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In Texas, Efforts To Make Voting Harder Have Some Worried In Harris County

Empty seats are seen in the House Chamber at the Texas Capitol, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Austin, Texas. Texas Democrats left the state to block sweeping new election laws, while Republican Gov. Greg Abbott threatened them with arrest the moment they return.
Empty seats are seen in the House Chamber at the Texas Capitol, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Austin, Texas. Texas Democrats left the state to block sweeping new election laws, while Republican Gov. Greg Abbott threatened them with arrest the moment they return.

Texas already has some of the strictest voting laws in the country, and the state's Republicans are trying to make them even tougher. Most of the state's Democratic lawmakers have flown to Washington, D.C., to prevent a vote on legislation they call voter suppression.

The center of the battle is Harris County, where Houston is located. The county is home to more than 4.7 million people, a larger population than the state of Louisiana. Last year, Harris County introduced an array of voting innovations to make it easier and safer to vote during the presidential elections. They included drive-thru voting, expanded voting hours – with one day of 24-hour voting – and sending out mail-in ballot applications to all eligible voters.

Joy Davis is a stay-at-home mom and the mother of a young son with severe autism. She voted in a drive-thru location on the east side of Houston.

"Oh, it was amazing," Davis says. "It was so convenient. I felt safe, because it was at the highlight of the pandemic before I was able to get any vaccinations....When I arrived, it was just so simple, so easy, so effortless. We just pulled up, showed my ID, they directed us to a tent, and you know we met with the poll worker there, they gave us the machine so we could cast our ballot, and that was it. I cast my ballot."

Almost immediately, Republicans sued to block the innovations. One suit, led by conservative activist Steven Hotze and State Representative Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, would have thrown out roughly 127,000 ballots cast at drive-thru locations.

"And it was horrifying," Davis says. "It felt as if I was going to be disenfranchised as a voter. And knowing that I did everything right – I showed my ID, I voted, and then, you know, I've been voting all of my life – so, to know that that was a possibility, it was just horrifying."

Edward Jones wears a baseball hat with the word Vote on it in the Texas State Capitol while he and others wait to testify before House and Senate committees, which began hearings on election integrity bills, on July 10, 2021 in Austin. Texas Republicans are moving forward with their effort to overhaul the state's voting laws during the 87th Legislatures' special session.
Tamir Kalifa / Getty Images
Edward Jones wears a baseball hat with the word Vote on it in the Texas State Capitol while he and others wait to testify before House and Senate committees, which began hearings on election integrity bills, on July 10, 2021 in Austin. Texas Republicans are moving forward with their effort to overhaul the state's voting laws during the 87th Legislatures' special session.

That suit ultimately failed, though one banning the mass-mailing of mail-in ballot applications succeeded. The latter case made it all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that then-County Clerk Chris Hollins, a Democrat, had exceeded his authority by authorizing the mass mailing.

In the end, Harris County had its highest voter turnout rate in almost 30 years, nearly 66%. The county has been trending Democratic – but for the most part, local Republicans held their seats. Then-President Donald Trump carried Texas by fewer than 6 percentage points.

Republicans soon responded with proposals to change the state's election laws. The alleged reason was to prevent fraud, though Governor Greg Abbott, who called for the legislation, admitted he knew of no significant fraud in 2020.

"So, it definitely seems directed at Harris County's efforts to expand opportunities for people to vote," says Jaison Oliver, who used a drive-thru voting site at the Toyota Center in downtown Houston. "Shutting down or reducing people's access to the mail-in ballot, reducing access to drive-thru voting."

The legislation would also ban 24-hour voting. James Llamas participated in a 30-person midnight bike ride from Midtown Houston to NRG Park on the city's south side. He voted around 1 a.m.

"For us, it was more for the novelty of it, since this was the first time it was available," Llamas says. "But we also wanted to support the option since...not everybody has the privilege of choosing their working hours and being able to show up during daytime hours on a Tuesday or even the other options during early voting. And that can be a barrier to participation."

Llamas was upset at the Republican efforts to ban the extended voting hours. "To me, that seems like a pretty blatant attempt at restricting access to voting," Llamas says. "I mean, I don't see any legitimate security concern with letting people vote at one hour versus another. I mean, it was the same process, same protocols at the polling location at midnight as there would be at noon."

Christina Crawford is an ER nurse who used a drive-thru voting site in northwest Houston – primarily because of COVID concerns. She's frustrated with the tactics Republicans have used in trying to pass their legislation.

"I think that the bill has had a lot of games be played with it by the Republicans such as holding testimonies until 1:45 in the morning the other night, when they were told to be up there at 8 a.m. to start testifying, and it's the second time I've been at work overnight and watched this bill be debated in the middle of the night," Crawford says.

Texas House Democrats have broken quorum twice in order to prevent passage of voting restrictions – once at the end of the regular legislative session and now in the special session.

Maria Benzon, an assistant principal who used drive-thru voting in Bellaire, just southwest of Houston, says she's proud of those lawmakers.

"Sometimes, you need to shake up the system for people to be made aware of what's going on," Benzon says, "and what's going on in our state, and what the governor is trying to do, it's so wrong."

Benzon is particularly concerned that the legislation is deliberately aimed at discouraging minority voter participation.

"I believe what the Democrats who've left are trying to do is just bring attention to the fact that what's going to happen here is black and brown voters are not going to be, not allowed, because they are allowed, but they won't be able to vote because of all the restrictions – the IDs, the limited time, the no drive-thrus, the no-24-hour opportunities to vote," Benzon says.

Governor Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan are demanding Democratic lawmakers return from Washington, D.C., to do their jobs. But hospital worker Cylenthia Hoyrd, who used drive-thru voting at Houston's NRG Park, says that's just what they're doing by staying away.

When you're elected to the state Legislature, Hoyrd says, "you represent the people. You do what the people want you to do. And in their districts, we don't want this."

Still, it's uncertain how long Democratic lawmakers can sustain their walkout. Governor Abbott told the radio program Texas Standard he was in no mood to compromise.

"If (the Democratic House members) come back to Texas, I will call a special session," Abbott says. "If they stay out of Texas, I will call another special session. Bottom line, we are going to continue to call a special session after special session after a special session until we get the business of Texas done."

Copyright 2021 Houston Public Media News 88.7