Republicans take voting rights battle to Texas
The United States’ next big voting battle is under way in Texas, where Republicans are trying to outlaw
24-hour polling places and drivethrough voting as options, and to make it a crime for officials to mail unsolicited absentee ballot applications.
All were efforts that Harris County, which includes Houston and is the state’s largest Democratic stronghold, tried last year, when the threat of the coronavirus made voting in-person more hazardous.
Republican lawmakers have been unusually explicit in zeroing in on Houston and surrounding Harris County as they push to restrict voting in the state.
One of the country’s largest and most racially diverse counties, Harris County rolled out new ways to vote in
2020 on a scale like nowhere else in Texas, and although there is no evidence of fraud resulting from votes cast from cars or in the dead of night, Republicans are determined to prevent it happening again.
The effort is one of the clearest examples of how the GOP’s nationwide campaign to tighten voting laws can target Democrats, even as they insist the measures are not partisan. With Americans increasingly sorted into liberal urban areas and conservative rural ones, geography can be an effective proxy for partisanship. Proposals tailored to cities or that take population into account are bound to have a greater impact on Democratic voters.
Texas is the biggest state where Republicans have vowed to make voting changes on the back of Donald Trump’s false claims that fraud cost him the 2020 election. A sweeping package known as House Bill 6 that would tighten voting rules is awaiting a full vote, and Republican Governor Greg Abbott supports the efforts.
Included in the state House bill are measures that would grant partisan poll watchers more powers and make it a felony for an elections officer to send mail-voting applications to households that didn’t request them, as Harris County tried to do because of the pandemic.
The apparent targeting of Harris County, where 44 per cent of the nearly 5 million residents are Latino and 20 per cent are black, is seen by opponents as evidence Republicans are trying to suppress turnout in Democratic strongholds. Republicans deny the claims. Not in dispute are the rising electoral stakes in Texas’ biggest county. President Joe Biden won it by more than 13 percentage points, a commanding margin that helped get him within 6 points of Trump statewide.
The county exemplifies the GOP’s slipping grip on fast-changing Texas. In 2004, former President George W. Bush, who is from Texas, easily won Harris County and Republicans ran every major countywide office.
But recent years have been routs for Democrats, whose wins now extend down the ballot to local judicial races, including 17 black women who were elected to the bench in 2018.
Criticism has been met with increasing fury by Texas Republicans, particularly as prominent homegrown employers such as American Airlines and Dell have come out against the restrictions.
The problem, according to Republicans, is that Harris County never had the authority to expand its voting options, despite the pandemic. A record 1.7 million voters cast ballots in Harris County last year and between 10,000 and 15,000 votes were cast at 24-hour locations during the hours when polls are typically closed.
Roughly 127,000 people cast ballots from their cars at drivethrough centres, more than half of whom were black, Latino or Asian, according to state Senator Carol Alvarado, a Democrat from Houston.
Texas already has some of the tightest voting restrictions in the country and Republicans say rising voter turnout is evidence that votes are not being suppressed — a claim that ignores that the state’s population is booming.