The Texas Tribune discusses how voting and elections could change in Texas
Heider Garcia, the Tarrant County elections administrator, and Isabel Longoria, the Harris County elections administrator, discussed the future of voting in Texas, a state with some of the nation’s most restrictive voting rules.
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With one week remaining in the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers are still making changes to Senate Bill 7, a bill that would add restrictions to voting in Texas by prohibiting drive-thru voting and limiting early voting hours, among other regulations.
Texas Tribune Demographics Reporter Alexa Ura sat down for a virtual conversation with Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia and Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria to discuss the future of voting in Texas and how election laws could change. They talked about their concerns about how changes will hurt access for many voters, how uniform processes might not be best for all of the state’s counties and what they would enact if they had a magic wand.
Here are some highlights of the conversation, which was recorded May 21:
Knowing things could still change in SB 7’s final version, what are the potential impacts on your county if these proposed voting restrictions go through?
Longoria said some of the provisions in SB 7 are specifically targeted at initiatives that counties like Harris implemented in the 2020 election, such as drive-thru voting or sending out unsolicited ballot applications by mail. If passed, the law would hurt voters who rely on being able to vote later in the day or take their elderly relatives to vote by car, Longoria said.
“My job is just to provide voting and elections, period, no matter what. What I want to really turn around is this hurts voters. The voters who in Harris County have been using drive-thru voting for the past four elections next November are going to ask, ‘Where is that? I had planned my life around it,’” Longoria said. “It makes me very, very sad and very nervous for the state of elections in Texas.”
Garcia said that unlike Harris County, Tarrant County did not offer drive-thru voting or extended hours, but made voting available in other ways, like more locations open in the last days of voting or additional machines, but achieved the same level of voter turnout. He said because Texas has so many different counties, it is important for local officials to be able to make decisions based on what is best for their community, and this bill would take that ability away.
“That is an essential principle that should remain for us as local officials to say, ‘My options are out there, but … this is how I’m gonna put together my election to make it more accessible and easier for the people in my area,’” Garcia said.
What kind of voters did you try to serve with extended voting hours, and who would be most affected by limiting those hours?
In Harris County, Longoria said, more than 17,000 voters cast ballots in 2020 during extended voting hours that could be banned under SB 7. Longoria added that many of those people were medical workers whose schedules did not allow them to vote during regular hours. Even with a new voting location in Houston’s medical center, Longoria said, extended hours were still necessary in the last election for many workers to make it to the polls.
Garcia said a provision under the bill that would force the state’s largest counties to redistribute polling places, which would disproportionately affect districts with more voters of color, would make it hard for people to know where and how to vote.
“There can be unintended consequences to some of these regulations,” Garcia said.
According to Longoria’s own analysis, almost every single Harris County area currently represented by a person of color would lose voting machines under SB 7. Areas represented by white representatives would gain voting machines and locations.
Garcia emphasized that two large Texas counties can still be very different, so it is important for local officials to make decisions based on their communities.
What are the potential effects for voters with disabilities?
Previously, SB 7 included provisions that would require voters to provide proof of disability or disclose medical conditions. Those provisions are no longer in the bill, but Texas could still allow poll watchers to record voters, which has drawn concerns about voters with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
Longoria said the bill would make it harder for people to vote because it just adds steps and barriers to the process, like filling out additional forms or having to answer questions and be watched, steps that could ultimately discourage people from voting.
“It’s just the constantly chipping away in ways big and small that I’m worried about,” Longoria said.
Garcia said he sees these extra steps as hassles more than barriers, but voters with disabilities should be able to have a say in how they are able to vote and receive assistance as required without having to disclose personal information.
What would be the one thing you would do if you could make the Legislature do anything you wanted so you could better run your elections?
Garcia said one priority for him would be making online voter registration safe and accessible so that it becomes something more widely used.
“The one I don’t think I’ll see in my lifetime, but I wish … I would love to see internet voting. I think I would trust my phone more to recognize my fingerprint than someone who is looking at my signature,” Garcia said. “That would take a lot of work and a lot of time to put into play in Texas, but I would love to see something like that.”
Longoria said the Legislature should also be addressing bigger issues like the power grid and weatherization to improve conditions for voters.
“There are things that are happening with the Legislature that haven’t been answered that could ultimately help people vote,” she said.
This conversation is presented by Lone Star College, Invest Texas Council and Texas State Technical College.
Tribune events are also supported through contributions from our founding investors and members. Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists or line of questioning.
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