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Politics

It's Unsafe For Vulnerable Texans To Testify On Bills That Could Limit Access To Voting, Advocates Say

The Texas State Capitol building on Jan. 11, 2021.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT

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Voting rights groups say conditions at the state Capitol over the past few weeks have made it unsafe for disabled and medically vulnerable Texans to testify on legislation that could seriously affect them.

The Republican-backed bills add restrictions for voting by mail — which is largely used by voters over 65 and those with disabilities — and create new rules and penalties for people who assist voters with disabilities.

Throughout debate over the bills, advocates said, there was little to no enforcement of safety protocols, like mask-wearing. Speakers were also required to testify in person.

“People with disabilities had to choose between their health and speaking out to protect their fundamental rights,” Hani Mirza, a senior attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said.

Charlie Bonner, a spokesperson for the voter engagement group MOVE Texas, said there has been “a clear disdain for the rules” as lawmakers consider some of the most controversial voting legislation this year.

“The House has very clear rules in place right now that committee hearings are supposed to be masked areas to protect the safety of those showing up to testify,” Bonner said.

But those rules were ignored by people in the committee room, he said, as well as folks in overflow rooms set aside for a hearing this week on House Bill 6.

“At several different times, members of the voting rights community and those who were concerned about their safety asked the sergeants in the room to enforce these mask rules,” Bonner said.

Their concerns went largely unheeded, he said.

Wesley Story, communications manager for the nonprofit media group Progress Texas, said he went to testify on one of the voting bills last week but quickly left.

“It became extremely apparent to me that there were tons of folks walking around without masks,” he said. “I didn’t expect [this] to be so rampant.”

Story said he decided to submit written comments on the bill and went home because he didn’t feel safe.

Even though voting rights is a core issue for his group, Story said he decided it would be best for him and his team to not testify on HB 6 this week.

“This is a huge issue for Texans who believe in science and are trying to protect their health and safety,” he said. “This is a barrier to folks participating in the democratic process.”

Voting rights groups have been pleading with Republican leaders in the Texas Legislature to allow virtual testimony this year.

Groups sent a letter to leaders in the House and Senate this week warning them that requiring in-person testimony with relaxed mask rules is not just a threat to public health; it’s also a violation of federal laws.

“The Legislature’s inadequate COVID-19 protocols and failure to provide a remote-testimony option violate a number of federal laws — including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act, and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” groups — including the Texas Civil Rights Project, the League of Women Voters of Texas and Disability Rights Texas — wrote.

Mirza said lawmakers have continued to make “no reasonable accommodations” for disabled or medically vulnerable Texans.

Bonner said, unfortunately, these are some of the voters lawmakers most need to hear from as they consider voting legislation.

“Those who seem to lose the most in terms of voting rights under this voter suppression legislation are the ones who shouldn’t be at the Capitol right now — who it is not safe for,” he said. “And so we have grave concerns that their voices are not being heard through this process.”

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

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