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Texas’ controversial voting law goes into effect

Voters go to the polls at Christ Episcopal Church in Travis County on Nov. 3, 2020.
Julia Reihs
/
KUT
Voters go to the polls at Christ Episcopal Church in Travis County on Nov. 3, 2020.

Texas is one of several GOP-led states this year that has passed new voting restrictions this year.

A law that adds a number of new restrictions and criminal penalties related to voting kicks in today in Texas.

The law, Senate Bill 1, was the cause of months of tension between state lawmakers. Democrats accused Republicans of trying to stifle the votes of communities of color. Republicans claimed their efforts were aimed at making voting more secure, even though there has been no evidence of widespread voting issues in the state.

Tommy Buser-Clancy, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Texas, said the law makes a lot of changes to the election process.

“This is a big bill and it rewrites a lot of the election code,” he said. “So there are many things that will change behind the scenes and that could directly impact people.”

The law adds new identification requirements for people voting by mail. Under SB 1, voters will now have to provide — on both their vote-by-mail application and the actual ballot — their driver’s license number or Social Security number. Prior to the law, voters didn't have to provide either of these on an application.

“If there’s a mismatch with those numbers provided, there’s a risk that their ballots or their applications could be rejected,” Buser-Clancy said.

SB 1 also places new restrictions on when voting locations can be open. Now counties have to conduct elections during early voting on each weekday that is not a state holiday for at least nine hours, and those hours are restricted to between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

“This bill limits what counties can do in terms of voting hours,” Ryan Cox, a senior attorney in the voting rights program at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said. “It will be uniform across the state, and counties are no longer able to extend hours during the early voting period.”

“You know this seems to be an attempt to suppress individuals from actually going to exercise their right to vote. This makes it more important for voters to be educated about what is or is not allowed under the new laws.”
Tommy Buser-Clancy, ACLU of Texas

During the 2020 elections, Harris County made 24-hour voting centers available in an effort to ensure shift workers had access to the polls. Cox said voting hours also have previously been extended in Bexar County.

Among the more controversial measures are new restrictions around providing assistance to voters, including language assistance and help for people with disabilities.

As of today, people who assist voters have to disclose their relationship to the voter and how they plan to help them. They also have to sign an oath and face possible criminal penalties if they violate that oath.

Cox said this could become a barrier for some people who need help voting.

“They will have to know in advance that they are going to have someone who can provide assistance for them when they get to the polls,” he said.

SB 1 also creates new criminal and civil penalties. For example, it is now a state jail felony if a person “with the intent to deceive ... knowingly or intentionally makes a false statement or swears to the truth of a false statement” on a voter registration application.

Overall, Cox said, SB 1 could make people liable for what he describes as “even minor errors” voters make. He said that could include things like “providing assistance to [voters] in a way ... that is not specifically outlined in the [election] code.”

Buser-Clancy said these penalties might make it harder for people with disabilities to get assistance in general.

“For those individuals who need [assistance] it will be more important than ever to plan ahead of time,” he said.

Cox said SB 1 also increases penalties on existing voting crimes, “despite the fact that there are almost never cases of these crimes being found.”

Many of the newer criminal penalties are aimed at people who administer elections or work at polling locations, Buser-Clancy said. That includes penalties for workers who restrict access to partisan poll watchers, who were given more access to observe elections under the new law.

“You know this seems to be an attempt to suppress individuals from actually going to exercise their right to vote,” Buser-Clancy said. “This makes it more important for voters to be educated about what is or is not allowed under the new laws.”

Texas already had some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country. But after false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump, Republican leaders in Texas claimed elections in the state were not secure enough.

Earlier this year, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told reporters more safeguards were needed.

“People in America have lost faith in their elections, in the outcome,” he said. “And we have to resolve that issue in this country and in the state.”

Democratic state lawmakers have said these efforts have been a ploy to make it seem like voting crimes are more prevalent than they actually are.

"When people make honest mistakes, it will result in more crimes, which will then bring the appearance of more voter fraud happening,” state Rep. John Bucy told KUT earlier this year. That will "play into Donald Trump's big lie to try to create this fraud and fear around why we need to continue to restrict people's access to the ballot box."

There are currently at least six lawsuits filed against SB 1 — including one from the U.S. Department of Justice, which challenges its constitutionality.

Each of the lawsuits raises concerns about different parts of the law and how it affects communities in the state, mostly vulnerable communities or populations that have been historically discriminated against in Texas.

Organizations that represent voters with disabilities and people of color claim SB 1 deliberately makes it harder for these populations to vote. Other lawsuits say it makes it harder for community organizers and third-party organizations to register voters.

Cox said he expects courts will weigh in after the effects of SB 1 are seen in the primary elections this spring.

“We expect that the primary in March will reveal all kinds of discriminatory effects from these provisions,” he said.

Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Ashley Lopez is a reporter forWGCUNews. A native of Miami, she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a journalism degree.