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Travis County Judge speaks out against Texas voting law

Monday, March 21, 2022 by Seth Smalley

Last Thursday, Travis County Judge Andy Brown joined a U.S. House subcommittee, Committee on House Administration, to speak against Senate Bill 1, the new Republican voting legislation aimed at limiting the effectiveness of alternative voting methods like voting by mail.

The hearing, called Voting in America: Ensuring Free and Fair Access to the Ballot, offered leaders from around Texas the opportunity to share the consequences SB 1 has had on voting outcomes in their communities. Brown spoke along with several other Texas leaders opposed to the bill, including Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP. Several Republicans spoke in favor of the bill, including U.S. Reps. Bryan Steil and Rodney Davis, who defended the law as necessary to protect election integrity.

Democrats called for Congress to intervene by striking down certain provisions of SB 1 before the November midterms.

“Senate Bill 1 has made it more difficult for voters to cast their ballots. It has stifled innovation. It has undermined trust in our democracy, and has chipped away at one of the foundation stones of our electoral process,” Brown said.

SB 1 warns of criminal penalties for election officials who distribute applications for mail-in ballots to registered voters. “The early voting clerk may make no attempt to solicit a person to complete an application for an early voting ballot by mail, whether directly or through a third party,” the bill reads.

Brown went on to say the bill makes the job of election workers far more difficult by adding the threat of criminal liability to their work.

“Travis County received 11,600 mail-in ballots in the 2022 primaries that we just had. Despite significant effort by our county team, we saw a 600 percent increase in the number of ballots rejected because of the criteria in SB 1,” Brown said.

Sixteen percent of the 11,600 mail-in votes in Travis County were initially slated for rejection. After election workers hired additional staff and made phone calls to process the rejected ballots, half of those ballots were eventually cured – but 8 percent of the ballots were nevertheless rejected due to SB 1. By comparison, in the 2018 primaries, only 1.7 percent of mail-in ballots in Travis County were dropped.

Bledsoe accused SB 1 of being a power play to limit the voting reach of the state’s growing minority population.

“From being an Anglo community 20 years ago, now we’ve moved into a community where now about 59 percent of the state is minority,” Bledsoe said. “This is all about trying to make 40 percent greater than 60 percent.”

Brown also noted that language in SB 1 emboldens partisan poll watchers by removing power from election officials.

“It is now a criminal offense for an election worker to obstruct a poll watcher in a manner that would make observation ‘not reasonably effective.’ It’s unclear what that means, and because of that, partisan poll watchers have little guidance as to the limits of their powers,” Brown told the subcommittee.

The county has recently increased wages for election workers from $12 per hour to $15 to $20 per hour, in part to address the increased liability of the role.

“Election officials had to come up with last-minute innovations to make voting safe and accessible during a pandemic. SB 1 was a direct result of the Legislature targeting these new and successful innovations that we implemented,” Brown said.

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

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