Gov. Greg Abbott formally opens Texas GOP bid to clamp down on local efforts expanding voting access

Gov. Greg Abbott formally opens Texas GOP bid to clamp down on local efforts expanding voting access
Gov. Greg Abbott formally opens Texas GOP bid to clamp down on local efforts expanding voting access

A poll worker feeds a voting machine and power cord through a voter’s car window in the drive-through line at NRG Stadium in Houston during the first day of early voting on Oct. 13, 2020.

Ten percent of Harris County’s in-person early voters during the 2020 general election cast their ballots at the county’s drive-thru polling sites. Texas Republicans are now looking to prohibit those sites.

Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Joining a nationwide movement by Republicans to enact new restrictions on voting, Gov. Greg Abbott indicated Monday he will back legislation to outlaw election measures like those used in Harris County during the 2020 election aimed at expanding safe access to the ballot box during the coronavirus pandemic.

At a press conference in Houston, Abbott served up the opening salvo in the Texas GOP’s legislative response to the 2020 election and its push to further restrict voting by taking aim at local election officials in the state’s most populous and Democratically controlled county. The governor specifically criticized officials in Harris County for attempting to send applications to vote by mail to every registered voter and their bid to set up widespread drive-thru voting, teeing up his support for legislation that would prohibit both initiatives in future elections.

“Whether it’s the unauthorized expansion of mail-in ballots or the unauthorized expansion of drive-thru voting, we must pass laws to prevent election officials from jeopardizing the election process,” Abbott said on Monday. Harris County planned to send out applications to request a mail-in ballot, not the actual ballots.

Harris County officials quickly fired back at Republicans’ proposals in their own press conference.

“These kinds of attempts to confuse, to intimidate, to suppress are a continuation of policies we’ve seen in this state since Reconstruction,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “It is a continuation as well of the big lie that’s being peddled by some far-right elements that the election in 2020 was somehow not true and should be overturned.”

Texas already has some of the strictest voting rules in the country. Some restrictions being proposed in other states are aimed at voting rules that aren’t allowed in Texas, including no excuse voting by mail and automatic voter registration.

But Texas lawmakers are looking to further tighten the state’s rules with a particular focus on measures put in place by local officials to widen access for voters. Restrictions proposed by Texas Republicans this year include prohibiting counties from sending out mail-in applications unless they’re requested by a voter, barring drive-thru voting that allows more voters to cast ballots from their cars and halting extended early voting hours.

Other counties, including Hidalgo County on the border, sent applications to request a mail-in ballot to voters 65 and older who automatically qualify to vote by mail under the state’s tight eligibility rules. But Texas Republicans’ ire fell on Harris County when it moved to send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county with instructions on how to determine if they were eligible for mail-in voting. The Texas Supreme Court ultimately blocked that effort.

The county also fought back against Republican efforts to toss out nearly 127,000 votes cast during early voting at the county’s 10 drive-thru polling places. State and federal courts rejected Republicans’ broader efforts to challenge the validity of the novel voting mechanism, though the county ultimately shuttered nine of those locations on Election Day because of continued legal challenges. Ten percent of Harris County’s in-person early voters cast their ballots at the county’s drive-thru locations.

Harris County also set up several days of extended early voting hours. Its 122 early voting sites stayed open until 10 p.m. — three hours past their usual 7 p.m. closing time — for three days, and the county offered 24-hour voting at eight locations for one day.

In a previous interview, Harris County’s election administrator Isabel Longoria said she hoped those initiatives would become permanent for future elections.

In the aftermath of the 2020 election, the Trump campaign and other Republicans worked to challenge the results, baselessly claiming that widespread fraud swayed the outcome in swing states. But those arguments fell apart in the federal courts. Election officials and even former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr also said there was no evidence to back Republican claims.

State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, who chairs the House Election Committee and appeared with Abbott on Monday, aided the Trump campaign’s work in Pennsylvania where the campaign eventually filed a lawsuit alleging widespread issues with mail-in ballots. A federal judge threw out the lawsuit, finding the former president’s team provided “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations” that were not supported by evidence.

Legislation filed by Cain, House Bill 6, includes a prohibition on proactively sending out applications to vote by mail. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who also appeared with Abbott proposed a similar prohibition in separate legislation as well as legislation that would prohibit Harris County’s extended early voting hours.

Earlier this year, Abbott named “election integrity” one of his emergency items for the legislative session, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick named “election and ballot security” one of his priorities.

Beyond prohibiting Harris County’s initiatives, the legislation among Patrick’s priorities, Senate Bill 7, would also require voters seeking to vote by mail based on a disability to provide written documentation from the Social Security Administration or a doctor to support their eligibility.

On Monday, Abbott aligned the legislative pushback on Harris County with his emergency item by arguing “the integrity of elections in 2020 were questioned” by the county’s actions and invoking his concerns about fraud in the broader electoral system in the state.

Though there are documented cases of fraud in Texas, it remains rare and there is no evidence that it is widespread.

During his remarks, Abbott noted that the outcome of local elections in the past had been “altered by election fraud.” His office did not immediately provide specifics about which elections he meant. But Abbott conceded he was unaware whether that had been the case last year.

“Right now I don’t know how many or if any elections in the state of Texas in 2020 were altered because of voter fraud,” Abbott said. “What I can tell you is this, and that is any voter fraud that takes place sow seeds of distrust in the election process.”

Gov. Greg Abbott formally opens Texas GOP bid to clamp down on local efforts expanding voting access
Source: Texas Tribune