When Texans headed to the ballot box to pick a president in November last year, they came out in record numbers despite a global pandemic that had already killed more than 230,000 Americans.
To safeguard against the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Greg Abbott extended the early voting period by six days. Curbside voting was available for those who needed it. Those with disabilities, people aged 65 or above and individuals in jail could vote via mail-in ballots, although courts struck down attempts to expand that method of voting.
By the time all the ballots were cast, voter participation had reached its highest level in three decades.
But in the Texas Senate State Affairs Committee on Friday, Republican legislators floated debunked claims and widespread conspiracy theories over voter fraud to support SB 7, one of the most restrictive in a series of so-called voter integrity bills backed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
State Sen. Bryan Hughes, the chair of the committee and one of SB 7’s authors, defended the bill, saying: “It's important for people to know that elections in Texas are not for sale.” He failed to mention who was trying to buy elections.
Along with other Republican backers of the bill, Hughes said SB 7 would protect against voter fraud. “One of the main targets of voter fraud is mail ballots,” he said, citing the Brennan Center for Justice as evidence.
Hughes never mentioned which article he’d found that claim in, but here’s a sample of Brennan Center headlines about mail-in voting: “The False Narrative of Vote-by-Mail Fraud”; “The Myth of Voter Fraud”; and “To Protect Democracy, Expand Vote by Mail.”
After Gov. Abbott deemed election integrity an emergency item for the legislative sessions, Republican state lawmakers introduced a slate of bills that rights groups say amount to voter suppression.
The uproar over alleged voter fraud followed former President Donald Trump’s loss in the November 2020 elections. Trump and his supporters insisted without evidence that the election had been rigged in favor of Democrat Joe Biden.
Along with SB 7, House Bill 6 and more than a dozen other election-related bills have been filed by Republicans in the Legislature.
Under SB 7, only individuals who can provide medical documentation proving their inability to vote in person could vote by mail. The bill also prohibits curbside voting and blocks local election officials from implementing measures that would make it easier to vote.
Meanwhile, SB 7 would grant the attorney general more power to hunt down and prosecute individuals suspected of voter fraud and block local election officials from distributing mail-in voting registration forms.
“Right now, we actually have three different election processes: We have mail-in ballots, early voting, and we have Election Day,” Hughes said, arguing that this reality “opens up an opportunity for fraud.”
Grilled by state Sen. Royce West, a Democrat from Dallas, about whether the bill's authors had considered input from civil rights groups or voting advocacy organizations, Hughes admitted: "We didn't solicit input from [voting rights] groups."
The tunnel-vision focus on supposed cases of voter fraud comes just days after the ACLU of Texas released data about Attorney General Ken Paxton’s attempts to root out such cases.
Speaking about HB 6 earlier this month, a representative from Paxton’s office insisted that there 500 pending cases targeting individuals accused of voting infractions, the civil liberties group noted.
But the ACLU of Texas obtained the actual number of cases through a public information request: As of Feb. 12, there were only 43 pending prosecutions, none of which had yet resulted in a guilty verdict.
“The attorney general owes both the House Election Committee and the public a forthright explanation for the extreme discrepancy between its testimony and its own records concerning pending prosecutions,” Tommy Buser-Clancy, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, said in a statement sent to the Observer.
“Purposeful or not, the inflation of the number of cases is especially disturbing as it appears to be aimed at laying the groundwork to further criminalize voting in Texas, like in House Bill 6,” Buser-Clancy added. “The vast majority of Texans want measures that make voting easier. The state does not need more criminal penalties and restrictions, nor should those restrictions be buttressed by unsubstantiated numbers.”
Other voting advocacy groups and civil rights organizations have argued that SB 7 and HB 6 would most affect communities of color, those with disabilities and individuals with medical conditions who depend on mail-in voting, among others.
This week, the ACLU of Texas released an analysis concluding that Paxton’s election integrity unit had gone after voters of color at a disproportionate rate while prosecuting alleged voting offenses over a six-year period. More than 72% of those prosecutions targeted Black and Latino individuals.
Jeff Miller of Disability Rights Texas said that SB 7 and HB 6 could lead to violations of laws including the Americans with Disabilities Act and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
"We're pro-integrity of elections and security as much as anyone else, but we believe the way they're trying to do it has the unintended consequences of disenfranchising voters with disabilities,” Miller told the Observer.
Texas Democrats have also spoken out against SB 7 and HB 6, among others. On Thursday, Rep. Briscoe Cain, the Republican chair of the House Elections Committee, adjourned a meeting on HB 6 without permitting citizens and others to testify.
“There’s a better chance you will be struck by lightning than participate in voter fraud in this state,” former U.S. Congressman Beto O’Rourke said on Thursday. “This is about trying to stop the voices of our fellow Texans.”