This article originally appeared in The Texas Signal on 3/29/21.
Image: Three masked protestors stand inside the Texas Capitol dressed in white hazmat suits with blue shoe covers. Each protestor holds a hand-written sign, reading “No on HB6/SB7,” “Suppress the virus not the vote,” and “Let Texans vote.” Photo credit: TCRP
According to a recent study, Texas is the hardest place to vote in the entire country. Among other reasons, we have no online voter registration, only a fraction of Texans have the right to vote by mail, and 750 polling places were closed between 2013 and 2019, predominantly in communities of color.
Instead of using this session to address these problems, the Texas Legislature held hearings this past week on HB 6 and SB 7 — two voter suppression omnibus bills that are a throwback to the worst days of Jim Crow. Unbelievably, they would make it even harder to vote in Texas, and comprise some of the most complicated, consequential, and downright awful voting legislation that Texas has seen in many years.
Those hearings quickly descended into farce. The hearing on SB 7 adjourned after only a few minutes because the Chair failed to properly notice the hearing. A few days later, the HB 6 hearing disintegrated before any public testimony was heard after the Chair chose to shut it down rather than let his colleague, state Representative Nicole Collier, participate. Of note, Collier also serves as the Chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus and would have been the only Black person to ask questions of the Chair from the dais.
The shambolic hearings on these bills reflect the rushed process being used to jam them through the Legislature before the public can fully absorb how these long, complex bills work, even though they create a multitude of new crimes that threaten to ensnare voters, community organizers and election officials alike, and make voting more difficult in myriad ways.
Both HB 6 and SB 7 impose a gag rule on election officials that prohibits them from “soliciting” votes by mail applications from Texans, backed up by criminal penalties. The language is so broad that they likely prohibit local officials from even mentioning the mere existence of voting by mail unless first prompted by a voter.
These bills also undermine confidentiality for voters with disabilities and limited English proficiency. Both bills require those who assist voters to fill out a new form attesting to “the reason the assistance was necessary” and their relationship to the voter — invasive questions that may require disclosure of private or medically confidential information. In an especially cruel move, SB 7 requires that voters with disabilities “prove” they have a disability when they apply to vote by mail.
If passed, these bills would give partisan poll watchers free rein to wreak havoc in polling places, even though Texas poll watchers have a notorious track record of intimidating Black voters and voters of color, including in 2020 (you can read more about how voter intimidation affected Texans last year in our recent report available here). In HB 6, poll watchers may only be removed from a polling place if they “engage in activity that would constitute an offense related to election fraud,” but not for harassing or intimidating voters. Astonishingly, SB 7 would allow them to videotape voters inside the polls, a truly shocking expansion of their powers that will certainly be weaponized to harass Black voters and voters of color.
Rather than attend to the needs of Texans, who are still recovering from Abbott’s blackout and suffering from the pandemic, the people leading this state are wasting time with bills that would rip ballots away from the hands of the elderly, people of color, and Texans with disabilities. Texas deserves better.
James Slattery is a Senior Staff Attorney with the Voting Rights Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project.