Ever since Texas Senate Bill 1 was introduced in 2021 as a GOP-backed measure to prevent voter fraud, opponents have argued that the bill actually inhibits Texans from voting by adding barriers to the process that disproportionately harm people with disabilities, the elderly and those with limited English language proficiency.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed SB 1 into law and it went into effect on Dec. 2, 2021, but the fight never ended – it just moved to the courtroom.
More than 20 civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Disability Rights Texas, Texas Civil Rights Project, are challenging what they say are “several illegal provisions” of the law in a federal lawsuit being heard in a U.S. district court in San Antonio.
In August, the court handed opponents a partial victory by determining that the section of SB 1 requiring mail-in ballots and applications to be tossed under certain circumstances infringed upon Texans’ civil rights.
One of the key provisions of SB 1 that has not yet been ruled upon creates new rules that voters with disabilities must follow in order to vote – including in the upcoming November mayoral election. Here’s what to know about SB 1 and, specifically, its impact on voters with disabilities.
What does SB 1 say and do?
The bill, officially called the Election Integrity Protection Act of 2021, aims to detect and prevent fraud in the electoral process, protect the secrecy of the ballot, promote voter access and ensure that all legally-cast ballots are counted, according to the bill’s text.
SB 1 sets new identification requirements and creates monthly reviews of the state’s voter rolls to identify noncitizens. It adds a new correction process for voting by mail that allows voters to fix their ballots if they are at risk of being rejected for a technical error, and it boosts the role of partisan poll watchers.
It also reverses local initiatives meant to make it easier to vote — specifically those adopted by Harris County in the 2020 election that were disproportionately used by voters of color, such as drive-thru voting, 24-hour voting during the early voting period and the distribution of mail-in ballot applications.
The law also establishes new rules for assisting voters with disabilities and mandates criminal penalties, including jail time, if that assistance is done improperly.
Assistants must fill out new paperwork disclosing their relationship to the voter. And they must recite an expanded oath, vowing to confine their assistance to “reading the ballot to the voter, directing the voter to read the ballot, marking the voter’s ballot, or directing the voter to mark the ballot.” They must also state that they did not “pressure or coerce” the voter into choosing them for assistance. That oath is now made under penalty of perjury, a state jail felony.
What is a voter assistant? Who needs a voter assistant?
Voters who need assistance due to blindness, disability or the inability to read or write are eligible to receive assistance at the polling place, according to Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act.
Who can provide assistance? What requirements are in place?
Voters may be assisted by any person the voter chooses, such as a family member or longtime friend – as long as they are not an election worker. If the voter does not bring anyone with them to the polls, they can still be assisted by either two election workers on Election Day, or one election worker during early voting, according to the Texas Secretary of State.
Voters may not be assisted by their employer or their union.
A person selected to provide assistance to a voter must take an oath, administered by an election officer at the polling place, before providing assistance. In the oath, the person vows not try to influence the vote or tell anyone how the voter voted, and will mark the ballot as the voter directs.
If the voter chooses to be assisted by polling place officials, then poll watchers and election inspectors may observe the voting process. But if the voter chooses an assistant, no one else may watch them vote.
What do SB 1 supporters say?
Supporters of the bill deny accusations that Republicans want to suppress minority voters. “Election integrity measures have nothing to do with race, but have everything to do with making it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a July 2021 tweet.
“The fact is that voter fraud is real,” said the bill’s author, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, in a 2021 statement published on the website of the conservative think tank the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “We value every Texan’s opinion and will defend their right to voice it at the ballot box.”
TPPF commended the legislation, saying that it “restores voter confidence in election results. “This bill plugs obvious holes in our election code and will make it harder for bad actors to take advantage of loopholes currently in the system,” said TPPF Senior Fellow Chad Ennis. “It is a direct response to demonstrable fraud that has occurred in Texas.”
What do SB 1 opponents say?
Opposing civil rights groups allege in the lawsuit, filed on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Texas, Rev Up Texas, and OCA Greater Houston, that the legislation “egregiously” takes particular aim at traditionally marginalized voters, including voters with disabilities and voters with limited English proficiency who, in Texas, are also overwhelmingly voters of color.
The intent of the lawsuit is to ensure that voters with disabilities, elderly voters and voters who are more comfortable speaking languages other than English are able to vote without fear and additional barriers, said ACLU of Texas attorney Savannah Kumar.
“When there are criminal penalties, especially criminal penalties added to language that is unclear, then that creates fear in the voting process,” she said. “When really, in our democracy, voting should be straightforward, and eligible voters should never fear criminal penalties for their ordinary and innocent actions.”
The “unclear” language, Kumar said, criminalizes anyone who receives, solicits, accepts or provides “compensation or other benefit” for assistance with mail-in ballots. “It’s really anything of value that the law is criminalizing,” she said. “Our fear is that that could be interpreted as anything that is exchanged between someone who is receiving assistance and someone who is providing that assistance.” That could be something as simple as a voter offering an assistant a cup of tea, Kumar said, recalling an example used in court.
The penalty of perjury has “upped the ante”, said Disability Rights’ Texas attorney, Christopher McGreal, and is causing a “chilling effect,” on both assisters and voters with disabilities. “There’s still a lot of confusion out there at the local level that assisters are worried that their actions still may be misconstrued,” said McGreal who is representing Rev Up Texas, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that works with people with disabilities and their families.
Individuals with disabilities are also worried about putting assisters in jeopardy if something is misinterpreted, he added. “And then all of a sudden a charge gets filed,” he said. “Even if nothing comes of it, that’s a lot of stress that occurs.”
The lawsuit states that SB 1 also provides “vague restrictions on expressive conduct and voter engagement” that will chill the efforts of community organizations to educate, engage and assist voters in their communities.
“The disability vote has been growing in Texas,” said Bob Kafka, an organizer with REV UP Texas, in a press release. “SB 1 will inhibit people with disabilities from participating in future elections.”
Under SB 1, a voter who needs assistance casting their ballot will not be able to ask their assistant questions without risking criminal prosecution against their assistant.
“It’s a constitutional right that shouldn’t be infringed in any kind of way, even if you’re having to second guess for a moment.” McGreal said in an interview with the Houston Landing. “These are unnecessary, and disparately affecting the right for persons with disabilities to vote. It’s adding an extra burden.”
If I need assistance to vote in the November mayoral election, how do I get help?
The Harris County Clerk Office’s Elections Department, found at the Harris Votes website, provides accommodations to voters with language barriers, mobility issues, low or no vision, and hearing loss or impairments.
If you need help voting, you do not have to provide proof of disability – just tell an election official at your polling place that you need assistance.
Voters who want a family or friend to assist them “may bring their own assistants who can help them in the voting booth,” said Nadia Hakim, a spokesperson for the Harris County Clerk’s Elections division.
“The assistants have to take an oath that states they are just reading what’s on the screen for the voter verbatim and that they aren’t coercing the voter in any way,” said Hakim in an email to the Landing.
Voters who know when and where they plan to vote can schedule accommodations by calling the Harris County Clerk Office’s Elections Department at (713) 755-6965. It is not required but can reduce potential wait times, officials said at a September community meeting in Acres Homes.