How Congress’ voting rights legislation could affect Texas election laws

State & Regional

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — In the fall of 2021, Texas lawmakers passed sweeping changes to its election laws that are now one of the reasons why President Joe Biden is calling on Congress to pass voting rights legislation, to supersede some of these restrictions.

When Texas Democrats like Rep. Ron Reynolds took their fight to Washington D.C., it was largely a stalling tactic to prevent Republicans from passing Senate Bill 1, the elections overhaul bill. But it also drew the national spotlight to GOP-led state legislatures that have passed similar laws to the one in Texas.

“They’re doing things to make it more difficult. And they have a disparate impact among Black and brown people here in Texas,” Reynolds said. “The legislation that we passed is going to really make it more difficult to vote.”

Some of Texas’ changes squarely take aim at Harris County in the Houston area. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Harris County elections officials offered 24-hour polling places and drive-thru voting, which are now outlawed. The county also tried sending mail-in ballot applications to more than 2 million registered voters. Now, any Texas elections official who tries sending an application to someone who doesn’t request one could face criminal charges.

Republicans have hailed their changes as necessary for protecting election integrity and voters’ trust. Rep. James White, R-Hillister, said any federal legislation on this would be overreach.

“If you’re looking for trust in your elections you don’t want your elections run like the federal government,” he said.

If Biden’s calls for the Senate to pass voting rights legislation come to fruition, it could mean changes to Texas. Most notably, the federal package would mail-in voting access, which was restricted in the Lone Star State. Here are some of the proposals in the congressional legislation and how it would affect Texas:

  • No-excuse mail voting for all federal elections. States would be required to allow eligible voters to vote by mail. Currently, Texas voters have specific reasons or must meet criteria to mail-in their ballot, such as voters over the age of 65 and those with disabilities.
  • Banning voter-roll purges. The secretary of state can once again regularly compare driver’s license records to voter registration lists in a quest to find people who are not eligible. This was the subject of lawsuits and controversy for Texas following a purge of noncitizens off the voter rolls in 2019.
  • Requiring all states to create an online voter portal for registration, corrections and cancellations. Texans can find resources on how to register to vote and print out the form to send to local election officials on the secretary of state’s website. However, you cannot register to vote online.
  • Same-day registration for federal elections. You cannot register to vote on the same day for elections in Texas. For the upcoming March 1st primary election, the deadline to be a registered Texas voter is Jan. 31.

In a 50-50 Senate with no Republican support, the federal legislation has a difficult path forward-facing an almost inevitable GOP filibuster. However, the president’s newfound support for ending the 60-vote threshold for voting rights bills is giving Democrats hope.

“This is what we wanted to see…the President use the bully pulpit to make the case of why it’s so important and vital to our democracy that we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote [Act],” Reynolds said. “Even if it means that we have to carve out an exception for the filibuster to pass it.”

Texas Congressman Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, dismissed Democrats’ reasoning for voting rights reform in an interview with the Washington Post Live on Wednesday. Brady is not seeking re-election once his term is completed.

“While we are dueling each other over imaginary claims of voter suppression, we ought to be focused on election integrity in a bipartisan way,” he said.

Dr. David Thomason, an associate professor of politics at St. Edwards University, said regardless of the outcome — the partisan fights over elections is already having a detrimental effect on voters.

“This is undercutting the trust in the democratic model of participation and voting participation,” he said. “It is going to take much more than a law in Congress to build the trust for either Republicans or Democrats.”

Just 33% of Texans think U.S. elections are very accurate, according to an Oct. 2021 poll from the Texas Politics Project and UT-Austin. 19% of Texans believe elections are very inaccurate. But the number climbs significantly amongst Republicans — 42% of voters who define themselves as “strong Republicans” believe U.S. election results are very inaccurate.

Growing mistrust in elections is something experts say has gained traction from former President Donald Trump’s repeated claims that the 2020 election was stolen. There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election and it has been refuted by top election officials and judges throughout the country.

“This is a significant question that we will be dealing with all the way through the 2024 election…the extent that our voting laws are going to be fair and open for all candidates,” Thomason said. “A fair set of impartial rules to how we vote are vital to the integrity of the voting process.”

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