Houston Chronicle Sunday
Protesters take fight over voter bills to downtown’s door
Crowds rally for business support amid restrictions
Close to 100 people gathered in front of the Greater Houston Partnership building downtown on April 17, urging the city’s business community to speak out against the voter bills being considered in the Texas Legislature.
It was cold and windy on Saturday morning, but the crowd huddled together with signs that read “Say No to Jim Crow 2.0” and “Kick Voter Suppression out of Austin” with a picture of a Texas flag-adorned cowboy boot. The occasional passing car honked in support, prompting cheers and raised fists from the protesters.
House Bill 6 and Senate Bill 7 propose a slew of new election restrictions, although the bills are different and would need to be reconciled and passed before being sent to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk for signing. Both bills could make it a felony for election officials to send unsolicited absentee ballot applications, and to bar partisan poll watchers from observing election proceedings.
Additionally, SB 7 would ban voting after 9 p.m., drop boxes for absentee voting, and drivethru voting locations like ones used in Harris County during the 2020 elections. It also requires even distribution of early voting sites within a county, reducing the number in populous, sometimes minority-dominated districts.
“This is racist legislation,” said Indivisible Houston cofounder Daniel Cohen, who organized the protest along with a dozen other grassroots groups. “Decreasing the polling locations in Black and brown neighborhoods and leading to longer lines, allowing provocateurs and operatives to intimidate and harass Black and brown voters.”
Hosting a protest specifically directed at the Greater Houston Partnership was strategic. Cohen says the group has some of the biggest corporations in the world as member companies.
“They’re powerful,” he said. “If anything is going to put (the issue) on the map, it’s institutions like GHP coming out.”
Cohen says the Greater Hous
ton Partnership has made statements on public policy and in favor of racial equity in the past, but hasn’t yet released any on the voter bills.
A recent statement from the partnership said: “It is essential that our elections be open to and readily accessible by all, while maintaining confidence in the electoral process itself. We encourage our elected leaders, on both sides of the political aisle, to balance these two ideals, strengthening all Texans’ right to vote in free and fair elections.”
A handful of speakers addressed the crowd, with organizers leading chants in between. Lydia Nunez of Gulf Coast Adapt, a disability justice advocacy group, spoke about the proposed bills, which she calls “patronizing and exclusionary. She was involved in a Department of Justice suit years ago to make the polls more accessible, and now she is fighting this new legislation.
“They’re purposefully targeting people of color and disabled people,” said Nunez. “It’s already hard for us as it is, we don’t have a good public transportation system in Houston.”
Being able to vote by mail and having a drop box location close to home is crucial for people with disabilities, she said.
“They’re targeting Harris County,” said Corisha Rogers of Texas Rising. “Harris County had one of the most accessible voting methods in the state.”
In the 2020 presidential elections, County Judge Lina Hidalgo and County Clerk Chris Hollins, both Democrats, implemented 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting to expand options during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This resulted in the Texas Republican Party suing Harris County, citing election security and fraud issues. Many opponents of HB 6 and SB 7 see the new legislation as a continuation of this battle.
Glenn R. Etienne, a presiding election judge at Fallbrook Church, said that safeguards are already in place in the election process to prevent fraud. He said the bills will end up hurting all voters.
“This is about legislators who fear what the electorate will look like in the future,” said Etienne. “And they want to maintain power.”
Christine Wehrli said the legislation is a direct response to increased voter turnout in recent elections, particularly from Democrats. “You see it in Georgia, you see it in Texas,” she said. “It’s fear.”
Wehrli attended the protest with her friends Sarah Bronson and Justin Knight. The trio, who are Filipino-American, call themselves the “Filam Squad.” Since last summer, they’ve been involved in voter registration, voter outreach and have been going to protests together. The 2020 election was a big motivator for them, but they’re still at it today. They may travel to Austin soon to protest the voter bills.
“I want the fight to be a part of my life going forward,” said Bronson. “Because I know that there’s so much left to do.”