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Texas Lawmakers Return For A Second Shot At Tighter Voting Laws

Demonstrators attend a voting rights rally at the Texas Capitol in Austin last month. The state already has among the most restrictive voting laws in the U.S. ahead of an effort by Texas Republicans to cut back on voting options and add criminal penalties to the law.
Sergio Flores
Getty Images
Demonstrators attend a voting rights rally at the Texas Capitol in Austin last month. The state already has among the most restrictive voting laws in the U.S. ahead of an effort by Texas Republicans to cut back on voting options and add criminal penalties to the law.

Updated July 8, 2021 at 10:49 AM ET

Texas lawmakers are reconvening in a special legislative session Thursday in which voting restrictions are expected to be a top priority for Republicans.

The special session starts a week after the Supreme Courtgave a green light to an Arizona law that imposed some restrictions on how ballots may be cast and collected. Voting rights activists worry that the court's decision is a signal that the federal courts won't step in if states like Texas try to make it harder for citizens to cast a ballot.

"You kind of learn to go with the flow and find a way to hold on to seeds of hope, because we don't have control," said Dionna La'Fay, an organizer in Texas for Black Voters Matter, a group that works to mobilize voters of color on issues related to voting rights, among other things.

La'Fay says this year has been exhausting. In Texas, a GOP-backed voting bill nearly passed at the end of May, until a last-minute walkout by Democrats blocked it.

The bill that nearly passed, Senate Bill 7, would have created a slew of new criminal penalties related to voting and would have limited voting on Sundays. Voting rights advocates warned that limiting voting hours on Sundays would have affected "souls to the polls" campaigns held predominately by Black churches in the state.

One of the more controversial measures in the bill would have made it easier for election workers to overturn election results following allegations of voter fraud. Some Republicans have sincebacked away from some of those measures, but state leaders say a voting overhaul is still necessary.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has said more needs to be done in the state to make elections more secure — without offering any evidence that voter fraud has marred results in Texas in recent elections.

The Supreme Court's ruling in the Arizona case sends a message that the courts are not going to side with voting rights advocates who want voting to be more accessible, said Charlie Bonner, the communications director for Move Texas, a group that mobilizes young voters.

"So it's on us to pick up the fight and push forward pro-voter policies that are going to make sure we can protect our fundamental rights and expand access to all eligible voters," he said.

Voting groups in Texas have long turned to the courts when their other efforts have failed. But ever since an earlier 2013 Supreme Court ruling ended some protections offered by the Voting Rights Act, it has been more difficult in federal courts.

Mimi Marziani with the Texas Civil Rights Project says that this doesn't mean voting rights groups can or should bypass the courts.

"The protections of the Voting Rights Act have been whittled down in the last decade," she said. "But at the same time, there are other federal laws — some of them that have been disregarded, I think."

Her group recently filed a lawsuit against a group of Trump supporters whoswarmed a Biden campaign bus that was driving on a highway through Texas in late October. Marziani says those individuals engaged in political violence, and her group is suing them using the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871.

Her group has also had some success challenging state practices through the National Voter Registration Act. But ultimately, Marziani says more federal voting protections are needed. And that is up to Congress.

"I don't know what else they are waiting to drop from the sky to feel like it's the time to act on federal voting legislation," she said. "But this should be seen as that sign. You know the laws on the books are getting weaker."

For advocates like La'Fay, new federal protections would also mean that state-by-state efforts like the ones she's involved with would be less necessary.

"If we had federal legislation, there wouldn't be as much power to do these things in the individual states," she said.

But action in Congress has its own hurdles. Republicans in the Senate recently blocked consideration of an expansive voting rights bill, and Democrats also have their own internal divisions over how best to proceed.

Ultimately, some voting rights advocates see more political organizing as the best path forward after the Supreme Court's ruling. Bonner's group, Move Texas, plans to double down on organizing voters.

"This is a call to all of us to work harder, to fight back — and then it's on all of us to turn out in the next election in numbers so high that no amount of voter suppression could confuse the outcome," he said.

Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.