Critics said they find it unbelievable Republican lawmakers would adopt a bill to make it less safe to vote during the pandemic.
AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Texas state Republican lawmakers Wednesday advanced a bill that would bar drive-thru voting, legislation critics say is aimed at the state’s largest county, a Democratic stronghold where more than 100,000 voters cast ballots from their cars in the November election.
Texas House Bill 4322 aims to change the state Election Code so each polling place has to be inside a building and cannot be in tent, temporary structure, movable structure, parking garage or parking lot facilities primarily designed for motor vehicles. Republicans in the Texas House Elections Committee advanced it with a 5-4 vote along party lines Wednesday.
Then-Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins rolled out drive-thru voting with resounding success for the November elections, as more than 127,000 people cast votes in this manner, with residents of the county seat Houston raving about how easy it was, how it only took 10 to 20 minutes and expressing hope it would be an option for future elections.
During the early-voting period, Republicans unsuccessfully sued in state court to try to shut down Harris County’s drive-thru voting, and lost a challenge in federal court seeking to invalidate 127,000 drive-thru votes cast in the county.
They claimed that although the Texas Election Code limits curbside voting from vehicles only to people who are sick, disabled or whose health would be injured from voting in a polling place, Hollins had used the “pandemic as his pretext” to permit all Harris County registered voters to vote curbside or in drive-thru polls.
But voting-rights advocates testified before the elections committee Wednesday that with the pandemic still raging, now is not the time to limit safe voting options.
“I think it bears mentioning, just to be extremely clear, I think counties were doing this to try to keep voters safe,” said David Weinberg, voting rights adviser for the Brennan Center for Justice. “Nearly 50,000 Texans have died from Covid, thousands of Texans remain hospitalized from Covid.”
Weinberg noted a 70-year-old grandma died from Covid-19 in December after telling her family she thought she may have contracted the virus from an infected voter while serving as a poll worker at an early voting site in Austin.
“This is not a joke, Weinberg said. “If we want to improve upon drive-thru voting during this pandemic, let’s do that. But it seems like right now it would be a bit premature to eliminate something that is meant to keep voters safe from this deadly virus.”
Valerie DeBill of the League of Women Voters said Texas election officials should have flexibility to use temporary structures for voting in light of last year’s record-breaking hurricane season of 30 named storms, including Hurricane Zeta, which struck Louisiana just five days before the Nov. 3 election, forcing some election officials in the Bayou State to scramble to set up alternate polling sites.
“Tying the hands of officials during disasters makes no sense,” DeBill said.
The bill’s author Representative Jacey Jetton, a Korean-American who represents the Houston suburb of Sugar Land, agreed with DeBill that straying from the mandate that polls must be in buildings might be necessary in an emergency like a natural disaster. He said he believes when the governor issues an emergency declaration, that would let counties improvise polling sites and he is open to an amendment to clarify that in the measure.
Other critics of the proposed legislation made their arguments in racial terms.
Jen Ramos of the Texas Democratic Party’s executive committee said a study found that while nonwhite voters make up about 30% of Harris County early voters, they made up 54% of voters who used a drive-thru polling location for the November elections.
“This legislation would hinder our communities of color and not allow them the flexibility to continue to vote,” she told the committee.
James Slattery, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, testified he found it unbelievable Republican lawmakers would adopt a bill to make it less safe to vote during the pandemic, especially given Texas’ strict rules on mail-in voting. As the pandemic spurred several states last year to open up absentee voting to all eligible voters, Texas refused to budge, continuing to require voters under 65 to have an excuse for voting by mail.
Texas House Elections Committee Chair Briscoe Cain, a Republican attorney, questioned how Texas could have expanded vote by mail because the Legislature was not in session last year.
“The governor issued a series of emergency orders making changes to election laws,” Slattery replied. “So in theory, if he did have authority to do what he did, he could have expanded vote by mail to all Texans. He could have allowed Texans to register to vote online. He could have taken a number of actions.”
Texas’ Republican Governor Greg Abbott did loosen the rules last year. He issued an executive order in July that extended the early voting period by six days and allowed counties to accept absentee ballot drop-offs for 40 days starting Sept. 19, instead of just on Election Day.
Record numbers of Texans cast their ballots in last year’s presidential election and state election officials assessed it as “smooth and secure.” Still, Abbott made election integrity a priority for this legislative session and HB 4322 is one of numerous Republican-sponsored bills ostensibly aimed at preventing elections from being undermined by fraud.
Critics say Republicans are playing up voter fraud fears to push through laws meant to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning minority voters.
The Houston Chronicle wrote in a recent editorial that since 2005, 174 Texans have been prosecuted for election fraud, a period in which 94 million votes were cast in state elections.
“Together, they represent 0.000185 percent of the total votes cast — or 1 in 540,000 voters. Statistically, voters are more likely to get struck by lightning (1 in 500,000) than to commit voter fraud,” the editorial states.
HB 4322 now advances for a vote before the full Texas House. With Republicans holding a majority in both chambers, it is expected to easily pass both the House and the Texas Senate and be signed into law by Governor Abbott.