Sometimes Bad Laws Come in Small Packages

Lady Justice in front of a ripped Texas flag that is half black and white

Texas has a history of finding clever ways to limit who can vote in its elections. Today, Texas Republicans aim to discriminate against voters in urban communities, but in 1965, Texas went to the U.S. Supreme Court to try to stop some members of the military stationed in Texas from voting in the Lone Star State. 

In Carrington v. Rash, the Supreme Court struck down a 1954 amendment to the Texas Constitution that disenfranchised members of the then-recently integrated military by prohibiting active servicemen from voting in Texas if they entered service in another state — even if they had since moved and lived full-time in Texas. The state argued that this restriction was “necessary to prevent the danger of a ‘takeover’ of the civilian community resulting from concentrated voting by large numbers of military personnel in bases placed near Texas towns and cities.” It also wanted to protect Texas voters from “infiltration by transients.”

 Rejecting this argument, the Supreme Court ruled that “‘Fencing out’ from the franchise a sector of the population because of the way they may vote is constitutionally impermissible.” 

While Texas lost that case, it has not stopped trying to “fence out” transients that the state’s Republican legislature would prefer not to participate in elections. This past June, as the Texas Legislature considered its now-infamous omnibus voter suppression bill, Senate Bill 7, Republicans enacted two other laws that targeted transient voters for disenfranchisement.

The first, Senate Bill 1111, prohibits voters from establishing “residence for the purpose of influencing the outcome of a certain election.” Thus, a voter who chooses where to live based on the congressional or state legislative district they would be a part of would potentially violate this new law. Similarly, a candidate who changes their own residence in order to live within a newly redistricted district would likewise risk criminal prosecution. 

 The new law also prohibits a voter from designating a residence unless they live and intend to remain there at the time of registration. As a result, college students, or other Texans who are temporarily out of state for school or employment, could not register using their prior Texas address as their place of residence because they do not currently “inhabit” it. This provision creates a Catch-22 for many college students attending schools in other states. While Texas law seeks to prevent those young citizens from voting in Texas, the states where they go to college often have their own barriers for students to claim residency.

 S.B. 1111 also targets homeless voters who often utilize the P.O. boxes of churches and other organizations to register to vote. Under the new law, a voter who is suspected of registering with an invalid address must provide additional verification documents. Yet, only a handful of residency documents are accepted, and none can be sent back to the county via a P.O. box. 

Fencing homeless citizens and college students out of the electoral process is as morally repugnant today as trying to stop members of the military from registering to vote was in 1963. And it is no less unconstitutional. That is why LULAC and Voto Latino are challenging S.B. 1111 in court.

Unfortunately, S.B. 1111 was not the only voter suppression law enacted by the Texas legislature in June. At the same time, Texas Republicans also enacted House Bill 3107, which requires individuals who submit their registration applications electronically or through fax to provide a copy of their application with their original signature signed with pen on paper — also known as a “wet-ink signature.”

While the country is expanding the use of electronic signatures for the most important and complex business transactions, Texas has carved out third-party voter registration as a place where only a wet-ink signature is acceptable. While state agencies will still rely on a voter’s electronic signatures, citizens who register via groups like Vote.org cannot. This distinction makes no sense and is an obvious effort to fence out of the electoral process those voters who are more likely to utilize online registration tools instead of visiting state agencies. Just as LULAC and Voto Latino are challenging S.B. 1111, Vote.org is suing to strike down H.B. 3107 as unconstitutional.

While the eyes of the nation are focused on the heroic efforts by Texas Democrats to block the passage of an omnibus voter suppression law, we cannot lose sight of the fact that these two laws will have dramatic consequences for the ability of thousands of Texans to be able to fully participate in the electoral process. 

Not all bad laws come in big packages labeled voter suppression. Not all disenfranchisement tactics make the nightly news. For every omnibus voter suppression law like S.B. 7, there are far more laws like S.B. 1111 and H.B. 3107.

Yet, regardless of the size of the law, the tragic result for citizens and democracy is the same.