Two years after voting rights groups challenged Texas Republicans’ sweeping overhaul of its voting and election laws, the case comes to trial Monday in a federal court in San Antonio. The lengthy roster of plaintiffs will argue certain provisions of the new law made it harder for voters of color to cast ballots, with some alleging the effect was intentional.
More than 20 state and national organizations brought a collective five lawsuits against the law, often referred to as Senate Bill 1, that have been consolidated into this case. The groups claim several provisions of the law violate federal laws including the Voting Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and the First, 14th, and 15th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
The trial is expected to go until late October, and U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez may not issue a decision until months later. Experts say it’s unclear and too soon to tell whether a decision will come in time to affect elections and voting in 2024, especially since appeals could draw the process out.
Republicans rammed the law through in 2021, with Democrats accusing them of legislating in response to baseless and unsupported allegations of nonexistent voter fraud. Ever since, election observers have closely monitored the effects of the law’s changes to how Texans vote and how election officials administer elections.
“These rules have gotten so incredibly complicated, that now [voters] almost need a lawyer to understand what you can and cannot do,” said Nina Perales, the vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and a lead attorney representing plaintiffs La Union del Pueblo Entero and the Southwest Voter Registration Project.
For example, she said, it’s now illegal for a person who assists voters to receive or accept compensation. That’s the sort of work nonprofit advocacy groups have done for several years, especially for the elderly and people with disabilities.
“Some people don’t speak English. Some people can’t read or write. We have a lot of elderly in our community, people with disabilities, too. It is not true that every voter has somebody in their house with them, who can help them navigate the process. Some people turn to community resources for that,” Perales said.
Among the provisions the plaintiffs are challenging:
- One that prohibits election officials from distributing mail-in ballot applications to voters who did not request them. The provision came in response to an effort in Harris County, the state’s most populous, to expand voting access during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, when election officials sent out absentee ballot applications to voters who were eligible to use them.
- A ban on 24-hour and drive-thru voting. Harris County also provided those voting options during early voting in 2020. Republicans challenged drive-thru voting unsuccessfully at the time, and later banned it as part of SB 1.
- A ban on mail-in ballot drop boxes. In 2020, Gov. Greg Abbott originally limited their use to only one location in each county. SB 1 subsequently banned them entirely.
- New requirements for anyone who provides transportation to more than seven voters. These drivers must submit their personal information and authorization for providing such transportation to the government.
- Provisions restricting providing assistance to voters casting a ballot at the polls and completing absentee ballots. Those providing assistance at the polls must fill out a form with an oath affirming the voter is qualified to receive help. Those helping voters with their absentee ballot must provide information about their relationship to the voter and whether they are being paid.
- The elimination of an employer’s obligation to let employees take time off to vote.
- Provisions that expand poll watchers’ access. The law limits election workers’ ability to remove those poll watchers “who intimidate voters or otherwise interfere with the voting counting processes,” the lawsuit says.
Last year, a provision restricting assistance at the polls for voters with disabilities and limited English language proficiency was permanently blocked in a separate lawsuit after a judge found it violated the Voting Rights Act. That provision is now no longer in effect and thus, won’t be part of this trial.
The law also added ballot security requirements to the election administration process in the state, including a mandate for elections administrators in counties with a population of more than 100,000 people to provide 24-hour video surveillance of any area of the election office that contains voted ballots, including the room where the votes are counted on election night. Taxpayers in those counties footed the bill for costs associated with the new rules. This provision isn’t being challenged in court.
See here and here for more on the parts of the law that have already been blocked, and here for the previous update, in which the lawsuit mostly survived a motion to dismiss. That was last August, to give you some idea of the speed with which this stuff tends to move.
I am reluctantly skeptical about this lawsuit. I agree with the goals and that everything they’re contesting in this law is nasty and heinous and rooted in racism, I’m just not at all convinced that the plaintiffs can prevail, even in a limited fashion, given the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS. The law is a laundry list of Things Republicans Don’t Like And Have The Power To Ban, which tends to get a favorable reception these days. I really, really hope I’m wrong. The Current has more.