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Texas Legislature Changes Election Procedures in Harris County

After it spent Saturday impeaching Ken Paxton, the Texas legislature got to work during its last day of the session actually legislating. The Republicans who control the legislature are clearly worried that demographic change might some day turn Texas blue, so they decided to deal with that possibility proactively. They passed a bill that changes elections procedures in Harris County, home to Houston, but not in other counties. Republicans say the bill is about election reform. Democrats say it is about voter suppression.

The bill gives the Texas secretary of state, currently and historically a Republican, the power to take over elections in Harris County if the secretary deems that necessary. In truth the elections in the 4.8-million person county have not always been perfect, but that is also true of other counties in Texas, which are not subject to takeover by the state. If the legislators were really concerned about making sure all Texas elections were run well, they could have appropriated more money to hire and train more poll workers, buy more voting machines, etc., but they didn't do that. Maybe it is just a coincidence that while Donald Trump won Texas by 6 points, he lost Harris County by 13 points. Maybe not.

This is not the first time the legislature has interfered with voting procedures. During the pandemic, Harris County allowed drive-through voting, so people could vote from their cars. That made voting too easy, so the legislature banned it. It also passed a law banning election officials from mailing voters unsolicited applications for absentee ballots, even though Texas allows absentee voting only by people over 65 and disabled voters. On Sunday the legislature also approved making illegal voting a felony with a prison term of 20 years, even though almost no illegal voting happens. Opponents of the bill said that this could scare some voters who are not sure of their eligibility to vote into not voting.

The Texas Constitution has a provision that bars the state from passing laws that apply only to limited jurisdictions. Democrats will challenge the new legislation on that basis. Republicans say that since the bill does not name Harris County by name, but applies to all counties with a population over 3.5 million (of which Harris happens to be the only one), it is constitutional. Ultimately, the Texas Supreme Court, all of whose justices are Republican appointees, will get to decide. (V)

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