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Making voting worse

I’ve spent a lot of time this year writing about how Republicans in the Legislature want to make it harder to vote. That’s undeniably true, but it doesn’t fully capture what’s going on. Voting is a thing that most of us do, and the process of voting is basically a service that your local government provides. The goal of the Republican bills in the Legislature, both the omnibus HB7 and SB6 but also the smaller and crazier bills that have garnered much less attention so far, is to make that service worse, now and in the future, and especially when external circumstances like a global pandemic make it harder to vote to begin with.

This Trib story is a straightforward analysis of what SB6 and HB7 do, and there’s also a good explainer in Vox, which I want to highlight.

The Senate bill imposes new rules limiting precinct placement that only apply to large urban counties. It punishes county registrars who don’t sufficiently purge the voter rolls, threatening a repeat of a 2019 fiasco in Texas in which nearly 100,000 recently naturalized citizens were pushed off the rolls. And it prohibits practices pioneered in Democratic-leaning counties designed to improve ballot access during the pandemic, like 24-hour voting.

The House bill, meanwhile, makes it nearly impossible to kick partisan poll watchers, who have historically been used to intimidate Black voters, out of precincts.

“SB 7 looks at what made it easier for people to vote in 2020, particularly communities of color — and then with a laser focus goes and removes those [rules],” says Thomas Buser-Clancy, a staff attorney at the Texas ACLU.

They weren’t rules (I don’t know what Buser-Clancy actually said), they were innovations. These innovations – 24-hour voting, curbside voting, multiple drop boxes for mail ballots, sending mail ballot applications to eligible voters – were things that were allowed in the sense that they weren’t explicitly forbidden. When election administrators, mostly but not exclusively in the big urban counties and exemplified by Chris Hollins, used their creativity and their desire to make it easier and safer to vote, that was the line in the sand that was crossed. Where their actions were upheld by the courts, it was because what they did was allowable under the law as it was. The point here is to remove any possibility of future innovations.

The Senate and House bills both contain a large number of revisions affecting different aspects of state election law — some trivial, others potentially significant.

One of the most notable, according to experts and activists, are the Senate bill’s new rules about the placement of voting precincts and the allocation of election resources, like staff and voting machines.

Under current law, Texas counties have significant discretion about where to set up precincts and where to put their resources. The Senate bill changes these rules, but only for counties with more than 1 million residents. There are five such counties in Texas, all of them urban Democratic strongholds: Harris County (Houston), Dallas County (Dallas), Tarrant County (Fort Worth), Bexar County (San Antonio), and Travis County (Austin).

In these five counties, SB 7 would require that precincts and resources be allocated proportional to the percentage of the county’s eligible voters living in specific areas. This method has two major features that are likely to make voting in Democratic-leaning areas harder.

First, any measure of “eligible voters” would have trouble accounting for very recent population change — likely undercounting younger, heavily minority areas with high growth rates while overcounting older, whiter ones. Second, many Texans vote near their place of work in the city center, so allocating resources by population would underserve urban areas with lots of offices.

The result? In the big Democratic-leaning counties, precincts will be less conveniently located and more likely to have long lines. This could have an effect on outcomes: Studies of elections in California and Texas have found that cutting the number of precincts in a county leads to a measurable decrease in local voter turnout.

“Harris County and Travis County did a good job at distributing polling places in areas where there was a high number of potential voters and where there was a likelihood of higher turnout among ethnic and racial minorities,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. If SB 7 is passed, “that’s going to change.”

Another important provision of SB 7 requires county registrars to check their voter logs against state data on individuals “determined to be ineligible to vote because of citizenship status.” The registrar must remove voters on these lists from the voter registration lists; they would be personally fined $100 for each name they left on the voter rolls.

Voting rights activists worry that this is a backdoor effort to revive a 2019 voter purge struck down in court, an effort that tried to kick tens of thousands of recently naturalized voters off the rolls by using outdated citizenship status for them. The provision would also serve as a deterrent to people working as volunteer registrars — nobody wants to be fined hundreds of dollars for simple mistakes — which would significantly undermine the in-person voter registration drives that depend on their work.

“It’s kind of underrated but might be the biggest provision of SB 7,” says Joseph Fishkin, an election law expert at the University of Texas Austin. “There’s a real partisan skew as to who benefits from drying up the pool of new voters.”

wThe two bills would also significantly expand the powers of poll watchers, partisan operatives who observe the voting process to protect the party’s interests.

SB 7 allows poll watchers to film voters while they are getting assistance from poll workers, potentially intimidating voters with disabilities and non-English speakers. They are nominally prohibited from distributing their footage publicly, but there’s no enforcement mechanism or punishment — so there’s nothing really stopping them from sending misleading footage to fringe-right websites and claiming they prove “fraud.”

HB 6 makes matters worse by making it impossible to kick out poll watchers for any reason other than facilitating voter fraud, even if they are disrupting the voting process in other ways. The experts I spoke to said this applies even in extreme cases: a drunk and disorderly poll watcher, for example, or a jilted spouse who starts a fight when their ex shows up to vote.

It’s hard to say how these provisions would affect elections; poll watchers have had little impact on recent American elections. But the history of the practice gives us reasons to be skeptical about expanding their powers: Watchers have historically menaced Black voters trying to exercise their rights.

And there are many other notable aspects of the two laws.

Remember those ridiculously long lines at the TSU early voting location during the 2020 primaries? That was the result of having the same number of Republican and Democratic voting machines at a site that was heavily Democratic (remember, this was a primary). The effect of SB6 and HB7 will be to make more places have such lines. Really, that’s the idea in general: Fewer locations, shorter hours, longer lines, more disruption, and a total clampdown on any bright ideas that local officials may have to make the experience better. Make voting worse. That’s what it’s all about. Go read those stories and give it a thought in those terms. When I’ve said that Democrats in 2022 should campaign on making it easier and more convenient to vote, this is what they’d be campaigning against.

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4 Comments

  1. voter_worker says:

    Using the Texas Election Code as it existed in September 2019 after the previous (86th) session of the Texas Legislature as a baseline, I would like to see a plain list of changes to the Election Code. Much of the conversation revolves around items related to the then-discretionary administrative actions taken by County officials in 2020 relative to the pandemic. Prohibiting 24-hour and drive-through early voting, and mass-mailing of mail-voting applications, is a reaction to EA creativity but does not regress voting by removing a previously codified process. Adding/enhancing criminal penalties on EAs (insufficient purging) and voters (prosecuting the use of an address to vote that is not your residence) are new. Poll watchers endowed with camera privileges is new. Directives on distribution of voting machines are new. Requiring disabled voters to submit evidence of disability in order to vote by mail would be new. In brief, I want an itemized list that distinguishes new elements being added to or revised in the Code from those that are a reaction to EA creativity in 2020 and do no more than remove EA discretion but leave the process as it was.

  2. voter_worker says:

    Thank you Charles. I feel like I’m admitting personal incompetence by expressing a desire for a “dumbed-down” list or summary. Yet reading the text of legislation and numerous articles and editorials about legislation has a mind-numbing effect on me and honestly I just don’t have the energy or focus to truly get it. You make it easier and I thank you for your efforts in that regard.

  3. mollusk says:

    v_w: Not a tidy one stop list of changes, but you can look up the different bills with the changes highlighted at https://capitol.texas.gov/BillLookup/BillNumber.aspx if you know the bill number, or at https://lrl.texas.gov/legis/isaf/lrlhome.cfm if you want to know what’s being done to a particular code or statute.