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Politics

Senate Committee Approves Bill Groups Say Creates Barriers For Voters With Disabilities

The entrance to the Texas Senate chamber on Jan. 11.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
The entrance to the Texas Senate chamber on Jan. 11.

The Texas Senate State Affairs committee on Monday approved Senate Bill 1 — a bill that disability rights groups say contains measures that would hurt voters who have disabilities.

SB 1 is the latest sweeping voting bill before lawmakers, each a point of contention between Republicans and Democrats in the Texas Legislature.

During the hearing before the vote, Jeff Miller with Disability Rights Texas said this latest bill does address some of the issues his group raised during the last few times Republicans took up similar voting bills, but ultimately, if passed, the legislation will “end up disenfranchising voters with disabilities.”

Among his concerns are provisions he said would limit the types of accommodations these voters could receive at the polls and while voting by mail.

“It seeks to limit the kinds of assistance that people with disabilities are entitled to under federal law,” Miller said, “and it creates new paperwork and new oath barriers for people who want to assist voters with disabilities."

SB 1 also subjects voters with disabilities to criminal penalties, Miller said, which could create a chilling effect that makes people less inclined to help those who need help while voting.

Texas House Democrats have repeatedly broken quorum, claiming GOP voting bills are a partisan reaction to the results of the 2020 election. They also say leadership in the state is trying to make it harder for some voters — particularly voters of color and voters with disabilities — to cast a ballot in upcoming elections. This current special session is the second this year called by Gov. Greg Abbott. The governor has vowed to continue calling special sessions until the legislature sends a voting bill to his desk.

Republicans have said these provisions are necessary to prevent folks from committing voter fraud and taking advantage of disabled voters. Proponents of these bills, however, have not provided evidence that widespread voter fraud is a problem in Texas.

Bob Kafka with ADAPT Texas said lawmakers need to consider the “context” in which they pursue new restrictions — namely, that there are already many voting restrictions in the state.

“Our base is so low and then we are trying to make it more difficult,” he said.

Miller said he wished people who would be affected by this legislation were able to testify in person. However, many of those voters were unable to testify because of the rise in COVID-19 rates in Texas and because the Legislature has not allowed virtual testimony.

The sponsor of SB 1, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said he has been listening to feedback about the bill and the process.

“We are trying to make the bill better and accommodate everybody,” he said.

After hours of testimony, the committee approved the bill along party lines. It now heads to the full Texas Senate for final approval.

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