With the stroke of his pen on Tuesday, Sept. 7, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law Senate Bill 1, which some claim secures Texas’ elections and others say limits voter access, particularly for people of color.
Referred to as the Election Integrity Protection Act of 2021, the bill took a complete regular legislative session and two special sessions to make it to the governor’s desk. Texas House Democrats managed to stymy the bill by denying a full quorum after they walked out in the regular session and left the state in the first special session.
In the second special session that wrapped up just before Labor Day, Republicans pushed the legislation through both chambers of the Texas Legislature after Democrats returned. The bill passed along party lines in the Republican-controlled House and Senate.
It goes into effect on Dec. 2, 2021.
The new law extends some early voting hours but also curtails 24-hour voting, which was used in Harris County during the November 2020 election because of the pandemic. Under the law, early voting hours would be restricted to the hours of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
It also requires counties with populations of 55,000 or more to offer at least 12 hours of early voting in state elections each weekday in the second week of early voting. Previously, the threshold was counties with populations of 100,000 or more.
“Many in our community commute to work,” she said. “This will ensure that they have time to vote after work.”
B.J. Henry, president of the Burnet County Democratic Club, doesn’t share Chasteen’s confidence that Senate Bill 1 is really about expanding voter access. She pointed out that Texas has one of the lowest voter participations in the nation, with a 60 percent turnout in the 2016 presidential election and a 66 percent turnout in the 2020 presidential election.
She noted the slight increase between 2016 and 2020 but said it might have been for a number reasons.
“Why the increase? Perhaps it was because of enthusiastic voters in a contested presidential election with the ease of voting from mail-in ballots, flexible hours, and more accessible locations,” she said.
While it wasn’t used in Burnet County, drive-through and 24-hour voting during the November 2020 election could have had an impact in voter turnout in Harris County, which used both. Several other counties, generally more urban and suburban ones, employed one or both of the methods.
Under the law Abbott signed on Tuesday, both methods are now banned. A provision was included for those unable to enter the polling place without assistance or injury to their health to still use drive-through voting.
The new law also makes it illegal for an early voting clerk or other election official to knowingly send out vote-by-mail applications to those who don’t expressly request them. It also doesn’t allow the use of public funds to help a third party distribute vote-by-mail applications to someone who did not request one.
The new law requires additional identification requirements for those wishing to vote by mail. An early voting application will now need the applicant’s Texas driver’s license or state-issued identification card number or the last four digits of their Social Security number. They can also submit a statement that they haven’t been issued either.
The law does provide mail-in voters a secure way to track their application request and ballot return. And if voting officials find an issue with a mail-in ballot, they can notify the voter and offer them a chance to correct it.
Another concern Henry has with the new law is how it allows for more poll watchers.
Senate Bill 1 opens up polls for more watchers and grants them “free movement,” but they cannot be near a voting station when a voter is casting their ballot or being assisted by a person of their choice.
It also makes it a misdemeanor if an election official obstructs a poll watcher.
The legislation requires poll watchers to complete a Texas Secretary of State online training course and present proof of completion to polling place officials.
Despite the training requirements, Henry said allowing poll watchers such unfettered access could have a negative effect on poll workers and, more important, voters.
“I have worked the polls at several elections in our county,” she said. “We have informed and dedicated election volunteers of both parties. They always are concerned that no one is intimidated, that all are helped, and that all voters are respected.”
Henry pointed out that volunteer poll workers already face a number of challenges, including the occasional unruly voter, but allowing “unregulated poll watchers, whom you cannot ask to leave easily,” will add to the burden. This could even make it more challenging to recruit poll workers.
While Henry has reservations about Senate Bill 1, Chasteen sees it as a win for voters.
“I am very pleased with the passage of (Senate Bill) 1. This bill will help secure our election process by making it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” Chasteen said. “This is a win for all legal voters.”