A Texas Senate panel approved legislation Thursday that would end straight-ticket voting in all elections.
The vote came less than a week after the House passed the legislation, mostly along party lines. Starting with the 2018 elections, the bill would take away the option for voters to automatically cast their ballot for every candidate from a single party.
In the Thursday hearing, proponents of the bill — including its Senate sponsor, Hancock — said it would force voters to make more informed decisions when casting their ballots. Critics suggested it could lead to voting rights violations.
“We believe that this takes away one method of voting that minority voters overwhelmingly use to choose the candidates of their choice,” said Glen Maxey, legislative affairs director for the Texas Democratic Party.
Maxey also questioned why the bill wound up in the Business & Commerce Committee, not the State Affairs Committee. Such a maneuver is “what the federal courts have noted as abnormal legislative procedure,” Maxey said.
A federal judge blocked a similar law last year in Michigan, saying it would disproportionately affect black voters. After that ruling came up in Thursday’s hearing, Hancock noted that the Michigan law moved through a “completely different court system than we’ll move through” if HB 25 becomes law and it is challenged.
Hancock also sought to reassure critics of the bill who said it would lead to longer lines at polling places, saying more locations would solve the problem.
See here for the background. Sen. Hancock is correct that more locations – and more machines per location – can solve the problems, but those words are meaningless without funding from the state to cover the costs. Not covering costs, going through a different committee, taking a vote when the two Dems on the committee were absent – none of this is going to look good when the inevitable lawsuit is filed.
House Democrats on Friday argued eliminating the “one-punch” choice would constitute an attack on Texans’ voting rights, particularly the disabled, the elderly and voters in large cities, where ballots and lines are longer and more people rely on public transportation.
Multiple lawmakers said minority voters rely on the straight-ticket option more than Anglos, evidence that was used as the basis of a 2016 federal court ruling that blocked a similar law in Michigan.
“This bill hasn’t been vetted,” said Representative Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City. “We don’t know how much it will cost; we don’t know if it will violate the Voting Rights Act of 1964. What we do know is that federal courts have ruled recently that laws passed by Texas discriminated against African-American and Hispanic voters.”
Three federal court rulings since March have found that Texas intentionally discriminated against African-American and Hispanic voters in voter ID and redistricting cases. The author of HB 25, Representative Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, said repeatedly during debate Friday night that he was not aware of the rulings.
“I’ve been busy down here,” he said on the House floor, defending his lack of knowledge of the widely reported court decisions.
Representative Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, predicted the bill would be challenged “as a voter suppression bill.”
In the Michigan ruling last July, a federal judge wrote that abolishing the straight-ticket option would disproportionately impact African-American voters, who use it more often and already face longer voting lines in urban areas. The measure was designed “to require voters to spend more time filling more bubbles,” which could “discourage voting,” wrote Judge Gershwin A. Drain. The Supreme Court declined to hear Michigan’s appeal in September.
We’ll see what happens. There’s still time for the bill to be amended to address the concerns that Democrats have raised. I don’t expect that – why should the Republicans change their ways now? – but at least they can’t say they weren’t warned.