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Local Election Officials Tried To Make Voting Safe During The Pandemic. Texas Republicans Want To Ban A Lot Of What They Did.

People outside a voting center at Arbor Walk Shopping Center on Election Day 2020.
Julia Reihs
/
KUT
Voters social distance outside a polling site at the Arbor Walk ShoppingCenter on Election Day 2020.

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Republicans in Texas have made voter fraud a key issue during this year’s legislative session, while voting groups say their proposals would make it even harder to vote.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday he’s throwing his support behind a series of bills he says would restore integrity to the state’s elections.

“We must have trust and confidence in elections and one way to do that is to reduce voter fraud in our elections,” he said during a news conference in Houston.

This is not a new thing in Texas. For years, Republican state lawmakers have claimed there is widespread voter fraud in the state, although they've never provided any evidence. The allegations have been enough for them to change voting rules pretty much every session.

This year, legislation is explicitly aimed at what election officials in Houston and other major cities did to make voting easier during the pandemic.

Abbott, along with state Sen. Paul Bettencourt and state Rep. Briscoe Cain, claim election officials in Harris County opened the door for fraud when they attempted to send “unsolicited mail-in ballot applications to millions of voters.”

Abbott said this probably included voters who weren’t eligible to vote that way. Texas has one of the most limited vote-by-mail programs in the country. It's restricted primarily to people who are over 65 or disabled.

“Election officials should be working to stop potential mail ballot fraud, not facilitate it,” he said Monday.

There’s no evidence that local efforts led —or were going to lead — to fraud.

Bettencourt, who announced a slew of voting bills, also said he didn’t like that Houston expanded the numbers of hours voting centers were open during the 2020 election. He wants to make voting hours 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily in every city and county during elections.

He said this isn’t about partisanship; it’s about making voting uniform across the state.

“That would increase the number of hours in rural and in some cases suburban Texas," he said. “It may decrease from what the attempt was in Harris County. … I don’t think there is denial of voter rights with that.”

Harris County is the largest county in the state, so voting lines are typically longer there. That's partly why officials extended hours during the popular election. They also wanted to make it easier for low-income shift workers to vote.

Bettencourt said he doesn’t think voters in Harris County should be able to have different voting hours than people in other parts of the state.

Abbott said he didn’t like that Harris County “created drive-thru voting” during the 2020 election, which he said was not authorized by state law.

“Texas law does allow curbside voting as an option – only for certain voters,” he said.

Texas Republicans have filed bills this session that would basically outlaw all Harris County’s efforts to expand voter access in 2020.

Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the country and has been voting significantly more Democratic in the past few years.

A spokesperson for MOVE Texas, a group working to get young people civically engaged, said these bills are nothing short of a “cynical attempt to hold onto power."

“Our legislators are seeing the writing on the wall right now about the rising electorate here in Texas – that is the youngest and most diverse electorate we have ever had,” Charlie Bonner said. “And they can’t win on the issues, so they are trying to change the rules.”

The changes they've proposed would basically hamstring local officials in cities across the state.

Bonner said Republicans are fighting against efforts to make sure people could vote without coming into contact with a deadly virus, which wasn’t easy to figure out.

“So many solutions came out of local election officials trying to make these elections more accessible, and make them more open and more secure,” he said. “Those are the things that they are trying to cut first.”

Texas already has some of the strictest voting rules in the country; making it even harder could have some serious consequences. Every time lawmakers add more restrictions, Bonner said, it hurts the same groups of people.

“We know this has a disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities, young voters, new voters, first-time voters, folks who are just trying to get involved in their communities and make their voices heard,” he said. “Those are the folks that they are trying to cut out of the electorate.”

Got a tip? Email Ashley Lopez at alopez@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.

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