Labor sues to stop Texas voter suppression

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

AUSTIN, Texas (PAI)—The Texas Federation of Teachers, the labor-backed Alliance for Retired Americans, Mi Familia Vota and the League of United Latin American Citizens have marched into federal court in the state capital of Austin, suing to stop the state’s new voter suppression law in its tracks.

Their 59-page brief was filed Sept. 7, minutes after the law’s chief sponsor, right-wing GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, signed it. The four groups want an immediate injunction to stop it.

Their papers lay out the Lone Star State’s history of racist voter suppression. The objective: Target Blacks and Hispanic-named people. People of color now make up 55.2% of the state’s population, though not its registered voters—yet.

They also offer a blow-by-blow description of how the legislature’s ruling Republicans jammed the law through, overcoming two House Democratic boycotts, widespread citizen protests, and what Texas’s GOP Secretary of State said was absolutely no evidence of fraud.

“The blatantly partisan and disenfranchising considerations that fueled the suppressive provisions are not legitimate, much less compelling, governmental interests. The suppressive provisions thus cannot be justified under any standard of scrutiny,” the suit says.

Texas is one of many GOP-run states—including Iowa and Georgia—whose GOP-gerrymandered legislatures and governors seized on former GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump’s “stolen election” lies to justify voter repression. National ARA Executive Director Richard Fiesta made that point in supporting his Texas affiliate.

“This law is part of a dangerous, coordinated national campaign to keep millions of Americans from voting,” he said. “Our members are united in the belief we should be making it easier for voters to cast a ballot, not more difficult.” Voter repression also targets retirees and college students nationwide—indeed any foes of the GOP, corporate, and racist agendas.

“The four groups, which collectively represent millions of Texans, contend the proposed new law’s core provisions will deeply degrade the democratic cornerstones of representation and fairness, particularly for people of color and older Texans,” the Teachers said.

It “limits early voting hours, cuts local options for casting ballots, restricts mail-in voting, and allows partisan poll watchers unprecedented access to polling places. Each of these is designed to prevent Texas voters–particularly voters of color–from casting a ballot.”

“We should be showing our students Texas values voter participation and strives to make it more accessible,” Zeph Capo, Texas AFT president, said in his statement.

“This law is an embarrassment, one students will see as taking us backward to a time when many voices and their votes were repressed. While our students are learning about past discriminatory voting practices, they are confronted today with a life lesson that proves the adage that those who don’t learn their history are doomed to repeat it,” he continued.

“This law sends a harmful and ominous message about our students’ future ability to participate in our democracy.”

Texas students, like their parents, are majority people of color: 72%. The law would particularly hurt Latinos, who are now 38.8% of all Texans. Blacks are another 12.5%.

“Instead of celebrating record turnout in 2020, in an election the GOP-led government certified as fair and legitimate, Republicans are now pushing bogus claims about voting fraud to justify restrictive voter suppression laws,” said Mi Familia Vota CEO Maria Teresa Kumar.

Latino turnout was particularly high in Harris County (Houston), which is 70% people of color.

“These laws are in direct conflict with our constitutional rights of free, fair, equitable access to the voting booth. SB1 is designed to limit Tejanos’ ability to exercise their full citizenship. Not only are we filing suit to protect the right to vote for all people of color, and the additional 250,000 young Latino Tejanos who will reach voting age in 2022, but to protect every Texan’s right to vote.

“A thriving, healthy democracy demands maximum participation by all eligible voters. It’s time lawmakers stop the assault on voting rights and instead compete for our votes with ideas,” Kumar concluded.

“SB1 is simply the latest manifestation of centuries-long efforts by Texas officials to limit Black and Latino political participation,” the suit says.

“Devices such as the poll tax, an all-white primary system, and restrictive voter registration time periods are an unfortunate”—and well-documented, courts said—”part of this state’s minority voting rights history.” Despite the U.S. Constitution’s post-Civil War amendments, the state in 1866 banned newly freed Blacks from voting or holding office.

It later banned them from primary elections.

The current law follows that tradition and violates both the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment free speech clause and the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of equal protection of the law, the suit says.

It  particularly cites SB1’s bans of measures both Harris County and Dallas County took to make it easier for everyone—not just people of color—to vote during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. The new law includes limiting drop boxes to one per county, meaning there would be one box for more than 1.7 million people in Harris and one for the 171 people in rural Loving County.

It also bans poll workers from interfering with partisan “poll watchers,” who could now go inside polling places to intimidate voters. Anyone interfering with the poll watchers faces citizen “arrest,” plus fines. Indeed, some tried interference in 2018 and 2020, the suit adds. Examples:

“Dallas County’s former elections administrator stated in 2018 the severity and intensity of harassment and intimidation reached levels she had not seen in her 30 years of service.

“During that year’s election, a white poll worker in North Houston yelled racial insults at a Black voter, stating, ‘Maybe if I’d worn my blackface makeup today you could comprehend what I’m saying to you,’ and, ‘If you call the police, they’re going to take you to jail and do something to you, because I’m white.’

“The 2020 election was no better. On the first day of early voting at a Dallas polling place, an older white man falsely told a long line of mostly Black and Latino voters they would not be allowed to vote if they were not inside the building by the time the polls closed.

“At a different Dallas polling location, supporters of former President Trump blared messages aimed at Black and Latino voters while one of them told the voters that the only place he sends people is to the morgue.”

No date has been set yet for a hearing on the suit.