AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Senate is taking up a sweeping piece of legislation that seeks to stifle local efforts that make it easier to vote. Republicans said the goal is to ensure no one takes advantage of the electoral system, but some advocates believe the bill is targeting some of the most vulnerable voters.
To apply for an absentee ballot in Texas, voters must be age 65 and older or living with a disability. During the November election the Texas Supreme Court ruled the lack of immunity to the coronavirus does not qualify as a valid reason to expand voting by mail, but they did allow voters to assess their own health. In its introduced form, Senate Bill 7 would seek to change that by requiring voters to show proof they are living with a disability.
“What we've heard most about, and when I say heard, I mean sworn testimony before the committee from prosecutors from law enforcement officers and I mean prosecutors both Republican and Democrats, from election officials about mail ballot fraud, in particular, folks claiming disability who do not in fact have a disability,” Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said.
Advocates for those living with disabilities argued the bill unfairly singles them out, particularly the provision requiring those seeking mail-in ballots to provide written documentation from the security administration, veterans affairs, or a licensed physician.
“Voters with disability just want to vote, they just want to be able to go to the polls and have their vote counted, unfortunately, and some, because in some circumstances, those voters have support needs that need some sort of accommodation, we treat them differently,” said Jeffrey Miller, a policy specialist for Disability Rights Texas.
The proposed legislation would mandate anyone assisting voters in completing ballots to fill out an additional form explaining their relationship, as well as the manner and reason why assistance is necessary. This also applies to caregivers who drive voters to polling locations and help them there. The bill also allows poll watchers to record voters who need assistance.
“We don't trust people that assist people with disabilities. We think they're probably trying to exploit them in some way,” Miller said.
GOP lawmakers are looking to tighten Texas’ election laws for the sake of security and integrity, despite the lack of evidence showing widespread voter fraud.
"I think this is a very problematic piece of legislation," said Myrna Perez, a native Texas and the director of the Brennan Center for Justice's Voting Rights and Elections Program. "This is just one other barrier where it looks like the politicians are trying to choose their voters rather than have their voters choose them."
SB 7 would also prevent counties from extending early voting hours, ban drive-thru voting, and prohibit counties from using grant money to administer elections.
"I think all voters need to fight back. I think all voters need to tell their politicians clearly that they want a free, fair and accessible vote, that we are all better off when all of us who are eligible are participating and voting,” Perez said.
The bill would also establish an online tracking system of a mail-in ballot, a less controversial aspect of the bill, which Hughes argues eases the process.
“We’re making it easy to vote, but making it hard to cheat. Some people don't like that,” he said.