Republican 'Election Integrity' Bills Could 'Disenfranchise' Voters with Disabilities

Voters queue in Oak Cliff early on Election Day 2020.
Voters queue in Oak Cliff early on Election Day 2020. Lauren Drewes Daniels
As public policy specialist for the Texas Parent to Parent advocacy group, Linda Litzinger has for years spoken out against bills that would be harmful for people with disabilities. But the issue is also personal for Litzinger, whose adult daughter was born with quadriplegia.

At the moment, Litzinger has set her sights on SB 7, one of the most severe proposals among a spate of so-called election integrity bills before the Legislature. Introduced by Republicans, those bills have been described by advocacy groups as barefaced attempts to expand voter suppression.

SB 7 seems to "have more momentum" than past bills that would narrow voting rights, she told the Observer, explaining that the bill would deter many voters with disabilities from casting their ballots.

Litzinger argued that the bill seeks to "disenfranchise as many voters as possible," but that it will require voters with disabilities, who could require assistance voting in-person or often vote by mail, to "prove that they have a disability."

"The other thing that struck me is that this seems like, if you're trying to narrow who votes … then you must be lacking as a party if you can't come up with good solutions for America or this state," she said.

Worse still, these bills have been introduced during a global pandemic, a time when voters need safe measures to protect against the coronavirus, Litzinger said.

Authored by more than a dozen Republican state senators, SB 7 would bar local election officials and voter advocacy groups from distributing mail-in vote applications, place the responsibility for clerical errors on election officials and grant more power to the attorney general to hunt down suspected fraud cases, among other provisions.

"They're assuming that you're going to be standing there pushing the levers for somebody or something, but that's not the way it is." - Linda Litzinger, Texas Parent to Parent

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SB 7 would also limit mail-in voting to voters who provide medical documentation proving that they cannot vote in-person at a voting center and prevent local election officials from implementing measures that would further facilitate voting.

Requiring voters with disabilities to provide medical documentation would also leave them with additional costs for doctors visits, while those who have to go in-person will have to spend money on ramped cab rides or other means of transportation that could accommodate them.

The Republican bills could also make it more difficult for individuals who help voters with disabilities, Litzinger said. "They're assuming that you're going to be standing there pushing the levers for somebody or something, but that's not the way it is," she said.

On Tuesday, the Texas Democratic Party described SB 7 as the GOP's "latest extremist attack on voting rights," saying the proposed legislation comes amid "a new set of extreme anti-voter bills" that would result in widespread suppression.

"This is an attack on our constitutional right to vote, and with it, an attack on our communities and our future," party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in the statement.

After Democrat Joe Biden bested former President Donald Trump last November, Republicans in Texas and beyond rallied behind baseless claims of widespread voter fraud, alleging that the election had been rigged against Trump.

Earlier this year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott named election integrity as one of five “emergency items” for this legislative session, a designation that allows for fast-tracking bills in the Legislature.

“One thing all of us should agree on, whether you’re a Republican, Democrat or independent, is that we must have trust and confidence in the outcome of our elections,” Abbott said at the time.

Last week, the governor traveled to Houston for a press conference where he urged state lawmakers to pass SB 7 and other Republican-filed bills related to electoral processes.

"One thing all of us should agree on, whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, or independent, is that we must have trust and confidence in the outcome of our elections." - Gov. Greg Abbott

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"Our objective is very simple, and that is to ensure that every eligible voter gets to vote,” Abbott said. “It's also to ensure that only eligible votes are the ones that count at the ballot box.”

But as Republicans move forward in the Legislature with the slate of election integrity bills, advocacy organizations and rights groups say bills like SB 7 would disenfranchise voters of color, those with disabilities, election administrators and people with chronic medical conditions who depend on mail-in voting, among others.

"Texans want to live in a democracy where elected officials serve on their behalf and solve their problems," the ACLU of Texas said in a statement on Wednesday. "We need to keep asking lawmakers questions about why they want to make voting even harder in Texas without any justification or evidence supporting restrictions."

Move Texas, another advocacy group, said SB 7 and similar bills come at a time when Texas stands out as one of the most difficult states to vote in around the country.

"Last year's election showed that we can increase voter turnout and keep our elections secure if we adopt common-sense reforms," Move Texas said in a statement. "Instead of supporting these efforts, Gov. Abbott and his allies have ripped a page straight out of the Jim Crow playbook by trying to make it more difficult to vote."

Texas AFL-CIO, a federation of unions, called Texas Republicans "sore losers," saying in a statement that "the working families of the state labor federation will oppose any bills that tend to make voting harder for working people, especially historically disenfranchised people of color and people with disabilities."

Bob Kafka, a coordinator with REV UP Texas, a nonpartisan initiative that advocates for voters with disabilities, said "there is near unanimity" against both HB 6 and SB 7 among those with disabilities.

"There is such a thing as the disability vote," he told the Observer. "It's growing, and that's why we're so upset. Finally, we've seen a growth in the disability vote, and now House Bill 6 and Senate Bill 7 will set us back over a decade."

"Finally, we've seen a growth in the disability vote, and now House Bill 6 and Senate Bill 7 will set us back over a decade." - Bob Kafka, REV UP Texas

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With criticism mounting, Texas Republicans have defended the election-related bills. Texas GOP chairman Allen West, in his testimony to the Senate State Affairs Committee, pushed forward with the claim that widespread voter fraud took place last November.

"There are those who state that SB 7 and Republicans are seeking to advance voter suppression," West said. "Our response is that the levels of voter fraud and unconstitutional actions that we witnessed are the main causes of voter suppression for all Texans."

As of Feb. 21, state lawmakers in at least 43 states had introduced more than 250 bills with provisions that restrict voting access, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The Brennan Center says that number is "over seven times the number of restrictive bills" that had been introduced by this time last year. Meanwhile, more than 700 bills in state legislatures would make voting easier.

On Monday, dozens of advocacy groups, watchdogs, nonprofits and unions published an open letter addressed to chair of the House elections committee Briscoe Cain, vice chair Jessica Gonzalez and other committee members about HB 6, another bill fueling charges of voter suppression.

Citing the pandemic, the letter requested that advocacy groups and rights organizations be allowed to provide “virtual input” during a committee meeting on Thursday on HB 6.

Describing HB 6 as “the most complicated and consequential piece of legislation” in recent years, the letter urged the committee to consider input from “voters with disabilities, voters of color, Texans who regularly use vote by mail (such as those with chronic medical conditions or those over the age of 65), and elections administrators.”

At time of publication, neither Reps. Cain nor Gonzalez could be reached for comment.

Litzinger hopes SB 7 and other bills like it die in the Legislature. "People with disabilities will have to jump through hoops to continue to vote the way they have been voting," she said. "Hoops that will take time to get the necessary documentation, and trouble and expense." 
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Patrick Strickland is the news editor at the Dallas Observer. He's a former senior reporter at Al Jazeera English and has reported for the New York Review of Books, The Guardian, Politico EU and The New Republic, among others.