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Why is Texas in gridlock over a voting law? UHCL prof explains

July 26, 2021 | UHCL Staff

Texas State Legislature

Earlier this month, Texas Democrats abruptly left the state in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the passage of a restrictive voting law by the Republican-controlled Legislature. They left Austin on chartered flights to Washington, D.C. in hopes of drawing national attention to their cause.

Fifty-one of the 67 State House Democrats arrived at Dulles International Airport that evening, with others arriving separately — enough to prevent the Texas Republicans from attaining the necessary quorum required to conduct business.

In this Q&A, University of Houston-Clear Lake Assistant Professor of Political Science Se-Hyoung Yi explores the reasons for the legislators' actions and discusses the implications for Texas voters.

Q: What do you think compelled the Texas Democratic legislators to depart Austin en masse?
A: The problem is that House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1, which are attempts to tighten Texas' voting laws, had some controversial measures. The Republicans made a few amendments to the original bills that were introduced during the regular session. They removed a few of the measures that were problematic to Democrats, including voting restrictions on Sundays, and a provision that would allow judges to overturn election results for allegations of fraud.

While these changes were in a better direction, they were not enough for the Democrats in the House. The Democrats have fled to Washington D.C. to try to push Congress to pass federal voting rights bills as a way to neutralize the voter restriction bill in Texas.

Q: Why do you think the two parties are in such a gridlock about this?
A: This has become a game of "chicken." Gov. Greg Abbott already promised that he would call special sessions endlessly, until the Democrats come back to Texas. He has the right to do this. However, if the Texas Democrats want to block this legislation, leaving is the only way for them to do it.

The Texas Legislature has a "quorum" rule to propose, discuss, and vote on bills. A two-thirds majority is needed in both chambers to take action on introduced bills, including voting, which is 100 members in the House of Representatives and 21 members in the Senate. Texas Republicans only need 17 Democrats to make the quorum to proceed.

I'm frustrated about this, because I would like to know why Texas Republicans were not able to persuade only 17 Democrats to join them to move on these bills. There does not seem to be much intent to compromise or bargain with the Democrats. The Democrats in D.C. seem to be seeking an exit strategy, and indeed a couple of lawmakers have already come back to Texas last week. I hope the Texas lawmakers in both parties will make a reasonable compromise on this important issue.

Q: What do Texas Democrats see as the problematic elements of the bill?
A: The problematic parts of the bill include providing ID requirements for voting by mail, and for prohibiting local election officials from sending a vote-by-mail application to those who did not specifically request one. And mail-in ballots can only be requested under certain restricted conditions, such as age of 65 and older, illness, disability, etc. Drive-through voting and extended hours for voting would also be banned.

To me, the most controversial provision is that the new bill will expand what partisan poll watchers can observe during an election. The bill prohibits them from being removed for violating election law, which means that this could actually empower disruptive partisan poll watchers. These are the measures that Texas Democrats are against.

Q: What do you think is the truth about the allegations of voter fraud in Texas?
A: Being concerned about election integrity is understandable. It is a valid concern. The problem is, making voting unreasonably difficult does not help election integrity, especially when there is not a statistically meaningful number of fraud cases reported in Texas.

There are always some election irregularities here and there, but they aren't necessarily intentional fraud. Sometimes human errors are involved. Even if we try to design the system to be perfect, errors may occur because we humans operate the system. Sometimes people just don't know all the complicated registration and voting processes and happen to make mistakes.

Most of those problems are very minor and statistically very insignificant. Actual fraud cases have been swiftly investigated and prosecuted accordingly, but the small number of actual cases have not impacted the electoral outcomes anyway.

We have to look at the numbers carefully. According to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, there are 510 election fraud cases pending in this state. You might think it's really serious, with that number. But if you look more closely, you find that there are 510 cases against just 43 defendants. Only one of those cases is pending from the 2020 election. That means we are talking about 11 million votes cast, and only one pending case against someone from the 2020 election.

It's important to be concerned, but I'm not sure that all these extra measures are really necessary to protect election integrity. There could be more serious cons than pros. If we make the process unnecessarily difficult and complicated, we may be unintentionally producing more cases of so-called election fraud. More restrictions make the voters confused and could cause irregularities without intent.

Even with good intentions for election integrity, we may be giving a government too much power to surveil and monitor individual citizens when they simply try to exercise their constitutional right to vote. We may be discouraging, not encouraging, eligible voters to come out and vote.

This is why the Texas lawmakers need to find a balance between protecting electoral integrity and enhancing citizens' right to vote. The majority of Texas voters don't think voter fraud cases are widespread.

According to the University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll in June, only 19% of registered voters in Texas indicated they think ineligible people frequently cast ballots. 42% of voters believe ineligible votes are rarely or never cast. Even among the Republicans voters, only 31% believe ineligible votes are frequently cast.

In this recurring feature, University of Houston-Clear Lake faculty answer questions about current events that impact our community. Go online for information about UHCL's Department of Social and Cultural Sciences.