The Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, has signed into law highly controversial new restrictions on voting access, which voting rights advocates say unfairly target people of color and seek to preserve Republican dominance in state and national elections.
Abbott signed the law on Tuesday in the east Texas city of Tyler, an area that supported Donald Trump by more than two-to-one last year. But Texas demographics are changing and the presidential election was far closer in the state overall, Trump beating Joe Biden by just 5.5 points, the thinnest margin for a Republican in decades.
Abbott’s bill signing also underlined the hard right turn Texas has made under his leadership this year, including a law banning most abortions.
Texas is among at least 18 states that have enacted voting restrictions since the 2020 election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, part of a Republican campaign touting ballot security, in concert with Trump’s lie that the election was stolen.
“Election integrity is now law in the state of Texas,” Abbott said after signing the bill.
Opponents did not wait for his signature to begin filing lawsuits. The American Civil Liberties Union, minority rights groups and disability advocates are part of a broad coalition that filed last week in federal court in Texas, accusing Republicans of violating the federal Voting Rights Act and discriminating against minorities.
Abbott said: “I feel extremely confident that when this law makes it through the litigation phase, it will be upheld. Because exactly what we’ve said, it does make it easier for people to be able to go vote. No one who is eligible to vote will be denied the opportunity to vote.”
Democrats and civil rights leaders disagreed.
Derrick Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said: “Black votes were suppressed today … Greg Abbott has intentionally signed away democracy for so many. We are disgusted. This voter suppression bill is undemocratic, unAmerican and even violates core conservative principles.
“While Greg Abbott and many other governors have confirmed over and over how far they are willing to go to attack Black voters, we will continue to fight twice as hard to defend the right to vote.”
Claudia Yoli Ferla, executive director of Move Texas Action Fund, which works to improve representation and participation among underprivileged youth, said: “History will remember this period as one of democracy in distress; as an era during which our sacred freedom to vote endured unrelenting assault.”
Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, said: “Instead of working on issues that actually matter, like protecting school kids from Covid or fixing our failing electrical grid, Abbott is focused on rigging our elections and implementing extreme rightwing policies.
“Abbott’s agenda of criminalizing abortion, permitless [gun] carry, anti-mask mandates and voter suppression is killing Texans and limiting their voting rights to elect more responsible leaders.”
Some changes take aim at Houston, where Biden carried a county of 1.6 million voters by 13 points. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Harris county officials offered 24-hour polling and drive-thru voting. Both are now outlawed.
The county also sent mail-in ballot applications to more than 2 million voters. Now, any official who sends an application to someone who doesn’t request one could face criminal charges.
Partisan poll watchers are entitled to more movement and election judges who obstruct them could face criminal penalties. Democrats say that could lead to voter intimidation.
Democrats in Congress want to pass new federal voting protections but have been unable to overcome opposition from Senate Republicans. The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, has defended Biden’s approach, saying the president had used his bully pulpit and made Vice-President Kamala Harris point person on the issue.
On Tuesday, Psaki said the administration planned to take additional but unspecified steps to address concerns from voting rights groups.
“We would say to these advocates: we stand with you,” Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One. “There’s more we’re going to keep working on together.”
Texas Democrats fought a dramatic but losing battle against the voting bill. In late May, many walked out of the Texas legislature, denying Republicans the necessary quorum to pass the initial version of the bill.
That bill would have made it easier for judges to overturn elections and restricted early voting on Sundays, a day traditionally used by African American churches to encourage people to vote.
Republicans cut both provisions. But before a new version of the bill could be considered in a July special session, Democrats flew to Washington, again denying Republicans a quorum.
While the Democrats lobbied federal lawmakers to pass federal voting rights protections, state senator Carol Alvarado undertook a 15-hour filibuster on the senate floor to try to block the measure.
Earlier this month, after Abbott called a second special session, the Texas house speaker, Dade Phelan, signed civil arrest warrants for Democrats who refused to show up. No one was arrested but Democrats began to return, giving Republicans a quorum and enraging those who wanted to continue to stay away.