Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas on Tuesday signed a sweeping bill overhauling the state’s elections, capping a dramatic, monthslong national saga over voting rights with a new Republican-led law that will sharply restrict voting across the nation’s second-biggest state.
Appearing in deeply red Tyler in East Texas, Abbott proclaimed the law a “paradigm” for other states looking to pass election bills. He declared that it would be “harder to cheat at the ballot box” and claimed that the law would “make it easier than ever before for anybody to go cast a ballot,” referring, in part, to provisions that add an extra hour to early voting on weekdays.
But the legislation, in fact, contains numerous measures that will make voting harder. In particular, it bans balloting methods that Harris County, which includes the Democratic bastion of Houston, introduced last year to make voting easier during the coronavirus pandemic, including drive-thru polling places and 24-hour voting.
The law, which will apply to next year’s elections in the state, will further restrict absentee voting. One provision bars election officials from sending voters unsolicited absentee ballot applications and from promoting the use of vote by mail, and another further limits the use of drop boxes.
The law also greatly empowers partisan poll watchers; creates new criminal and civil penalties for poll workers who fall afoul of the rules; and erects new barriers for those looking to assist voters who need help, such as with translations.
Under complete Republican control, the Texas Legislature has taken a sharp right turn this year, enacting a lengthy list of conservative priorities on abortion, transgender rights, teaching about racism in schools and voting. But the election bill in particular follows a national trend, with Republican-controlled legislatures in 18 states having passed more than 30 laws this year restricting access to voting.
Democrats, voting rights groups and civil rights organizations have denounced the Texas law as an attempt to suppress the votes of people of color. Before Abbott had even signed the bill, groups had filed lawsuits arguing that multiple provisions would violate the Voting Rights Act and amendments to the Constitution.
One lawsuit, brought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice, cites a provision that affects anyone other than an election official who is helping a voter. The helper is required to disclose their relationship to the voter and take an expanded oath under the penalty of perjury. The law also bars those helping voters from answering questions; they can only read a ballot to voters and direct them where to mark it.
This provision, the two groups argue, violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“We have Texas enacting a law that contradicts federal law and has no justification in claims of voter fraud, because there’s no evidence at all that voters who receive assistance through their chosen assister at the polling place are in any way connected to voter fraud,” said Nina Perales, the vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She added that it highlighted how the law was “an attempt to thwart the changing face of the Texas electorate.”
Moments after Abbott signed the law, another coalition of civil rights groups working with Marc Elias, a Democratic voting rights lawyer, filed a lawsuit challenging the legislation.
Though it is too early to project how successful these lawsuits might be, past legal actions in Texas that challenged voting laws have had an effect in slowing, halting or watering down some of the more restrictive provisions. When Texas first passed a voter identification law, in 2011, immediate lawsuits tangled it up in court for the better part of the decade and struck the measure down multiple times.
Eventually, the Legislature loosened the restrictions in that law, allowing voters without the required photo ID to sign affidavits attesting to why they lacked one of the seven newly required forms of identification (they also had to provide a different form of identification, like a utility bill). While that version was also initially rejected in federal court, an appeals panel later upheld the law.
Abbott said he was not worried about the legal challenges to the new law.
“I feel extremely confident that when this law makes it through the litigation phase, it will be upheld in a court of law,” he said.
The bill’s signing came as Abbott, facing a reelection race next year, seeks to fend off a primary challenge from the right. Allen West, the former chairman of the state Republican Party and a staunch conservative, announced in July that he would run for the governor’s office.
That month, Abbott called a special session of the state Legislature with a host of conservative cultural priorities on the agenda, including the voting bill and a newly passed law effectively banning abortion in the state.
While his challengers, including West, have failed to break through in recent polling, the governor’s busy special session and his trip to deeply conservative Tyler suggest that he is still operating as if a threat looms in next year’s primary election.
Democrats were quick to criticize Abbott’s agenda as party politics over policy.
“Instead of working on issues that actually matter, like protecting school kids from COVID or fixing our failing electrical grid, Abbott is focused on rigging our elections and implementing extreme, right-wing policies,” said Beto O’Rourke, a former Democratic presidential candidate whom some strategists in the state are pushing to challenge Abbott for governor. “Abbott’s agenda of criminalizing abortion, permitless carry, anti-mask mandates and voter suppression is killing Texans and limiting their voting rights to elect more responsible leaders.”
The governor will soon pivot the Legislature to focus on redistricting, and is expected to call a new special session in the coming weeks to start that highly contentious and partisan process.
With complete control of both houses of the Legislature, Republicans will be able to draw new congressional and state legislative districts unimpeded. And Texas, which has experienced significant population growth over the past decade, is the only state in the country to gain two congressional seats this year.
During the last redistricting cycle, in 2011, Texas faced multiple lawsuits from civil rights groups and Democratic-aligned organizations, arguing that the state’s new maps discriminated against voters based on race. While federal judges at first upheld the claims, the Supreme Court eventually ruled that lawmakers did not intentionally discriminate in crafting the maps (though the court did agree that one district near Fort Worth was improperly drawn).
While redistricting will be the left’s next uphill battle in Texas, voting rights groups and civil rights leaders pledged to continue fighting the new voting law.
“Black votes were suppressed today,” Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, said in a statement. “Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has intentionally signed away democracy for so many. We are disgusted.”