When Texas Republicans began crafting sweeping new voting restrictions a few months ago, there was little doubt that they were targeting one place in particular.
On their minds was Harris county, the most populous county in the state, with about 2.4 million registered voters. Home to Houston, the Democratic-friendly county offered voters a suite of new ways to vote in 2020, including opening up polling locations for 24 hours a day and allowing people to vote from their cars. The county’s top election officials also sent out mail-in ballot applications to all voters ages 65 and up.
More than 128,000 people used drive-thru voting in 2020 and more than 17,000 voted overnight between 7pm and 7am., according to data from Harris county. Black, Asian and Hispanic voters made up a majority of voters in both cases.
The measure crafted by Republicans, which was signed into law a few weeks ago, blocks Harris and all other counties from doing something similar again. It outright prohibits 24-hour and drive-thru voting. And it prohibits election officials from automatically sending out mail-in ballot applications. The law already faces numerous challenges in federal court.
As I watched Republicans debate the new law in the Texas legislature, I noticed how they downplayed its consequences. Many of the things Harris county tried in 2020 were new, they argued, and so it made sense for the state to step in and regulate them. “We don’t do 24-hour voting in Texas, but we do have a lot of opportunities to vote. We don’t do drive-thru voting, but we do make sure that folks who have disabilities have access to curbside voting,” Bryan Hughes, a Republican state senator, who played a central role in passing the measure, said in late August.
I wanted to better understand why exactly these restrictions were a big deal, so I spoke with Isabel Longoria, the Harris county elections administrator, on the phone last week. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
The argument put forward by Republicans is that ‘Texas has never done drive-thru voting before, no other place is really doing this, so we have a right to regulate it.’ Why is that the wrong reaction?
Everything is new until it’s not. So immediately shunning things that might be new to Texas is a little bizarre. The legislature contemplates laws literally all the time that are new to Texas.
We started with those ideas because we were voting in a pandemic first and foremost. How can we keep our voters safe so that they didn’t have to sacrifice their health to access their constitutional right to vote? So we looked at the best practices everyone was doing. Curbside groceries. Drive-thru banking. Every industry was trying to figure out how to keep people safe within their cars because it creates that physical bubble.
We opened up access for one reason and we ended up kind of breaking through the wall of systemic barriers to voting, period. If you open up access you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
What would you say to people who argue, ‘this is an unusual thing that Harris county was trying, it was shaped by the circumstances of Covid and 2020,’ and that rolling it back isn’t a big deal?
Again, we can’t unlearn what we’ve learned. We can use a whole bunch of cliches here. Necessity breeds innovation. The necessity of keeping people safe during a pandemic bred the innovations of voter access. Once we know how to do them safely and securely, which we did with drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting and all that good stuff, why wouldn’t we keep using those tools to help voters vote?
What it was like for you as an election official, having gone through this crazy 2020 election, to watch these debates in the legislature?
I think like any professional who watches a bill go through the legislature, what is most disheartening to me is the writers of these bills never came to talk to me in Harris county. It’s well documented that this [law] was in reaction to all the innovations we implemented in Harris county. I didn’t have a single author of this bill reach out to my office. I didn’t have a single author of this bill come and tour our election facilities. Come and talk to us personally to verify any of the conspiracy theories or allegations against us. So this bill was written, really wholeheartedly, on just bias and misleading reports. From partisan actors in the county or perhaps across the state.
The perception that is created by this bill, and created around the messaging around the November elections, is that somehow there should be a doubt on how elections are conducted. That to me is a terrifying prospect.
Thank you to everyone who is firing away with good questions. You can continue to write to me each week at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on Twitter at @srl and I’ll try to answer as many as I can.
Ed, who is from New Zealand and lives in France, wrote in to ask about the filibuster and the US Senate. Requiring the support of 60% of members to advance legislation, he said, makes the US an outlier compared with senates in other countries. What thought has been given to limiting the power of the US Senate?, he asked.
I don’t think we’re going to see any action limiting the power of the US Senate anytime soon.
As infuriating as the Senate can be, the founders designed it to be more deliberative, and to be a check on the US House. But in recent years, as you mention, there’s been growing concern that the body does not represent the nation, and has transformed from a check on government to a roadblock.
Not every person in America is equally represented in the US Senate. Because each state gets two senators, states with small populations get just as much of a say as large ones. Currently, Democrats represent 42 million more people than Republicans in the Senate, but the chamber is split evenly 50-50. That’s a big change from 1950, when Democrats held 54 seats in the Senate representing 82 million people, while Republicans represented 68 million people with the remaining 46 seats. (Here’s a really good story by my colleagues Tom McCarthy and Alvin Chang on this topic.)
That growing gulf is why calls are growing to abolish the 60 vote threshold you mentioned, also called the filibuster. The filibuster is a rule that was created by the Senate and isn’t in the constitution or even federal law. While defenders, including some Democrats, argue that it fosters compromise, that doesn’t seem to be happening much these days.