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Texas must face federal lawsuit over controversial voting restrictions

A federal judge found the Biden administration has standing to sue Texas over alleged voting and civil rights violations.

(CN) — A federal judge has ruled that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland can proceed with voting and civil rights claims against Texas over a state law passed last year to address purported voter fraud.

State officials had asked U.S. District Court Judge Xavier Rodriguez to dismiss the case, arguing that federal officials did not have standing to sue them. They argued that local election officials — not state ones — were charged with implementing the new law.

The George W. Bush appointee disagreed in an order Tuesday, finding the U.S. attorney general has "broad constitutional power to protect the right to vote" and is “congressionally authorized” to go after voting rights violations.

The federal government had a “significant stake” in protecting “the general welfare of its citizenry,” Rodriguez wrote. He found the U.S. government had plausibly alleged that Texas law would “disenfranchise eligible Texas citizens who seek to exercise their vote,” including those with disabilities, limited knowledge of English and “members of the military deployed away from home.”

The law, Senate Bill 1, was part of a raft of legislation passed in conservative states in response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged. Numerous lawsuits and investigations, including a GOP-led audit in Arizona, did not turn up any evidence of widespread voting irregularities. Trump’s own federal officials called the 2020 election “the most secure in American history.”

Still, conspiracies about the 2020 election have abounded, and Republican politicians have seized the moment to call for tightening voting restrictions. In Texas, officials last year announced an election audit in several major counties, despite the fact that Trump won the state and and that the secretary of state’s office called the election “smooth and secure.” The Republican-led Legislature also pushed through bills to curtail mail-in ballots and otherwise restrict access to the ballot, a move that saw Democratic state lawmakers flee the state in a futile attempt to prevent such restrictions from passing.

While Democrats succeeded in preventing quorum during the regular legislative session, Republican Governor Greg Abbott called a special session dedicated in part in election reform. Within months, the governor had signed SB 1 into law.

In a statement, Abbott said the law would ensure “trust and confidence in our elections system” — but that isn’t how civil rights group saw it. They argued the law was intended to clamp down on legal voting rights practices used by Democratic-leaning voters, including drive-thru and early voting options used in Democratic-leaning Houston during the coronavirus pandemic.

In September — days before Abbott even signed SB 1 — several civil rights groups and legal associations filed suit to stop the law. They argued it would suppress voting rights in Texas and criminalize protected activities that "help citizens exercise their constitutional right to vote.”

The complaint pointed to what it said were several unconstitutional provisions in SB1, including making it harder for voters to seek voting assistance, giving “partisan poll watchers ‘free movement’ to intimidate and harass voters" and limiting “protected political speech and legitimate voter turnout initiatives” with “vague criminal penalties."

SB 1 would make it harder for election administrators to “ensure peaceful, orderly elections,” the lawsuit warned. It stressed that “there is simply no evidence that voter fraud occurs in Texas beyond the very few examples already identified through Texas’s pre-existing processes and procedures.”

That case was one of at least five lawsuits filed against Texas over new state voting restrictions. Later in September, Rodriguez agreed to consolidate several into one massive voting-rights case.

In November, the U.S. attorney general’s office intervened, expressing an interest the case and urging Rodriguez not to dismiss the claims. Voting lawsuits brought by private groups were necessary, the filing argued, due to the “limited federal resources available for Voting Rights Act enforcement” and because states with histories of voter restrictions no longer had to seek federal preclearance for voting changes following the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder.

Later that month, the AG's office also filed suit against the Lone Star State. In a strongly worded complaint, federal officials argued that Texas already had some of the “strictest [voting] limitations in the nation” and that SB1 would “impermissibly” restrict and disenfranchise voters.

Texas’s “history of official voting-related discrimination against its disfavored citizens is longstanding and well-documented,” the complaint said. "Federal intervention has been necessary to eliminate numerous devices intentionally used to restrict minority voting in Texas.”

This lengthy and complex legal battle, involving a variety of parties, led up to Tuesday's order. Over the months, Texas officials have tried numerous avenues to dismiss the case.

Among other things, state officials zeroed in on the state’s new voter ID and mail-in ballot requirements. Because the state allows voters to “cure” their ballots, they argued, the law did not deny the right to vote.

Rodriguez rejected this argument and others, writing that a voter’s opportunity to cure their ballot “does not necessarily mean” that SB 1 did not violate the Civil Rights Act. The law does not allow state officials to “initially deny the right to vote…as long as they institute cure processes,” he wrote. Instead, it bars these actions altogether.

He also found that, while local elections officials may be in charge of implementing the law, SB 1 was in fact "traceable" to state officials, and therefore they could be sued. Since the law has so far been in effect for the state's primary elections, the U.S. government had also alleged an injury, he found.

Rather than issuing an injunction preventing enforcement of parts of SB 1, Rodriguez’s order instead simply allows the U.S. government to continue with its lawsuit. It remains to be seen how the case will play out, including whether controversial aspects of SB 1 will remain in effect for the 2022 midterm elections later this year.

The Texas secretary of state’s office did not respond by press time to requests for comment on the order. La Unión del Pueblo Entero, a worker’s rights organization founded by activists César Chávez and Dolores Huerta that is serving as the lead plaintiff in the case, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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