County judges and voting groups say they're concerned an update to a sweeping voting bill could reduce the number of countywide polling places in minority communities – particularly in larger metropolitan areas in Texas.
Senate Bill 9 would change the state's formula for how counties figure out where to put polling places. If passed, counties would look solely at the number of registered voters in a given area, which could favor whiter neighborhoods with historically higher registration numbers.
According to the bill, the distribution should be “as equal as mathematically possible to the percentage of registered voters of the county whose registrations are effective on the date of the election residing in each state representative district.”
For example, a populous area with a lower rate of voter registration could lose a voting center, while an area with more registered voters and fewer people overall could gain a center.
Glen Maxey, a Democratic activist and former state representative, told lawmakers during an hourslong hearing of the Texas House Elections Committee on Wednesday morning that those changes would adversely affect areas with larger populations of racial minorities, who are less likely to be registered to vote.
“This is going to have a pattern of closing voting centers in voting rights-protected communities,” he said.
Beth Stevens, the legal director for the voting rights program at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a statement that the bill would tie the hands of county officials.
“SB 9’s proposed changes to the countywide polling place program are deeply alarming,” she said. “Because registration rates continue to reflect historical disenfranchisement of communities of color, SB 9 would result in widespread closing of polling places in those communities and re-distribute them to White-majority neighborhoods.”
In a letter sent to House members on Tuesday, county judges from Bexar, Dallas, El Paso, Harris, and Travis counties – which represent nearly 40 percent of the entire Texas population – called SB 9 “a sharp attack on the voting rights of our citizens.”
The judges also expressed concern over the newly proposed methodology required for distributing voting centers.
“We are acutely aware of the discrepancies in voter registration rates across different demographic groups,” they wrote. “This requirement would force our hand in removing polling places from communities of color and placing them in White-majority communities.”
Voting rights activists have also warned lawmakers for months that other provisions in SB 9 could further dissuade certain communities from voting.
The bill would create steeper criminal penalties for various voting errors. They are also concerned the bill could impose unnecessary regulations on people who are assisting voters with disabilities by requiring more paperwork and increasing criminal penalties for various violations.