Department of Justice files lawsuit against Texas over voting law

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The federal government is taking the State of Texas to court over the Election Integrity Protection Act of 2021, a controversial voting bill that was signed into law in September.

The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the state, saying it will disenfranchise eligible voters.

"Basically what they're saying is, 'You can make laws down there in Texas, but not ones that interfere with federal laws that exist.' That's what this is about," explained ABC13 legal analyst Steve Shellist.

While Democrats and voter advocacy groups have attacked SB 1 as a Republican move to suppress turnout in Texas cities - primarily voters of color who tend to lean Democratic - the Justice Department focused its suit on two provisions which it says violate the federal Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One places strict limits on how much assistance can be given to voters who, because of disabilities or limited English proficiency, may need help navigating the voting process. The second places new constraints on how people who vote by mail verify their identities.

The law is set to go into effect on Dec. 2 and will ban 24-hour and drive-thru voting as well as other changes.

"This is probably one of the most restrictive attempts since Jim Crow," said Carla Brailey, Vice chair of the Texas Democratic Party.

Brailey calls the law a direct attack on voters who are elderly, disabled and who are people of color.

"For years and years, we have been facing voter suppression, and this particular SB1 doesn't help us to move forward, if anything, it's pushing us backwards," said Brailey.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott responded to the lawsuit via Twitter.

"Bring it. The Texas Election Integrity law is legal," Abbott said. "In Texas it is easier to vote but harder to cheat."



Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton also posted on Twitter about the expected legal fight.

"It's a great and a much-needed bill," Paxton wrote. "Ensuring Texas has safe, secure, and transparent elections is a top priority of mine. I will see you in court, Biden!"



As for when this may be sorted out, Shellist says at this point, its hard to say.

"I think that the district court will certainly make this a priority and may try to get a ruling prior to the enactment of the law," Shellist said. "It's only about thirty days out, so I don't know whether or not that will happen. That's up to that particular judge and that particular court."

The state has long allowed voters who need assistance casting ballots to have someone help them, as long as those assisting don't try to influence the actual votes. SB 1 places new constraints on what those assistants may do. They cannot answer questions, clarify translations, explain the voting process or paraphrase complex language, the federal lawsuit says.

The law also creates potential criminal penalties for people who assist voters. A person assisting a voter is required to fill out paperwork disclosing their relationship to that voter. They must also recite an expanded oath - now under the penalty of perjury - that states they did not "pressure or coerce" the voter into picking them for assistance.

The oath no longer allows explicitly answering the voter's questions. Instead, an assistant must pledge to limit their assistance to "reading the ballot to the voter, directing the voter to read the ballot, marking the voter's ballot, or directing the voter to mark the ballot."

The limits on assistance will hit particularly hard voters with limited English proficiency and those with disabilities, the lawsuit contends.

"There is a history of discrimination against voters with disabilities in Texas," the lawsuit claims, noting estimates that 28% of Texans have conditions impairing their mobility, cognition or vision.

The suit also takes aim at SB 1's new rules for mail-in voting. Texas traditionally has placed more limits on mail-in voting than other states. The legitimacy of mail-in ballots was largely determined by comparing signatures on applications and ballots.

SB 1 created new ID requirements. Voters who want to be mailed a ballot must provide their driver's license number or, if they don't have one, the last four digits of their Social Security number when they send in an application for one.

They then must provide the same numbers on the envelope used to return their completed ballot. Critics point out that many voters - particularly elderly applicants - may have their votes thrown out simply because they didn't remember which ID number they used the first time, or have lost their ID card.

The law, set to take effect in time for the 2022 primary elections, already faced legal challenges generally argue it will disproportionately impact voters of colors and voters with disabilities. Those challenges, along with Thursday's lawsuit, could delay its implementation.

Follow Courtney Carpenter on Facebook and Twitter.

With additional reporting from our ABC13 partners at The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans - and engages with them - about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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