Voter Suppression Disguised as Election Reform Comes at a Price

The 87th Legislative Session began its first special session on July 8 to address voting legislation that failed in the regular session, and it’s important for the public and legislative members to consider the context. Electoral reform proposals do not happen in a vacuum — there is history in Texas of using false allegations of threats to election integrity as a proxy for voter suppression. For years, Texas had to get prior approval from the U.S. Department of Justice for any electoral change according to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. 

As the demographic makeup of the state has evolved, voter discrimination efforts have intensified. Texas is home to the second-largest Latino population of the United States, and demographic projections show that by 2040, Latinos will be the majority in the state. Texas also has a Black population of more than two million and a consistently growing Asian American population. This makes Texas an ethnic minority-majority state in total population, but not in voting strength. The increasing number of racial and ethnic groups in Texas highlights the need to vigilantly protect the voice and electoral rights of the state’s Latino, Black, and Asian American electorate. 

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the preclearance requirement, was enacted to prevent changes in election practices or procedures in covered jurisdictions until the new procedures were determined to have neither discriminatory purpose or effect. Changes such as removing polling locations, adding new identity documentation, or modifying the process for mail-in ballots would have to be approved to ensure Latino, Black, and Asian voting power was not retrogressed. Section 5 was considered to be the heart of the Voting Rights Act, because it stopped voter discrimination before it happened and placed the burden on the state to prove that electoral changes on the state or local level would not put Latino, Black, or Asian American voters in a worse position in terms of electoral power. Section 5 was extended to Texas in 1975 due to the state’s history of excluding Mexican Americans from the political process. At the time, Texas led the nation in several categories of voting discrimination, including Section 5 violations and Section 2 challenges. 

Since 1982, there have been at least 30 successful Section 5 enforcement actions in which the Department of Justice has participated prior to the Shelby County v. Holder U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down Section 5’s coverage formula in 2013. Quashing the formula that determined which states and jurisdictions Section 5 could be applied to effectively gutted the enforcement of the act. Without Section 5 protection, Texas officials are free to implement discriminatory changes that will reduce the voting power of marginalized groups until these communities bring a lawsuit and prove the discrimination – often after the impact. 

With or without Section 5, local county election officials are on the front lines to make sure voting is secure and accessible to all. Traditionally, county election officials are given a fair amount of leeway to implement and conduct elections with guidance from the Secretary of State. Even with Section 5, Texas consistently ranks poorly in voting turnout – usually around 11th from the bottom of all states. During the pandemic, counties like Harris, Bexar, and Travis attempted to make voting safer by instituting more mobile voting sites, drive-thru voting procedures, extended hours for polling locations, and access to mail-in ballots for eligible voters. These procedures did not alter any state law requirements. In fact, Keith Ingram, the top elections official for the Texas Secretary of State, testified in March 2021 that Texas had a smooth and secure election in 2020. 

Despite Texas having a longstanding history of secure elections, conservative legislators ramrodded Senate Bill 7 through the legislative process in the regular session. Committee hearings were cancelled unceremoniously with witnesses unable to give testimony, questions from legislators went unanswered, and large sections of the bill were redrafted and changed at the last minute with little to no transparency. Advocates expressed concerns that the effects of SB 7 will almost certainly make voting even harder for groups that Texas voting rules have long marginalized — voters of color, voters with disabilities, low-income voters, and voters with limited English proficiency — and who are the most likely to be shut out when voting procedures are tightened. 

Passing legislation in this manner diminishes the faith of the electorate in the voting process and contributes to the false narrative that elections are rigged. In the end, the institution of Democracy itself is diminished. This can have lasting and resounding impacts. 

Young people who reported having been either encouraged to vote or taught how to register to vote in high school are more likely to vote and participate in other civic activities, be more knowledgeable about voting processes, and become more invested in and attentive to the 2020 election, but two out of every three white students (67%) remember having been encouraged to vote in high school compared to only one in two Black students (54%). In addition, voting can make people healthier. According to Barry Burden, a professor of political science and director of the  Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the relationship between health and voting is both well-researched and reciprocal: “Research shows that the healthier you are, the more likely you are to cast a ballot.” 

The shared prosperity from having a strong electoral presence from every walk of life in Texas explains why the Perryman Group implemented an extensive modeling process to measure economic effects of restricting voter access stemming from several primary sources and found that hundreds of thousands of Texas jobs are at stake. The Perryman research demonstrates that, controlling for other factors, increases in voting access lead to higher earning over time, and decreases in voting access lead to lower earning over time. Lower earnings also impact workforce participation and employment. In addition, reduced earnings negatively affect household budgets and, therefore, consumer spending. The Perryman Group estimates that measures restricting voter access would lead to a total decrease in business activity from lower earnings, employment losses, and reduced household purchasing power in the state by 2025 of an estimated $14.7 billion in annual gross product and a loss of 73,249 jobs. 

The fight around voter suppression continues this special legislative session as anti-voter bills are back for debate at the Texas Capitol with Senate and House hearings already set for Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3. Every Texan opposes both SB 1 and HB 3 for the reasons above. Every Texan’s Policy and Legislative Director Luis Figueroa testified against SB 1 on July 10. Everyday Texans helped stop attacks on the freedom to vote earlier this year, and it’s time to stand together once again by calling your legislators and making your voices heard.

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