This week, Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives walked out of the state capitol, denying the body a quorum as a way to block two new Republican-backed voting laws, SB 1 and HB 3. This was the second Democratic walkout since May, when they fled the state to block the controversial SB 7. None of this should come as a surprise, given Republicans’ cynical policies and hardball tactics.
But there is another layer to the Texas voting rights battle that has little to do with policy and everything to do with the cult of Trump. From the governor’s mansion down to the statehouse floor, the Republican push for these unnecessary, bad-faith bills is a three-layer grift.
At the first level of the grift, SB 1 and HB 3 are all rooted in the Big Lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. Republicans are channeling Elmer Fudd, searching for voter fraud that doesn’t exist. Marathon committee hearings last weekend confirmed what the public and Republican officials already knew: In the words of a Texas election official,“I don’t think we have any evidence of any actual fraud.”
The second layer of the grift emanates from the governor’s mansion. Greg Abbott’s political aspirations are no secret. He’s prepared for a tough re-election campaign by cobbling together a $55 million war chest, in part by adding $19 million in the last ten days of June alone—just after he announced he would call the legislature into special session to consider, among other measures, SB 1 and HB 3.
Abbott knows an omnibus “election integrity” bill will bolster his credibility with the Republican base, which is why he so shamelessly promoted the legislation. Coupled with a recent Trump endorsement, new laws restricting the right to vote put Abbott in a fine position to stave off his primary challengers, who, somehow, are attacking him for being a “a political windsock, a RINO.” It may even deter writer, actor, and bongo player Matthew McConaughey from throwing his Stetson into the ring.
The third grift serves Texan legislators like Bryan Hughes, the Republican state senator who has led the charge for “election integrity” in Austin, and authored SB 1 and its even worse precursor, SB 7. Formulating bad policy to solve nonexistent problems is a surefire way to ward off a challenge from the right. It’s red meat for a ruby-red base, and by helping legislators like Hughes serve it up, Abbott can win allies.
But while SB 1 and HB 3 may be effective for campaigning and feeding the frenzy of Fox News, they have the unusual distinction of being politically costly—at least, potentially so—and bad policy. The fraudulent “election integrity” campaign is as cruel as it is impractical. Republican candidates made major inroads with Texas Hispanics in 2020, so new laws would penalize their own voters.
And what good would Texas Republicans accomplish for the price of alienating an important constituency? The bills would threaten honest election workers with ridiculous crimes, give partisan poll watchers frightening degrees of access to voters, and further restrict opportunities to vote by mail.
These bills will make the lives of poll workers harder by penalizing them for doing their jobs. SB 1 bars election officials (who are not candidates) from sending an absentee ballot application to someone who did not request it, while HB 3 prohibits election officials sending an absentee ballot to anyone who did not request it.
The bills also prevent election officials from making any unauthorized changes to election procedures: Under SB 1 and HB 3, a local election official could not extend or alter voting hours to adapt to their community’s unique needs. If interpreted strictly, it would be illegal for an election official to respond in any way to, for example, a water-main rupturing, or a freak weather event, or a global pandemic.
To make things worse, SB 1 and HB 3 would give partisan poll watchers unprecedented protection and access to polling places. These provisions are simply unnecessary and open the door to partisan shenanigans and harassment of decent and diligent poll workers—and potentially voters. SB 1 in particular would, if interpreted strictly, allow a poll watcher at a drive-through polling place to get inside a voter’s car to watch them vote. Which, in a state as heavily armed as Texas, probably won’t cause any problems at all, right?
Finally, Republicans want to make it even harder for the people of Texas to vote by mail. The Lone Star State’s absentee voting laws are already among the strictest in the country. SB 1 and HB 3 even ban the use of drop boxes, a tried and tested practice that helped many Americans vote at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Republicans in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere are watching. They are preparing their next salvo of attacks on the electoral process and are gearing up for grifts of their own. Are we ready?