On the Ground in Texas: The Latest Front Line in the War on Voting Rights

A special legislative session in Texas focuses on many conservative priorities, including voting restrictions. Democratic lawmakers and activists are fighting back.

On the Ground in Texas: The Latest Front Line of Voting Rights
On Thursday, the start of the special legislative session, lawmakers and activists gathered on the steps of the Texas Capitol to speak on the importance of protecting the right to vote and against Gov. Abbott’s proposed agenda for the 30-day session, which includes voting rights, critical race theory, trans rights and Abbott’s decision to defund the legislative budget. (Roxy Szal)

In the summer, most state legislative sessions are adjourned. Lawmakers return to their homes, their families, their day jobs—but that’s not the case for Texas legislators this year, who have been called back this summer by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) for a special legislative session, which began Thursday, July 8. 

Calling a special session is unusual and typically only done in the case of emergencies and disasters. During a special session, lawmakers are only allowed to discuss and pass legislation on specific topics, in this case, designated by the governor. 

Abbott released the agenda for the 30-day session just 24 hours before it was set to start and instructed lawmakers to focus on 11 issues, all of which are considered top Republican priorities, including:

  • Voting restrictions
  • Border security, including increases to law enforcement budgets
  • Measures to raise bail requirements 
  • Restrictions on social media companies to remove content or block users based on their viewpoints
  • Whether to restore funding for legislators’ staff, which is now set to run out on September 1
  • Banning trans students from sports
  • Prohibitions on medication abortion
  • Constraints on how educators talk about racism in the classroom

The governor has defended the need for the session, calling it “extraordinary”—but Democrats and civil rights and social justice activists take major issue with Abbott’s agenda, which they consider misplaced, cynical and politically motivated. 

State Rep. Michelle Beckley (D) called the agenda “out of touch with the needs of Texans across the state. The governor is, once again, prioritizing extremely conservative legislation, instead of focusing on policies that benefit everyday Texans.”

“These are all wedge issues; it’s all political theater,” said Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown, who joined Democratic state legislators on the steps of the Capitol on Thursday.

On the Ground in Texas: The Latest Front Line of Voting Rights
“This is not a special session,” said Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown. “This is a suppression session. And it’s all predicated on a big lie.” (Roxy Szal)

Notably missing from the governor’s agenda is discussion about the state’s crumbling electric grid—“which failed in February and left millions without power and hundreds of Texans dead, resulting in the deadliest carbon monoxide poisoning event in recent U.S. history,” Texas Democrats wrote on Day 1 of the session.

“Nothing to help working Texans recover from COVID, shore up the grid, or expand health care,” tweeted state Rep. John Bucy III.

Perhaps the most egregious agenda item is the resurrection of Senate Bill 7—now SB 1 in the special session—an extreme voting restrictions bill that Texas Democrats managed to kill in the regular session by walking out of the chamber, denying Republicans the quorum needed to conduct business. In an interview with Ms., state Rep. Erin Zwiener (D) called SB 7 a “giant dog whistle of a bill … based on a lie that massive voter fraud cost Trump the election. It makes even less sense in a state like Texas, where Trump won, and our own secretary of state has described it as the safest and most secure election we’ve ever had in Texas.”

SB 1 and its House counterpart, HB 3, strike similar tones to the restrictive bills at play during the regular session, including strengthened protections for partisan poll watchers, which grant them “free movement” within a polling place; new ID requirements for mail-in ballots (a provision that made its way into the original bill at the last possible minute); a ban on drive-thru voting; and restrictions on get-out-the-vote efforts. But they also include new provisions, like a monthly “citizen check” and purge of non-citizens from state voter rolls.

Abbott is “pushing forward an agenda that is over-politicized and all predicated on a big lie,” said Brown. (Brown, who hails from Georgia, traveled to Austin to help host the voting rights demonstration after lawmakers adjourned Day 1 of the session.) “We’re calling this ‘the suppression session.’”

On the Ground in Texas: The Latest Front Line of Voting Rights
(Roxy Szal)

2021 has been a record-setting year for voting restrictions: As of mid-June, 17 states have enacted 28 new laws that hinder voting access. And activists across the nation have been sounding the alarm, arguing these kinds of bills target Black and Brown communities in particular. Notably, Texas has the largest Black population of any state and the most restrictive voting laws in the U.S.

“We have to call it what it is: It’s racial profiling,” said Dionna La’Fay, the Texas state coordinator for Black Voters Matter, on Thursday. “Minority communities already deal with the stress of trying to survive … especially low-income, African American, Hispanic women. … You cannot thrive if you only know generational survival. And I think everything ties into that. Obviously, voting rights are the final foundational issue but education, employment, health care—just autonomy. The freedom to just choose what is best for me should not be controlled by elected officials. Access should be provided to the people. And I think certain laws do nothing but limit access.”

“Anytime that you’re restricting access to the ballot, it has a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities,” Brown told Ms., “but more than anything, it fundamentally undermines democracy. In a democracy, the whole idea is to expand access, not to restrict it. Anything that weakens democracy, that’s bad for all of us. Whether it was a Black voter, or Republican or Libertarian, I would fight the same way.”

Many hypothesize the real motivation behind the Republican push to limit voting access is the changing demographics of the Lone Star State, where Republicans are losing their grip on the former GOP stronghold. While President Biden ultimately lost the state of Texas to Trump, the 2020 presidential election marked the closest presidential results in the state in 44 years. 

“Generational and demographic changes are leading to an increase in Democratic party identification and a decline in Republican identification,” wrote researchers Juan Carlos Huerta and Beatriz Cuartas in May. The growing support for the Democratic party is in large part due to young Texans and voters of color, which Huerta and Cuartas call “critical to the future of Texas politics.” 

“The intention is to preserve power,” Brown told Ms.

“The demographic of our people is coming for these Republicans,” said state Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D) at the Capitol on Thursday. “They targeted Texas and seven other states with these voter suppression laws. This is not a state fight; this is a national fight. … I know you’re tired. I know this last year, these last years, have been hard. I know we are tired. But this is our moment in history. This is the voting rights fight of our lifetimes. We need to put people over politics and let the people vote.”

Take Action

The fight in Texas is nowhere near over. Texans can testify against voter suppression bills at the Texas Capitol on Saturday, July 10, and groups on the ground are hosting a Voting Rights Advocacy Day there on Monday, July 12. 

As one protester said on Thursday: “One thing that Governor Greg Abbott underestimates is the power of the people.”

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Roxanne Szal (or Roxy) is the managing digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.