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US: Texas Laws Threaten Houston Area Voting Rights

Local Officials Sue to Overturn Law Targeting the Jurisdiction

People attend a rally held by the Southern Poverty Law Center near the U.S. Capitol on October 4, 2022 for fair voting maps and voter representation. © Bryan Olin Dozier/NurPhoto via AP

(Austin, Texas) – Texas laws rewriting election rules in Harris County, which includes Houston, create unnecessary barriers for voters and improperly single out the state’s largest Black population, Human Rights Watch said today.

Governor Greg Abbott signed two measures into law in June 2023, as the state legislative session ended. One, Senate Bill 1750, eliminates Harris County’s nonpartisan election administrator position. The other, Senate Bill 1933, gives the secretary of state broad authority to intervene in the county’s elections.

“Texas lawmakers are using procedural changes to carry out their agenda to undermine the voices of Harris County residents,” said Trey Walk, a researcher and advocate with Human Rights Watch. “Changing the rules of the game right before an election is unfair, and doing so in a way that effectively targets Black and Brown voters is unacceptable.”

The laws apply only to Harris County, the state’s most populous county. They go into effect on September 1, just over a month before the voter registration deadline. Houston is the seat of Harris County, which is home to the second largest population of Black Americans in the United States.

Harris County challenged SB 1750 in state court on July 6, arguing that it violates a state constitutional prohibition on special laws that target particular jurisdictions. In an effort to circumvent this requirement, the law abolishes the election administrator position for counties with populations of more than 3.5 million on the date it takes effect, meaning that it applies only to Harris County. The other 253 counties in Texas can appoint election administrators if they wish. More than half have done so.

If courts do not overturn the law and the election administrator position is eliminated, the Harris County tax assessor and county clerk will administer future elections, including a Houston municipal election in November. Once the law goes into effect, these two offices will have less than three months to prepare polling places, potentially resulting in changes in locations for voters; hire an adequate number of poll workers; and distribute information voters need to make personal Election Day plans.

Accurate information about election procedures is an essential component of ensuring the human right to vote, Human Rights Watch said, warning that the lack of clear information and late-notice changes will most likely have a chilling effect on the right to vote, including by decreasing voter turnout.

Groups that register and educate voters lack information needed to prepare for the upcoming election expressed their alarm about the new laws. “The Texas legislature targeted Black and Brown voters in Houston, home to Texas’s most populous county, with this underhanded and discriminatory abuse of power,” said Katya Ehresman, voting rights program manager at Common Cause Texas. “These bills set a dangerous precedent and strike a devastating blow to the independence and self-government of our local communities.”

In the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, which exacerbated existing threats to voting rights and presented new challenges, Harris County joined jurisdictions across the United States in passing pro-democracy reforms. The election administrator’s office increased the number of polling places, put into effect 24-hour and drive through voting, and significantly increased the county’s election budget; steps that most likely were factors in increased turnout among youth, first time voters, and communities of color. These reforms are in line with international human rights law obligating governments to take positive measures to overcome difficulties in voting.

In 2021 the Texas legislature overturned many of these positive reforms. Other states have also recently targeted election administration to advance partisan interests. In North Carolina, for instance, legislators announced a sweeping voter suppression bill that would overturn state and county-level election boards.

“Lawmakers in a democratic society should embrace policies that increase civic participation rather than undermine them,” Walk said.

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