- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2021

Civil rights groups on Friday filed a lawsuit in federal court trying to block Texas’ new voting legislation, saying it would violate the civil rights of minorities by making it more difficult for them to cast their ballots.

“The Texas Legislature’s claims of voter fraud and voter integrity are merely pretexts for their actual purpose in enacting SB1, which is to make it harder for citizens of color and citizens with disabilities to cast their votes,” said the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. 

The suit, filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, comes just three days after Texas lawmakers on Tuesday passed a number of changes to the states’ voting laws, saying that new rules for 24-hour voting sites and “ballot harvesting” are needed to stop election cheating.

Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has said he will sign the bill.

The suit was filed on behalf of 10 community groups and Harris County Election Administrator Isabel Longoria.

The legislation is the latest overhaul of voting laws passed by Republican legislators in states, who have said the changes are needed to increase election security and to restore trust in the electoral process in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated charge that last year’s election was stolen from him. 

But Democrats and civil rights groups have said the changes disproportionately affect minorities and are aimed at making it harder for groups that traditionally support Democrats to vote. 

The debate over the Texas bill was particularly visible after Democratic lawmakers fled the state for nearly six weeks to prevent the legislature from having enough members to vote on the measure. They returned on Aug. 19. Spokespeople for Mr. Abbott and Republican state Attorney General Ken Paxton were not immediately available for comment.

Among other measures, the legislation would outlaw expanded voting options Harris County established during the COVID-19 pandemic. The county, which includes Houston and is a major source of Democratic votes, offered 24-hour polling places and drive-thru voting. It also sent mail-ballot applications to 2 million registered voters. All of those moves would be outlawed with Mr. Abbott’s signature, and election officials who send mail-in ballot applications to voters who don’t request one could face criminal penalties.

According to the lawsuit, 10,000 people voted during the overnight hours because of 24-hour voting.

“SB1 prohibits voting procedures that facilitated record voter participation in 2020, despite no evidence that these measures contributed to voter fraud. Several important accommodations that local officials in large, diverse counties adopted to ensure safe, secure voting during the 2020 election in light of the COVID-19 pandemic are outlawed or undermined by SB1,” the suit said.

Republicans said the tightened rules rein in powers that local elections officials never had in the first place while accusing critics of exaggerating the impact. 

They also emphasized that the legislation requires early-voting centers to be open for at least an extra hour a day and that more counties must keep polls open for at least 12 hours.

In addition, the suit said the new bill would add requirements on groups assisting voters, including those who do not speak English. “An assistor must also swear that they did not ‘pressure’ the voter to choose them as the assistor. This requirement will deter assistors from helping or even volunteering to help voters out of fear that the assistor may be perceived as pressuring their selection as assistors,” the suit said.

By weakening the power of poll officials to bar partisan monitors who are being disruptive, the bill opens the doors to minorities being harassed when they vote, according to the lawsuit.

The passage of the laws around the country has spurred attempts by congressional Democrats to federalize voting and block the states’ changes.

House Democrats have passed legislation that would undo portions of the states’ laws and give the Justice Department more power to strike down others. Neither bill has been able to get past a Republican filibuster in the Senate. But Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York has said Democrats will try again when they return for their summer break later this month.

• Kery Murakami can be reached at kmurakami@washingtontimes.com.

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