(TNS) — Brian Dixon, a psychiatrist and leader in Fort Worth's Historic Southside, says he keeps making the mistake of thinking elected officials are working in his best interest, but as he reviewed two bills that opponents fear will suppress votes, he knew that wasn't the case.
"I'm already tired. I'm exhausted," Dixon said, who is Black. "And for me to have to again take time out of my day to stop what I'm doing, to then, you know basically try to watch my back to make sure that my voting rights aren't going to be usurped, it's exhausting. They need to stop."
The Texas Senate early Thursday morning passed Senate Bill 7, a wide-ranging bill related to voting procedures in the state.
The bill would limit extended early voting hours and prohibit drive-through voting. It also would prohibit local election officials from giving vote by mail applications to people who didn't request one. Poll watchers, typically affiliated with a political party or a candidate, would be allowed to video record activity. Hours later, a House committee began consideration of a similar proposal, House Bill 6.
"What does it say when we just get through an electric grid, an absolute disaster, and we're not talking about that, we're talking about absentee ballots from an election that was safe and secure?" Dixon said. "What does that say to Black people who want change, who want to be heard? It says, to most Black people that I'm talking to, here's racism, again, rearing its head."
Supporters say the measures are meant to bolster election integrity, a priority of Gov. Greg Abbott, but opponents argue the bills would suppress the votes of people of color, those with disabilities and young voters who have long faced barriers to the polls.
Voting rights advocates said the bills are Texas' latest attempt to make voting harder in a state where casting ballots is already difficult. Texas has regularly found itself in court for issues related to voter identification and re-districting. These measures are also likely to result in litigation, opponents say.
"It's being served on a platter that our vote is not welcomed, our vote is not wanted," said LULAC Fort Worth spokesperson Daniel Sanchez.
The legislation comes amid amplified claims of fraud during the 2020 election, but experts have said the election was the most secure in history and that there was no evidence of widespread fraud. The Texas Attorney General's Office spent more than 22,000 staff hours on voter fraud cases in 2020, but resolved just 16 cases, according to an investigation by the Houston Chronicle in December.
"I wish we could agree that any voter fraud is too much," said Senate bill author Sen. Bryan Hughes, R- Mineola, while presenting the bill on the upper chamber's floor.
Hughes argued that the legislation would help boost trust in the ballot box.
"We want to make sure that people know that when they vote, their vote will be counted and counted accurately, and that the system is fair and the system is transparent," he said. "If folks do not have that confidence they'll cease participating, and everybody loses when that happens."
Making Voting Easier, Not Harder
Dixon, president of the Historic Southside Neighborhood Association, described a system with little support for voters. Many have obligations like work that make it difficult for them to allocate the time needed to vote.
"And then that's used against them by saying 'Oh, we have low voter turnout.' Well, if we want to make early voting harder, if we're adding additional hurdles, that's just going to make it worse," he said.
There were some efforts to make voting easier during the November 2020 general election, as Texans headed to the polls amid the coronavirus pandemic. Statewide, the in-person early voting period was extended six days to space out voters.
But some policies, particularly in Houston's Harris County, were met with sharp backlash and legal battles. This included drive-thru voting, 24-hour voting and the county's effort to send vote-by-mail applications to all registered voters, which was blocked in court. All of the measures would be barred under proposed legislation.
Voting by mail hasn't been easy for Natalie Renfro in the past. She's 23 and tech savvy, but still struggled to ensure her ballot made it from Missouri to Texas while voting as a student at Missouri State University in Springfield.
Voting is hard enough as it is, said Renfro, who grew up in Keller. The bills winding through the Texas Legislature related to election procedures are a cause of concern for the absentee voter.
"Voting needs to be accessible," she said. "It's a right. You cannot be putting up barriers to our right to vote."
House Bill 6 would make it a state jail felony for public officials to send an unsolicited vote by mail application. The crime could result in up to two years in jail and a fine of $10,000. The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization that regularly distributes applications to vote by mail, said it is worried volunteers could be barred from handing out the material.
Pamela Young, a community organizer who works with United Fort Worth, fears the bills would discourage people from becoming poll workers.
