AUSTIN, Texas – As Texas legislators gathered Friday to consider sweeping changes to who in the nation's second-largest state can cast a ballot and how, some voters said the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is forcing them to choose between their health and their right to be heard by their government.
So they are staying away from the Capitol, where masks are not enforced after Gov. Greg Abbott rescinded a statewide mask order earlier this month and COVID-19 rapid testing is only required for some hearings and areas.
Proposed legislation before the GOP-led state Senate and House mirrors a nationwide campaign by Republicans that aims to restrict voting even more, with rules Democrats say disenfranchise racial and ethnic minorities. In Texas, which already has some of the strictest voting laws in the U.S., that would mean granting more power to partisan poll watchers, eliminating the option to cast a ballot via drive-thru as well as requiring a doctor’s note for people with disabilities who want to vote by mail for a full year.
Amy Litzinger, of Austin, is among Texans who say the very health issues keeping her from testifying before lawmakers in person will also penalize her if stricter voting legislation becomes law.
In the Texas Legislature, people are not allowed to testify virtually before the state Senate, and people can only testify via video by invitation in House hearings.
The 33-year-old Litzinger has spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy, which affects balance and movement. She uses a wheelchair. The disorder also makes her particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
Litzinger, who has a degree in political science, said a Senate bill being heard Friday makes her feel like her vote isn’t valued. Requiring a doctor’s note to vote by mail for a full calendar year can be difficult because of some insurance company requirements. Her signature doesn’t always look the same because of her medical condition — something the bill instructs election workers to verify for mail-in voters.
“I don’t feel like I am as much a part of Texas as I would like to be if I am not participating at least in the most basic level,” Litzinger said.
GOP state Sen. Bryan Hughes, who authored the bill being heard Friday before a committee he chairs, said the bill’s overarching goal is to “make it easy to vote and hard to cheat," echoing unfounded claims of voter fraud stoked by former President Donald Trump.
“What we want is a system where our elections are fair and where people back home know that our elections are fair,” Hughes said.
Voter fraud is extremely rare.
Democrats at the federal level are pressing back against state action— including in Georgia, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp drew protests Thursday when he signed into law a sweeping GOP-sponsored overhaul of state elections — and the fights will undoubtedly end up in the courts. President Joe Biden is leaving the door open to backing fundamental changes in Senate procedure to muscle through an agenda that includes what his party views as the largest overhaul of U.S. elections in a generation.
Back in Austin, Jose Colon Uvalles was back at the Capitol again Friday to advocate against voting restrictions. He had made the 300-mile journey from the Rio Grande Valley along the Mexico border for a hearing Thursday that ended abruptly — and without public testimony — because of a procedural gaffe.
He said testifying in-person is not his first choice. But now that he is vaccinated against COVID-19, he is willing to take the risk to speak up on behalf of those who can't in his community, which was hit hard by the coronavirus last summer and where many still have not been immunized.
“If anything were to happen to the people who showed up for these hearings, it is on them,” said Colon Uvalles, 31, who is part of the left-leaning voter registration group Texas Rising. “That is something they really have to sit with if they truly represent Texas and the people and the constituents then they would open up virtual testimony to everybody in the state.”
Outside a packed Senate hearing room, Deb Seaman said Friday she decided to testify against proposed voting restrictions after seeing what happened in Georgia. She acknowledged COVID-19 is still a risk, but she wanted to try to stop Texas from following suit.
“It is definitely worth the risk to enable everyone to vote," 61-year-old Seaman said. “People have risked far more than what I am risking today: They fought. They bled. They died.”
Acacia Coronado is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.