HOUSTON (CN) — Texas Governor Greg Abbott joined Republican lawmakers Monday to tout a suite of "election integrity" bills, though he admitted he does not know if any elections in the state last year were affected by voter fraud.
More than 11.3 million Texans cast ballots in the November presidential election, second only to California, and the 60% turnout was the highest in 30 years.
"You know there was always this mantra that Texas was a nonvoting state," Abbott said at a press conference Monday in Houston. "We had an all-time record for the number of people who voted this last time because voters are more engaged and we expect that high volume of voting to continue."
But Texas Democrats say the new slate of GOP bills – which seek to restrict voting hours to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. across the state, force the disabled to provide doctor's notes to qualify to vote by mail, require all countywide polling places to have the same number of voting machines and forbid drive-thru voting, among other restrictions – are another Republican volley in a long war to disenfranchise Texas voters, specifically voters of color.
The coronavirus pandemic led attorney Chris Hollins, then-Democratic election chief of the state's most populous county, Harris, home of Houston, to take groundbreaking steps last year to make voting easier for people afraid of contracting Covid-19 at the polls.
He implemented drive-thru voting with no restrictions on eligibility, set up a record 120 early voting sites, made early voting available for 24 hours straight one day and tried to send absentee ballot applications to all the county's more than 2 million registered voters.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, successfully sued Hollins to stop him from mailing the applications, and threw his support behind Republican lawsuits in both federal and state court that tried and failed to invalidate more than 125,000 ballots cast in drive-thru polls.
Abbott on Monday said Hollins' expansion of voting options had undermined the integrity of the November elections. Though the Texas Supreme Court refused last fall to shut down drive-thru voting in Harris County, Abbott said it is not authorized by state law.
The Republican governor said despite no known instances of voter fraud swaying a Texas election in November, "the fact is election fraud does occur," as he prosecuted such cases during his tenure as the state's attorney general from late 2002 through 2014.
His successor, Paxton, is currently prosecuting more than 500 misdemeanor cases of voter fraud, Paxton's staff recently testified before the Texas Legislature.
Abbott tried to frame election integrity as a bipartisan issue.
"But this isn't something that's partisan in nature because even [Democratic] President Barack Obama engaged in prosecuting voter fraud in Texas," he said. "He used his U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas and the FBI to prosecute a voter fraud scheme in South Texas where cocaine was being used to pay voter harvesters."
The governor was joined Monday by Briscoe Cain, chair of the Texas House Elections Committee.
Cain, an attorney who represents the blue-collar Houston suburb Deer Park, flew to Pennsylvania in November to help then-President Donald Trump's legal team challenge Joe Biden's slim victory in the state.
Cain has sponsored legislation he says is meant to make voting rules the same across Texas.
"A Texan from Lubbock should be able to move to Harris County...and know when they'll vote and the times and hours of those voting. Again, that makes it fair. It helps rural Texans feel like they have the same opportunity as urban Texans," he said.
Abbott and Cain held the press conference at the Houston office of state Senator Paul Bettencourt.
As Harris County's tax assessor-collector from 1998 to 2008, Bettencourt was also its voter registrar.
He supports another of Cain's bills that would use records of the Texas Department of Public Safety, which administers driver's licenses, to identify noncitizens so they could be purged from voter rolls if they were mistakenly added to them.
"When I came in as voter registrar, we had 50,000 deceased and felon voter registrations...That number was knocked down by well over 90% by 2000," Bettencourt said, referencing the fact that felons are not allowed to vote in Texas until they have completed parole or probation.
But critics say if the measure passes it could invite a repeat of 2019, when Texas flagged the names of thousands of registered voters, many of them Hispanic, as possibly being noncitizens who had voted illegally.
Several civil rights groups sued over the attempted purge and Texas agreed to pay them $450,000 in attorney's fees.
The Texas House Democratic Caucus addressed Republicans' election integrity efforts Monday afternoon in a press conference at an AFL-CIO auditorium in Austin convened in response to Abbott's.
"Texas is the most difficult state in the nation to exercise your right to vote in," said State Representative Eddie Rodríguez of Austin. "And that's especially true here in our Black and brown communities. As public servants we need to be making it easier, not harder, to vote and Democrats are committed to doing so."
Rodríguez cited three Democratic bills that would mandate polling places on college campuses with at least 8,000 students, automatically register Texans to vote when they apply for, or renew, their driver's licenses, and allow residents to register to vote online.
"If the governor and Senator Bettencourt and Chairman Cain were serious about making every eligible voter get to vote, then these Democratic bills should be in their priorities," he said.