Houston’s expanded voting becomes target of GOP restrictions


AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The nation’s next big voting battle is underway in Texas, where Republicans are trying to outlaw 24-hour polling places and drive-thru voting as options, and to make it a crime for elections officials to mail unsolicited absentee ballot applications.

All were efforts that Harris County, which includes Houston and is the state’s largest Democratic stronghold, tried last year, when the threat of the coronavirus made voting in-person more hazardous.

Republican lawmakers have been unusually explicit in zeroing in on Houston and surrounding Harris County as they push to tighten the state’s voting laws. One of the country’s largest and most racially diverse counties, Harris County rolled out new ways to vote in 2020 on a scale like nowhere else in Texas, and although there is no evidence of fraud resulting from votes cast from cars or in the dead of night, Republicans are determined to prevent it from happening again.

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The effort is one of the clearest examples of how the GOP’s nationwide campaign to tighten voting laws can target Democrats, even as they insist the measures are not partisan. With Americans increasingly sorted into liberal urban areas and conservative rural ones, geography can be an effective proxy for partisanship. Proposals tailored to cities or that take population into account are bound to have a greater impact on Democratic voters.

That’s likely the case in Georgia, where a new voting law prescribes the number absentee ballot drop boxes per county and uses a formula based on the number of registered voters or early voting sites. Election officials in the Atlanta area have said the change will slash the number of drop boxes available to their voters when compared to 2020 levels.

Texas is the biggest state where Republicans have vowed to make voting changes since Donald Trump’s false claims that fraud cost him the 2020 election. A sweeping package known as House Bill 6 that would tighten voting rules is awaiting a full vote, and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott supports the efforts.

Included in the state House bill are measures that would grant partisan poll watchers wider latitude and make it a felony for an elections officer to send mail-voting applications to households that didn’t request them, as Harris County tried to do because of the pandemic. It also contains elements similar to a state Senate bill that passed its first key vote earlier this month.

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The apparent targeting of Harris County, where 44% of the nearly 5 million residents are Latino and 20% are Black, is seen by opponents as evidence that Republicans are trying to suppress minority turnout in Democratic strongholds. Republicans have angrily rejected those accusations, saying the measures would only rein in powers that county leaders never had in the first place.

Not in dispute are the rising electoral stakes in Texas’ biggest county. President Joe Biden won it by more than 13 percentage points, a commanding margin that helped get him within 6 points of Trump statewide.

“The math is simple,” former Harris County elections clerk Chris Hollins said of Democrats’ performance in the Houston area in November. “Their take is, ‘Let’s make it harder for Harris County to vote.’ Even though thousands of Republicans are going to be disenfranchised, too.”

The county exemplifies the GOP’s slipping grip on fast-changing Texas. In 2004, former President George W. Bush, who is from Texas, easily won Harris County and Republicans ran every major countywide office. But recent years have been routs for Democrats, whose wins now extend down the ballot to local judicial races, including 17 Black women who were elected to the bench in 2018.

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Criticism has been met with increasing fury by Texas Republicans, particularly as prominent homegrown employers such as American Airlines and Dell have come out against the restrictions. Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who offered a $1 million reward in defense of Trump’s unsupported claims of election irregularities, blasted the airline earlier this month, saying “you are in essence, between the lines, calling us racist, and that will not stand.”

The problem, according to Patrick and other Republicans, is that Harris County never had the authority to expand its voting options, despite the pandemic. “I have news for Harris County: You’re not the capital of Texas,” Patrick said.

A record 1.7 million voters cast ballots in Harris County last year. Hollins said between 10,000 and 15,000 votes were cast at 24-hour locations during the hours when polls are typically closed. Roughly 127,000 people cast ballots from their cars at drive-thru centers, more than half of whom were Black, Latino or Asian, according to state Sen. Carol Alvarado, a Democrat from Houston.

Jared Woodfill, a former Harris County GOP chairman, filed multiple lawsuits against local elections officials last year over the expanded options and said he has been talking with the Republicans behind the two Texas voting bills.

Texas already has some of the tightest voting restrictions in the country and Republicans say rising voter turnout is evidence that votes are not being suppressed — a claim that ignores that the state’s population is booming. Woodfill said the county stepped over the line. He also acknowledges the clout of the Houston area in elections.

“Texas and Harris County are really ground zero for Republicans,” he said.

James Price, 55, voted for Biden at a suburban Houston polling site in November. He gave Biden average marks so far, saying he was disappointed that more wasn’t being done to convince people that coronavirus vaccines are safe. Price, who is Black, said above all, he sees the efforts to restrict voting driven by Republicans who believe the election was stolen.

“I don’t know how it affects what race, community or whatever,” Price said of the proposals. “I’m not going to let any restriction or rule stop me from voting. I’m going to find a way.”