Disability community sends message to Texas lawmakers over proposed voting restrictions

Community members say Senate Bill 7 ‘restrictive and oppressive’

SAN ANTONIO – Proposed voting restrictions that could be resurrected during the upcoming special session starting July 8 led several disability organizations to send a statement to Texas lawmakers.

“We would like you to understand the unintended and negative effects that recently proposed voting laws will have on the disability community’s ability to participate in the electoral process,” the letter reads in part. (Read the entire document below.)

One of the organizations that signed on was disABILITYsa, a group “to educate, advance and engage individuals with disabilities.”

Melanie Cawthon, disABILITYsa’s executive director and co-founder, said the organization must now resume its role to educate lawmakers on what’s at stake for the disability community.

She said many of the most troublesome provisions within Senate Bill 7 could be resurrected after last month’s effort failed when Democratic lawmakers staged a walk-out.

“A lot was amended during the session,” Cawthon said. “Everything that was changed, amended, or removed has the opportunity to be added back in.”

She said the disability community found much of the original bill “restrictive and oppressive.”

“It makes it more challenging for everybody to have equal access to the polls,” Cawthon said.

The three biggest concerns for the disABILITYsa were the requirement to verify a voter’s disability to get a mail-in ballot, changes to curbside voting and possible criminal charges against caregivers or attendants often needed to assist a voter with disabilities.

Cawthon said documenting someone’s disability is often easier said than done.

“It’s almost like a tax, a voting tax, because you have to pay the co-pay to see your doctor,” she said.

That is if they have a doctor, Cawthon said, since many doctors don’t accept Medicaid patients.

Cawthon said the changes to curbside voting amount to “show me your papers.”

She said the original language required drivers with three or more voters to fill out forms, they’d have get out of the vehicle unless they’re assisting a voter, and a poll watcher could even enter the vehicle.

Cawthon said many also are concerned about caregivers or attendants possibly facing criminal charges if a poll watcher believes they’re doing more than just assisting a voter with disabilities.

“Maybe you get irritated with your mom, And then a poll watcher assumes that your mom is trying to force you to vote in a way that you didn’t intend to,” Cawthon said.

A misunderstanding, she said, could possibly lead to criminal charges filed against someone who was trying to help.

Cawthon said she urges lawmakers to “think very seriously about what you were doing to the constituents in your communities.”

She said one in every six voting adults has a disability.

“Know that the disability vote is very big and very real,” Cawthon said.

She said they will show up in force when public hearings begin on whatever voting legislation the special session will be considering.

About the Authors:

Jessie Degollado has been with KSAT since 1984. She is a general assignments reporter who covers a wide variety of stories. Raised in Laredo and as an anchor/reporter at KRGV in the Rio Grande Valley, Jessie is especially familiar with border and immigration issues. In 2007, Jessie also was inducted into the San Antonio Women's Hall of Fame.

William Caldera has been at KSAT since 2003. He covers a wide range of stories including breaking news, weather, general assignments and sports.