What’s at stake in the long-awaited trial over Texas’s sweeping 2021 elections law

The GOP-backed Senate Bill 1 added voting restrictions that plaintiffs claim unfairly impacts voters of color.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, speaks in favor of Senate Bill 1 on Aug. 11, 2021.

This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan news organization covering local election administration and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

Two years after voting rights groups raised concerns about changes in Texas voting laws made by Republicans, a trial begins on Monday in San Antonio federal court. Many people who are against these changes, called plaintiffs will argue that some parts of the new law made it more difficult for people of color to vote, and some believe this was done on purpose.

Over 20 state and national organizations filed five separate lawsuits against a law known as Senate Bill 1. These lawsuits have now been combined into one big case. The groups argue that parts of this law go against several federal laws like the Voting Rights Act the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and some parts of the U.S. Constitution, including the First 14th, and 15th Amendments.

“The trial might last until the end of October, and the judge, U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez, might not make a decision until several months after that. It’s not clear yet if this decision will happen soon enough to impact the 2024 elections, especially because there could be more legal steps, called appeals, that might take even more time.”

In 2021, Republicans quickly passed this law, and Democrats criticized them for doing it based on claims of voter fraud that had no evidence. Since then people who watch elections closely have been paying attention to see how the law has affected how people in Texas vote and how election officials run elections.

“These rules have gotten so incredibly complicated, that now [voters] almost need a lawyer to understand what you can and cannot do,” said Nina Perales, the vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and a lead attorney representing plaintiffs La Union del Pueblo Entero and the Southwest Voter Registration Project.

For instance, she explained that it’s now against the law for someone who helps voters to get paid for their assistance. This is the kind of help that nonprofit groups especially for older folks and people with disabilities have been providing for a long time.

Some folks don’t understand English. Some can’t read or write. In our community, there are many older folks and people with disabilities. Not everyone has someone at home who can assist them with voting. So, some people rely on community resources for help explained Perales.

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Among the provisions the plaintiffs are challenging:

  • One part of the law stops election officials from sending mail-in ballot applications to voters who didn’t ask for them. This was a response to what happened in Harris County during the COVID 19 pandemic in 2020. They had sent out absentee ballot applications to eligible voters to make it easier for them to vote.
  • “They said no to voting for 24 hours and from your car. Harris County allowed these options during early voting in 2020. Republicans tried to stop drive-thru voting back then, but they couldn’t, and now they’ve banned it in SB 1.”
  • They said you can’t use mail in ballot drop boxes anymore. In 2020, the governor said you could only have one of these boxes in each county. But now SB 1 has completely banned them.
  • Now if someone gives rides to more than seven voters they have to give their personal information and permission to the government.
  • They made rules about helping voters at the polls and with mail in ballots. If you’re helping at the polls you need to fill out a form promising that the person you’re helping is allowed to get assistance. If you’re assisting with a mail in ballot you have to say who you are and if you’re getting paid.
  • The elimination of an employer’s obligation to let employees take time off to vote.
  • “The law lets poll watchers have more access. But, it also says election workers can’t easily kick out poll watchers who scare voters or disrupt the vote counting.”

Some decisions reached before trial 

“Senate Bill 1 made it harder for Texans who want to vote by mail. Now, they have to give their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on their mail-in ballot application and the return envelope. It has to match the state’s records. A judge said this rule is not allowed, but it’s still in place until a decision is made. They’ll talk more about this rule during the trial.”

“For people who can vote by mail, like older folks, those with disabilities, college students away from home, or anyone not in the county during the election, these ID rules make it harder for their votes to be counted. Zachary Dolling, a lawyer for the Texas Civil Rights Project representing OCA-Greater Houston, says this is a problem for these voters.”

Months after the law went into effect, 24,000 voters who tried to vote by mail in the March 2022 primary had their ballots rejected due to the new ID mandates.

“These ID rules reject votes because of unimportant paperwork mistakes, not because someone is ineligible to vote,” explained Dolling. “Other groups involved in the case will show during the trial that these rules unfairly affect people of color.”

Last year, a rule that limited help for voters with disabilities and those who don’t speak English well was stopped forever in another lawsuit because a judge said it broke the Voting Rights Act. So, this rule won’t be talked about in this trial because it’s no longer in effect.

“The law made some changes to how elections are managed, like saying that in counties with more than 100,000 people, they have to record video 24/7 in the room where they count votes. People in those counties paid for this, but no one is arguing against this part in court.”

The Texas Attorney General’s office is representing the state.

“In a document filed before the trial, the government said they made this law to stop fraud, make it easier for people to vote, and have the same rules for elections all over Texas. They argue that none of the rules being questioned unfairly affect any racial group, and none of them make it really hard for any minority group to vote.”

The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

“Many groups are suing, and they’re all for Latino, Black, Asian American voters, and people with disabilities. Some of the organizations include the Southwest Voter Education Project, the League of United Latin American Citizens, OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates, and REV UP Texas. On the other side, the people being sued include Texas Secretary of State Jane Nelson and interim Texas Attorney General Angela Colmenero.”

To prove what they’re saying, both sides will bring in 52 witnesses in the next month. These witnesses include election officials from different counties regular voters politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties, people from the Texas secretary of state’s office, and experts who know a lot about politics and voting rights.

Whatever happens in the trial, SB 1 is far from the Legislature’s last word on the state’s elections. This year, legislators proposed more than 100 new laws, some of which passed. One that abolished the elections administration department in Harris County is now being disputed in court.

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