Voting rights advocates have expressed concern that measures limiting an election worker's ability to remove poll watchers and empowering poll watchers to record video could lead to voter intimidation.
"There's already intimidation, extreme intimidation, at the polls in the South, in Texas and in Fort Worth, in Tarrant County for voters of color, and so to have partisan poll watcher power being elevated above election official authority would only increase that intimidation factor," Young said.
After hearing from opponents, some changes were made to Senate Bill 7 on the chamber's floor as lawmakers debated the bill late into the night. Notably, a provision that would require a doctor's note to vote by mail for those with disabilities was removed. Disability rights activists questioned why someone should have to go to a doctor's office and foot the bill just to vote.
Dixon questioned why the policy was even up for debate in the first place.
"We're literally burning tax dollars to debate something that's fragrantly illegal," he said. "It's like a medical poll tax. You cannot do that."
David Goodin, a Navy veteran from Azle who is a double amputee, said he has been able to get his mail in ballot through Veteran Affairs. He used to vote in person but is currently without a vehicle. Goodin says he tries to stay up to date on issues related to voting and would like to see "voting by phone" which, as he imagines it, would let people vote while on a video phone call.
Reviewing news articles about the legislative proposals, Goodin said he understands the need for some type of security for voting by mail.
"To me, they're just trying to ensure the right vote gets counted," he said.
Where Do North Texas Lawmakers, Officials Stand?
For North Texas Congressman Marc Veasey, D- Fort Worth, it's clear the legislation isn't designed to foster voting.
"They're all meant to specifically target the communities that are actually helping Tarrant County grow," Veasey said, pointing out that much of the growth in the county comes from Black, Hispanic and Asian voters.
"So instead of looking for ways to empower these voters, instead of looking for ways to make it easier to vote like what Texas did after Jim Crow ended, instead they're being scaled back," Veasey said.
Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said he usually waits until bills get further along in the legislative process before deciding where he stands on an issue. During the November general election, Tarrant County had one site where voters could drop off mail-in ballots, something he said is needed in the county.
But the integrity of each person's vote is his top priority, he said.
"I think we should be doing things that would encourage voting ... and you can do it and still maintain the integrity," he said.
Several Republican Tarrant County lawmakers support the election-related measures. Sen. Jane Nelson and Sen. Brian Birdwell have signed on as co-authors for Senate Bill 7. Fort Worth-area representatives co-authoring House Bill 6 include Rep. Jeff Cason, Rep. Craig Goldman, Rep. Stephanie Klick, Rep. Matt Krause and Rep. Tony Tinderholt.
"No level of fraud in our elections is acceptable, and I continue to hear from constituents urging the Legislature to make sure that the ballot process is secure," Nelson said in a statement. "Senate Bill 7 puts much-needed safeguards in place to improve election integrity. Fair and transparent elections are fundamental to our rights as Americans."
Krause pushed back against the idea that the bill would suppress votes, pointing to the November general election, when he said record turnout was seen despite some of the same arguments being levied against the state government.
"If we had 100 percent participation in the next election, I think that would be phenomenal," Krause said. "But we also want to make sure, as we do have that growing population of voters, that we've got the structural restraints in place to make sure that people are counted accurately and those votes are meaningful and there's no illegal activity to dilute the people's voice."
In an interview with the Star-Telegram, Sen. Beverly Powell, D- Burleson, advocated for making voting easier to ensure Texan's votes are heard.
Ensuring voices weren't missing from the conversation was part of the reason why State Rep. Nicole Collier, who does not sit on the House Elections committee but chairs the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, wanted to participate in a hearing that was cut short last week due to a procedural error. She was barred from doing so before the hearing's premature end.
It was the second time a hearing on election-related bills was delayed in a week, after Senate Democrats used a legislative maneuver to push back a hearing on the Senate proposals.
The legislative proposals single out Harris County, but what the county did to try and make voting more accessible is admirable, said Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat.
"The greater effort that we need to do is increase voter participation," Collier said. "And you don't do that by making more restrictions."
(c)2021 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.