrant County, home of Fort Worth – “the two kind of linchpin counties.”
“When Democrats get up to about 55% consistently in Harris County and when we carry Tarrant County, it’ll be hard for Republicans to make that up in the rural counties,” Angle said.
The legislative moves by GOP lawmakers come after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton led a lawsuit by Republican state attorneys general from 17 states to disenfranchise the voters of Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by overturning their results based on unfounded claims of fraud. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in November offered a $1 million reward for evidence of voter fraud in Texas, but has not yet paid anyone.
Paxton’s team looking for voter fraud in the 2020 election found just 16 examples of false addresses on registration forms in Harris County after more than 22,000 hours of staff time investigating, the Houston Chronicle reported.
“It’s part of the big lie,” Lina Hidalgo, who as Harris County judge is the county’s chief executive, said Monday on CNN. “It’s part of the intimidation, the confusion, the antics that (the Republican Party) has engaged in for so many generations that culminated in President Trump asking people to overturn the election.”
“What they’re doing is filing bills that are essentially a poll tax that weaponize the election system against our own voters,” Hidalgo said. “Obviously, these Republicans are hoping their work is going to disenfranchise mostly Democrats. But the truth of the matter is, it’s going to disenfranchise both parties. And what they’re proposing is absolutely tragic and reminiscent of the worst of what we’ve seen in Texas and across the South since Reconstruction.”
Meanwhile, Cain, the Texas House Republican who was alongside Abbott on Monday, claimed that “the only form of voter suppression” is illegal votes being cast.
“You know, the only form of voter suppression is when an illegitimate voter, an ineligible voter, casts a ballot. When an ineligible voter casts their ballot, what they’re actually doing is they’re silencing the voice of an American citizen, of someone that is eligible to vote. It’s wrong and we should stop it,” Cain said.
Bettencourt said he was pushing for “uniformity” among counties’ early voting hours, which he said couldn’t be viewed as “anything but a positive because everyone can view those hours.”
“I don’t think there’s any denial of voter rights with that. I think uniformity is what we need in Texas so rural voters coming home from work have the same access as urban voters,” he said.
Abbott in February declared that election security would be an emergency item on the Texas Legislature’s agenda for its 2021 session.
“Election fraud is unacceptable, and that’s exactly why I made it an emergency item this session,” he said Monday. “Our objective is very simple, and that is to ensure that every eligible voter gets to vote. It’s also to ensure that only eligible votes are the ones that count at the ballot box.”
Over and over, Abbott and the GOP lawmakers pointed to Harris County’s efforts to expand voting access in 2020 as examples of what they are seeking to prohibit.
Other Republican legislators have also cited Harris County, including state Rep. Jared Patterson, who said that “irregularities in Harris County polling hours of operation and the opportunity for voter fraud when no one is looking” motivated a bill he introduced that would prohibit counties from allowing early voting after 9 p.m.
“Momma always said nothing good happens after midnight. That includes at polling places,” Patterson said on Twitter in late February.
Bettencourt called for 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. voting hours everywhere, and said keeping the same hours everywhere “helps rural Texans feel like they have the same opportunity as urban Texans” – despite the reality that urban voters often face long lines that do not exist in rural areas.
Proposals such as Bettencourt’s Senate Bill 7, which would bar public officials from sending absentee ballot request forms and would require identification with returned mail-in ballots, and Cain’s House Bill 6, which similarly bans the mailing of absentee ballot request forms and also would block county elections officials from altering elections procedures without the approval of the Texas secretary of state, largely seek to bar local elections officials from making their own decisions about administering elections.
“A lot of them sound pretty technical but what they really do is increase the authority of the secretary of state of Texas to direct the counties to do specific things,” Angle said.
Bradner reported from Chicago and Gallagher reported from Houston.