It won’t be called SB7 in the special session on voter suppression, but you know what I mean.
Texas Republicans have pursued broad efforts this year to ratchet up voting restrictions in the aftermath of a high-turnout election that saw high-profile fights over the state’s voting rules, including the tight eligibility requirements for absentee voting. The 2020 election marked a shift from what was traditionally a tool utilized by the GOP to one that was instead taken up by more Democratic voters. But as the GOP has worked to clamp down on what remains a limited voting option, voters with disabilities — who are among the few groups of Texans eligible to vote by mail — have been caught in the middle of the fight.
Republicans have cast their proposals as “election integrity” measures to protect the voting process from fraud, even though there is no evidence it occurs on a widespread basis. But throughout the spring legislative session, nearly every version of the GOP’s priority voting legislation raised alarms for disability rights advocates who warned lawmakers they would likely run afoul of federal protections for disabled voters.
Texas offers two avenues to voting most helpful for people with disabilities. If they’re unable to vote in person without needing assistance or injuring their health, they can request a mail-in ballot. If they want to vote in person but need assistance, they can ask someone to accompany them to a polling place to help them through the voting process.
Under Republican proposals that are expected to be reconsidered this month, both of those paths might be further constricted.
In the Senate, Republicans wanted to require proof of a condition or illness, including written documentation from the Social Security Administration or a doctor’s note, before disabled voters can receive mail-in ballots for every election in a calendar year. Under current law, voters need only attest that they have a disability that qualifies them for a mail-in ballot.
That proposed change was eventually pulled down, but Republican senators moved forward with a bill that would have increased the likelihood that people with disabilities would be cast as suspect voters if they used other legal accommodations, like having assistance at the polling place.
The GOP bill would have allowed partisan poll watchers to video record voters receiving assistance in filling out their ballots if the poll watchers believed the help was unlawful — a change that disability rights advocates argued would wrongly target people with disabilities. For voters with intellectual or developmental disabilities, for example, voting help may require prompting or questioning that could be misconstrued as coercion by a person unfamiliar with that sort of assistance.
Although voters can select anyone to help them as long as they’re not an employer or union leader, House Republicans attempted to set up new rules for those helping voters, including a requirement to disclose and document the reason the voter needed assistance, even if for medical reasons.
At multiple points during the session, Republicans said they tweaked some of those proposals in response to concerns from disability rights advocates. But when the final version of the legislation emerged from backroom negotiations just before the end of the regular session, it included unwelcome changes to redefine what constitutes a disability under state election law, as well as new identification requirements for voting by mail that advocates said lacked clarity.
“Our voices weren’t being heard at the very end when it was the most important,” said Chase Bearden, the deputy executive director for the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities.
The story opens with an account of one woman who felt the need to cast her mail ballot in person, and the ordeal she endured to do so. It’s worth reading, and reflecting on how much easier it is for some people to vote than it is for others. What happens with the provisions that the disability rights community objected to and had some success stopping in the regular session now that we’re in overtime is unknown. I think the Republicans may at least listen and try to make some accommodations, but if it comes down to them or their base, it’s no contest. At that point it will be a matter of whether litigation over equal access for folks with disabilities will have any better luck in the courts than litigation over claims of racial discrimination. I can’t say I’m optimistic, but we’ll see.