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Themes and Schemes: what this session’s voter suppression bills have in common

This article originally appeared in The Texas Signal on 5/10/21.

[Image: A large, light-skinned hand reaches for marked white ballots being held by darker-skinned hands donned in colorful clothing and accessories]

I used to love themes. I was an English major! While my friends studied employable skills like finance or engineering, I sat around drinking coffee, wearing scarves, and waxing poetic on what the green light in Gatsby represents. I’m your annoying friend who wants to talk about rain as a symbol of capitalism after watching Parasite.

Unfortunately, like my sleep and my love of Thursdays, the 87th Texas Legislature has stolen my affection for themes.

My colleague James told you about the two big voter suppression bills hacking their way through the Texas legislature: HB 6 and SB 7. These bills are dangerous, but they’re not the only bills that are out to get voters.

This session, we’ve seen dozens upon dozens of bills filed to make it harder to vote in Texas. They may seem like random voter suppression masquerading as “election integrity,” but when you look at the full picture, these terrible laws begin to fall into terrible patterns. In other words, I’ve been betrayed by my old friend: themes.

For instance, take these three bills: HB 25 would prevent counties from proactively sending out vote-by-mail applications to voters, SB 1115 would require early voting to take place during a limited set of hours, and HB 4322 would outlaw drive-thru voting. All three limit ways you can vote, but they don’t seem to have much else in common… unless you know that these bill authors are mad at Harris County for sending out mail ballot applications, implementing longer voting hours, and allowing drive-thru voting in 2020. Texas vote suppressors used to love local control. Now that pro-voter reforms are happening at the county level, they don’t. Dozens of this session’s bills take choices away from local officials and standardize how counties run their elections.

Let’s look at three more bills. HB 2320 would make it illegal to check a box on the vote-by-mail application before you give it to someone, HB 611 would make it perjury to sign the voter assistant oath if you “encouraged” the voter to pick you, and HB 4331 would make it a third-degree felony for a campaign volunteer to help a mail voter drop off their ballot. All three bills attempt to intimidate and discourage people from assisting voters who need it.

What about the nephew of an elderly voter who helps her with her vote-by-mail application? What about a nonpartisan translator wearing a shirt that says “language assistance available” in Korean? What about a disabled voter who asks a nonpartisan door-knocker to drop their sealed ballot in the mailbox at the curb? With all these penalties imposed on voter assistants, it’s hard to remember what is legal and what isn’t.

The one theme that they all share is that we can resist them. Call your legislators. Testify at the Capitol. Bug your family by talking about legislation at the dinner table. Help protect the vote of your fellow Texans! Once we’ve done that, maybe I can begin to repair my damaged relationship with themes.

Emily Eby is a Voting Rights Staff Attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project

Special thanks to Chelsea Alatriste for her research for this piece.

This article is part of a collaboration between the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) and the Texas Signal. Every two weeks, the Texas Signal feature a new piece from TCRP focusing on voting and election-related bills facing the Texas legislature.

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