A version of this post was originally distributed in Votebeat’s weekly newsletter. Sign up here.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking to Texas Democrats over the last two weeks, covering their efforts to block restrictive voting legislation. Since the session was still underway, their ask from their national counterparts has been clear: Pass a voting bill. They’ve now taken that message to Capitol Hill, having multiple meetings with influential Democrats including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, the most powerful man in Washington right now.
While the Texans called the meetings “very productive” and the group was praised with multiple standing ovations, the 10 million pound elephant in the room is that it’s pretty unlikely that any voting rights bill will pass at all, largely because of the strategy designed by the very Democrats these state legislators are now appealing to. And herein lies the rub: National politicians, while they are certainly eventually impacted by voting issues, don’t have to deal with them as directly or as tangibly as state-level representatives, and certainly not the elections administrators who must carry out changes. There has been, always, a strange split between what is needed from the federal government and what the federal government gets around to giving, and voting rights shows this split most visibly.
Texas state Rep. Rafael Anchia said the meetings allowed him and his colleagues to describe to members of Congress their struggles over the last several months—“not just the egregiousness of the policy, but the procedure,” he said. “In many cases they could not believe it.” Texas Republicans, after all, introduced brand new language into their bill behind closed doors that, among other things, eliminated Sunday voting, and then refused to allow Democrats to ask questions about the changes. “That really shocked them,” said Anchia.
This lack of awareness is clear when you contrast congressional Democrats’ narrow focus on HR 1 with the insistence of state legislators like Anchia that HR 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, should be prioritized. Rather than focus on a narrow bill that could garner at least some bipartisan support, national Democrats listened to progressive activists and attempted to please everyone in the party with a nearly 800-page bill that, while it may have contained something for everyone, also contained something for everyone to hate. And while congressional Democrats apparently just found out that Manchin had no intention of voting for HR 1 — though it’s been obvious to the rest of us this whole time — the delay has meant that we are only left with HR 1 and the John Lewis bill. Months that could have been spent coming up with a narrower bill more directly targeted at voter suppression have been wasted.
Anchia said that the “ask” from national Democrats is to gather support for federal legislation not only among constituents but to reach out to similarly affected legislators in other states to build “a broad coalition of support.”
Anchia says he’s optimistic this will be enough to rocket something toward passage, but if it doesn’t, Texas Democrats will be left to mitigate almost-guaranteed restrictions on voting rights in the state by themselves. Gov. Greg Abbott has already announced he’ll call the legislature back for a special session so that Republicans can pass a voting bill, and Democrats now have to decide if they are willing to duke it out with Republicans in a losing battle or leave the state for weeks at a time to deny a quorum, raising their profiles but likely also intense anger from their constituents, who generally don’t prefer their representatives to flee rather than do their jobs.
It’s becoming clear to election officials across the country that there must be some national alignment on these issues, but national Democrats may be coming to that realization themselves a bit too late to give any assistance to those struggling to prevent the retraction in voting rights from coming to their states.
Texas was not always at the forefront of restrictive voting efforts. In the 1980s, the state pioneered early voting, something that is still hugely popular in the state today even as Republicans attempted to restrict early voting days this cycle. In 1986, Waco Democrat Chet Edwards was frustrated that he had to anticipate being away from the polls on Election Day in order to vote early, and he introduced a bill to allow early voting with no excuse. It passed on a bipartisan vote to little fanfare, and was instituted. In 1991, legislation passed that allowed early voting to be held at any location rather than just municipal buildings, expanding the practice even further.
In Other Voting News
- Texas lawmakers aren’t the only ones hoping for some movement on voting rights in Congress. A group of faith leaders gathered in Georgia this week to hold a rally in support of federal legislation.
- A key statehouse leader in Pennsylvania has signaled support for a forensic audit of his state’s 2020 result, akin to Arizona’s. In an interview with Votebeat and Spotlight PA reporter Marie Albiges, state Sen. David Argall said he sees no harm in “doing it one more time to try to answer the concerns that people have. I just don’t know what people are afraid of in allowing the audit to continue.” Argall, a Republican, is chairman of the Senate State Government Committee, which is responsible for elections legislation.
- Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Republican, has told local press he is watching the Arizona audit “closely” and says that some in Michigan are “passionate” about re-creating it, though he hopes that the Senate Oversight Committee will put much of that fire to rest. “I believe what we’ve done in our oversight process is equal (to) or more robust than what they’ve been doing” in Arizona, he said.
- In a classic case of “Don’t you wish you would have asked an expert before you wrote a whole law,” Florida elections officials are voicing their anger over the vagueness of the nearly 400 page voting laws Republican legislators passed this spring. For example, does a “monitored” drop box require the staffer monitoring the box to check for compliance with the law before the ballots are dropped inside? Who knows!
- One in three election officials nationwide report feeling unsafe because of their work, and one in six say they’ve been personally threatened, according to a survey conducted by the Brennan Center and the Bipartisan Policy Center. Their report released this week, “Election Officials Under Attack,” recounts in detail the harassment officials have faced since 2020, including a video of several officials candidly describing how they’ve been affected. The report also diagnoses the causes of these hostilities and proposes a host of policy solutions to protect election workers and restore trust to their work.
- In what we’ll likely start to see as a pattern, the Wisconsin Assembly has pushed back the deadline for local offices to draw district lines for city councils and county boards, citing extreme delays at the U.S. Census office in finalizing the data. Local officials will now have until after the 2022 spring elections to finalize their districts.
- North Carolina legislators are trying, again, to remove literacy tests from the state Constitution. While the practice was outlawed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, voters in North Carolina in 1970 voted to keep it in the state Constitution, even though it cannot be enforced. In 2013 and 2019, the House voted to advance measures that would have put it back to the people for a vote, but the Senate took neither bill up for consideration.
- Republicans in Pennsylvania are trying to work toward passage of their voting bill, even though it likely faces a veto by the state’s Democratic governor. “I am requesting a meeting with you so that we can finalize legislation that can become law,” Republican Rep. Seth Grove wrote in a letter to the governor. “To put it plainly, Gov. Wolf: How do you know what we are willing to change or compromise on in this bill if you will not come to the table?”
In His Downtime
Now, for a true Texas hobby: Brisket. Keith Ingram is the elections director in Texas, known for occasionally speaking French at elections conferences but also for bringing in smoked brisket for his staff to enjoy on Election Day. Shouldn’t we all be so lucky to have such a boss?
He started smoking meat less than a decade ago when he and a friend bought Big Green Eggs for a bit of fun. “I love the challenge that comes from turning a piece of meat into a delicious meal,” he said. “It’s like solving a puzzle to me.”
His favorite thing to smoke is brisket. It is the cut of meat by which all Texans judge any barbecue spot, and Keith’s staff reports that his recipe is absolutely up to par. His rule for success? “Don’t get fancy with it.” Indeed. “Just trim it, rub on some sea salt and coarse pepper and be ready to let it cook on low heat for 12 to 15 hours.”
Ingram says that smoking meat — like running elections — “requires good preparation and plenty of dedication.”
“Thinking about the process before it starts is very important in both cooking and elections,” he said. “Our office does a pot luck meal on election day. It’s great fun to see what everybody’s showcase dish is.”
I’m sure that the Texas secretary of state’s staff does a bang-up job with their offerings, but how can you beat brisket?