Election integrity and improved voter access are important goals with strong support across Texas. But election measures lose any semblance of integrity if they cross the line into interfering with the reasonable, necessary and legally protected accommodations the millions of Texans living with disabilities need to make their voices heard in our democracy. Chillingly, that’s exactly what multiple filed bills, including Senate Bill 7, would have done. We do appreciate that bill authors have worked with us and accepted amendments to remove some of the worst policies. But as the 2021 voting policy debate approaches a conclusion, the disability community knows the final outcome is yet to be decided.
The Coalition of Texans with Disabilities (CTD), the organization we lead, is the largest and oldest cross-disability advocacy organization in the state of Texas. Our staff, our board, our members and the Texans who stand at the heart of our mission, are all people who live, work and thrive in our communities while having a broad range of disabilities and functional needs.
Texans with disabilities deserve the very same feelings of both pride and responsibility able-bodied peers feel when they participate in our democracy and cast ballots. We should not have to credibly fear bullying, intimidation or worse — running afoul of the Texas state criminal code — for exercising our liberty as Texas voters.
People with disabilities — and older adults, generally — often rely on assistance from family members, caregivers and volunteers to help them cast their ballots. In plenty of cases, these helpers are also entrusted to help these very same Texans in other personal, sensitive matters affecting virtually all aspects of their lives: educational attainment, medical appointments, professional obligations, transportation and more.
Filed bills would discourage the essential assistance we need by asking helpers intrusive questions that simply seem to serve no other purpose than to intimidate them (such as, “Why and how are you assisting?”), increasing and complicating the documentation and forms required and even creating the possibility of harsh, criminal prosecution when they find themselves making simple, honest mistakes along the way.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Under other proposed legislation, people assisting voters must take an oath not to use words, signs and gestures to help voters cast their ballots — or else risk prosecution. Yet for voters living with autism, deafness, blindness and other disabilities, such guidance isn’t negotiable — it’s exactly what we need.
Then there are the proposals that would empower poll watchers — minimally and inconsistently trained, often partisan activists — to take videos of voters with disabilities and our helpers. These activists are then permitted to submit videos as “evidence” for possible criminal prosecution. What security measures and accountability devices are also there to ensure these videos don’t end up on social media and result in harassment of disabled voters and the caretakers we rely upon? The answer is shockingly simple: There are none.
Texans with disabilities deserve the same protections and access to private, lawful voting that other Texans have — even if the way we do that might look a little different. While we’re talking integrity, there are other bills this session that give legislators opportunities to continue that arc of inclusion: Allowing voters to cure mail-in ballots disqualified through signature verification immediately, rather than waiting until after an election to notify the voter; and making mail-in ballots accessible to voters with blindness with electronic ballots, something we already provide to overseas active military personnel. As the clock runs down, we recommend these issues be included in any upcoming special session.
We appreciate the legislators who accepted our amendment requests, and will be watching to see if those positive changes survive conference committee deliberations. We hope committee members will remember their constituents with disabilities and continue to call on CTD as a resource in their discussions.