Op-ed: Will Texas Follow in Georgia’s Footsteps and Restrict Voting Access?

Tom Lopach and Val Benavidez — Following passage of a sweeping law in Georgia to restrict voting access, Republican lawmakers in Texas are racing ahead with their own legislative assault on voting rights. If only these legislators would put as much effort into trying to suppress a pandemic that has killed tens of thousands of Texans as they are in trying to suppress the vote. 

These voter suppression bills include SB 7 and HB 6. Together these bills add a slew of new restrictions that would disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities as well as disabled Texans. While “election integrity” is the excuse for these draconian restrictions, the real reason is to suppress access to voting for some Texans.

This isn’t the way democracy is supposed to work. Last year election officials across the country introduced new initiatives, like drive-thru voting and mail ballots, that allowed for an unprecedented increase in voter engagement amid a deadly pandemic. Local leaders in Texas also implemented extraordinary measures to ensure a safe and secure election. The state then shattered voting records, posting the highest turnout recorded in nearly 30 years while drawing in an electorate that was younger and more diverse. Americans of all political stripes should be proud of these efforts.

This Texas voting surge happened despite last-minute efforts by state leaders to make voting harder. Gov. Greg Abbott, for example, made the unnecessary decision to limit secure, absentee drop boxes to one per county, regardless of a county’s size.

The new voting restrictions pending in the legislature pick up where Gov. Abbott left off. They shorten early voting hours and ban secure absentee ballot drop boxes, 24-hour voting centers, and drive-thru voting and mobile voting polling locations. These provisions will make voting harder and lines longer particularly in large urban counties where many Black and Brown Texans live. Another provision could effectively move polling places away from communities of color to white neighborhoods. And the bills even create new bureaucratic rules that make it harder for disabled Texans to vote.

Frankly, these bills are a throwback to the Jim Crow era when Texas had a number of laws that prevented Black people, especially Black women, from freely voting.

In 1902, for example, Texas instituted a poll tax designed to discourage Black Americans, Tejanos, and poor whites from voting. Officials also used literacy tests and other random requirements to restrict voting. They implemented these measures under the guise of preventing voter fraud, but the true purpose was to restrict voters of color from accessing the ballot box and to manufacture an electoral advantage for one party over another. Let’s not return to those evil days.

The fact is, the steps taken to expand voting during the pandemic resulted in Republicans and Democrats alike voting in record numbers. Nearly ten million Texans, over half of all registered voters, cast their ballot early, either by mail or in person. Turnout was up across the state, in almost all 254 counties, from small, rural areas like Mason County to fast-growing suburbs outside of Houston and Dallas.

That’s democracy at work. Parties should be competing to win more votes, not working to keep voting down.

But the proposed new restrictions in Texas are part of a deliberate, nationwide effort to disenfranchise voters in the wake of the 2020 election outcome. State lawmakers across the country have introduced more than 360 bills to make voting harder. Enacting these harmful voter suppression laws that target the New American Majority – people of color, young people, and unmarried women – is disgraceful, unwarranted, and undemocratic.

Congress is currently debating legislation that would fulfill the promise of making sure every legal citizen has access to the ballot box. The “For the People Act,” H.R.1, would establish national voter registration and mail-in voting standards, ban partisan gerrymandering and remove unnecessary barriers to voting that often lead to the disenfranchisement of voters of color. Instead of state lawmakers pursuing a course of action to restrict access to the ballot box, they should embrace the fundamental principles contained within H.R.1.

The overwhelming success of the 2020 election has demonstrated that Texas can expand voting access while conducting a fair, secure and safe election. The Lone Star State should not turn back the clock on voting rights but should instead create a future where more and more Texans can exercise their right to vote and make their voices heard without undue barriers.

Tom Lopach is president and CEO of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Voter Participation Center and Center for Voter Information. Val Benavidez is the President and Executive Director of the Texas Freedom Network and Texas Rising.