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For Longtime Civil Rights Advocates, Proposed Voting Restrictions Echo the Past

Civil rights groups, politicians and corporations have all spoken out against Texas' bills to limit voting.
Civil rights groups, politicians and corporations have all spoken out against Texas' bills to limit voting.
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U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson still remembers when Texans had to pay a poll tax to vote. Even well after she was elected to the Texas House in 1972 and became the first Black woman from Dallas elected to public office, she remembers how hard local election authorities fought to restrict the voting rights of Black Texans.

During her time in the Texas Senate, which started with her election in 1986, Johnson had to rush out to East Texas on occasion. In Black neighborhoods in towns like Paris, election administrators had placed the voting stations in places meant to intimidate voters — like next to the local jail.

At 85 years old, Johnson has served in the U.S House of Representatives since 1993. Throughout her nearly five decades in politics, she’s seen progress made. But she now fears the gains wrought from decades of civil rights struggles could once again be taken away. “We are back in that era except they're using it in a different fashion,” she said.

Gov. Greg Abbott and a band of loyal Texas Republican lawmakers are pushing legislation that civil rights groups and watchdogs say would effectively disenfranchise some of the state’s most marginalized voters, including people of color and those with disabilities.

To Johnson, the so-called election integrity bills promoted by Abbott are “clearly designed to discourage minorities from voting.

“I grew up during the time when you had to pay a poll tax,” she said. “When you think of all the taxpayer money being spent to deny many of the citizens the right to even cast a vote, it's embarrassing, it's hurtful and it's wrong.”

Last week, Republican state senators passed SB 7, a bill that has attracted widespread criticism. If it becomes law, SB 7 will restrict how and when voters can cast their ballots, bar drive-thru voting and forbid election administrators from distributing mail-in voting applications, among other provisions.

Another bill, HB 6, would restrict election administrators in how much they can do to prevent “illegal disruptions,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The bill would also empower election watchers to film or photograph voters they claim are engaged in some sort of fraud, a provision rights groups say amounts to voter intimidation.

State Rep. Briscoe Cain, who filed HB 6, did not reply to the Observer’s request for comment.

Rights groups like Move Texas and the Texas Organizing Project have blasted SB 7 and other bills like it, saying that the proposals would effectively bring the state back to the Jim Crow era.

“There is no way to spin these bills as strengthening ‘election safety.’ It’s clearly about suppressing the vote of Black and Latino communities,” Brianna Brown, deputy director of TOP, said in a recent press release.

“Republicans have decided that they can no longer win elections or maintain power based on their out-of-touch policies so they’ve [decided] the best path forward is to cheat.”

Emily Eby, a staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, also worries that the bills will disproportionately harm voters of color.

“In Texas when there are voter suppression bills, it's always communities of color that bear it the worst,” Eby said. “I think the people who have been in power for a long time are scared they can't compete with the ideas, so they're trying to compete with the turnout.”

Even before the new onslaught of voting-related bills in the Legislature, Texas was already a tough place to vote.

According to a study conducted in the Election Law Journal last fall, Texas came in as the most difficult state in the country to vote ahead of last November’s presidential elections. The reasons? Restrictions on mail-in voting and voter registration and a reduced number of polling stations in many parts of the state.

But when former President Donald Trump lost to Democratic contender Joe Biden in November, Texas Republicans saw an opportunity to latch onto Trump’s unfounded claims that the election had been rigged in Biden’s favor.

Earlier this year, Gov. Abbott announced that “election integrity” was on his list of emergency items for the legislative session.

During a press conference in March, Abbott laid out his case for the voting bills, arguing that election integrity was in peril.

“Our objective in Texas is to ensure that every eligible voter gets to vote and that only eligible ballots are counted,” the governor said. “In the 2020 election, we witnessed actions throughout our state that could risk the integrity of our elections and enable voter fraud, which is why I made election integrity an emergency item this session.”

Experts say, however, that voter fraud is uncommon. While politicians drum up concern over alleged cases of voter fraud nationwide — in the 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections, for instance — the Brennan Center for Justice says “extensive research” suggests it’s “very rare,” while “voter impersonation is virtually nonexistent, and many instances of alleged fraud are, in fact, mistakes by voters or administrators.”

Even in the case of mistakes, Texas legislators are ready to dole out harsher punishment. As part of HB 6, the Attorney General’s Office would have greater power to hunt down and prosecute voters and administrators for infractions as trivial as clerical errors.

Born in 1945, Willie Hudspeth grew up in Fort Worth and attended segregated schools as a boy. Today, he lives in Denton, where he serves as the president of the county’s NAACP branch. The 75-year-old activist has been involved in civil rights struggles for decades, including leading a 21-year campaign to have the Confederate monument removed from downtown Denton’s historic square.

He’s still researching the new voter bills, but broadly speaking, he says, "On the face of it, it worries me and reminds me of what it was like back when I was growing up.

“Categorically, anything to restrict people from voting legally — and those words are very dear to my heart — I'm against. If you are doing something to hinder anyone from voting legally, yeah, I'm against it.”

The backlash has already started. After Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, signed into law a new voting restriction bill in his state, Atlanta-based companies like Coca-Cola and Delta condemned the move. Now, Texas-based companies, including Dell and American Airlines, have spoken out against SB 7.

“To make American’s stance clear: We are strongly opposed to this bill and others like it,” American Airlines said in a statement.

When Major League Baseball pulled its All-Star Game from Georgia in protest of the state's new voting law, Abbott responded by publicly blasting the move and saying that he would no longer throw the first pitch at the Texas Rangers' opening home game.

Watching on from Washington, Johnson wonders if lawmakers in her home state understand how badly restricting voting rights looks from the outside. “I wish Texans at the state level could hear and see how they look to the rest of the world,” she said.

But Texas Republicans appear unfazed by mounting criticism, a fact that makes Johnson suspect that their efforts to curb voting will trigger backlash. She thinks back to Bloody Sunday, when hundreds of civil rights advocates marched on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965.

That day more than five decades ago, state troopers, officers from the county sheriff’s department and others attacked the marchers. Tear gas filled the air, batons were swung and police charged on horseback. By the time it ended, more than a dozen people were hospitalized and dozens more injured.

But Bloody Sunday became a turning point in the civil rights movement, a day that sparked rallies in more than 80 cities around the country.

“What they're doing now is just going to increase the rebellion of those who see injustice,” Johnson said. “I think you have more people in this country now that stand for fairness and justice than we did in the past. All of them are not going to be muffled, and all of them are not going to be denied their right to vote.”

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