The Department of Justice announced Thursday it filed a lawsuit against Texas and its secretary of state over parts of an election reform bill Gov. Greg Abbott signed into state law in September.
The complaint (pdf) alleges that the measure, also referred to as Texas Senate Bill 1, violates Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act by “improperly restricting” assistance to voters with a disability or are unable to read or write in the polling booth, the DOJ announced.
Specifically, people assisting the voters who need help to fill out their ballot must, under SB1, take a longer revised oath that has six new or revised requirements, including the removal of previous language about answering voters’ questions.
In the complaint, the DOJ alleges that by requiring the revised oath, the measure “prohibits assistors from answering a voter’s questions, explaining the voting process, paraphrasing complex language, and providing other forms of voting assistance that some qualified voters require to cast an informed and effective vote.”
The DOJ complaint also says that SB1 violates Section 101 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it requires that mail ballots and mail ballot request forms be rejected if there are certain paperwork errors or omissions that the DOJ says “are not material to establishing a voter’s eligibility to cast a ballot.”
Specifically, SB1 requires new identification number requirements for both mail ballot applications and mail ballot carrier envelopes; voters must provide the number of their driver’s license or the last four digits of their Social Security number. The DOJ acknowledged in the suit that prior to SB1, Texas “did not require an identification document number or partial social security number to establish qualifications to vote in an election or to cast a mail ballot.”
The Justice Department says such requirements mean ballots have a higher chance of being wrongly rejected, thereby rejecting some eligible voters.
The complaint asks the court to prohibit Texas from enforcing the two provisions.
“Our democracy depends on the right of eligible voters to cast a ballot and to have that ballot counted,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. “The Justice Department will continue to use all the authorities at its disposal to protect this fundamental pillar of our society.”
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division said that it is “committed to protecting the fundamental right to vote for all Americans.”
“Laws that impair eligible citizens’ access to the ballot box have no place in our democracy. Texas SB1’s restrictions on voter assistance at the polls and on which absentee ballots cast by eligible voters can be accepted by election officials are unlawful and indefensible,” Clarke said in a statement.
Republicans control both legislative chambers in Texas as well as the governor’s mansion.
In a response to the lawsuit, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote, “Biden is coming after Texas for SB1, our recently enacted election integrity law. It’s a great and a much-needed bill. Ensuring Texas has safe, secure, and transparent elections is a top priority of mine. I will see you in court, Biden!”
Abbott and other Texas Republicans have said the election reform measure makes it easier for people to cast their votes while strengthening election integrity.
The measure was among a number of voting bills that prompted 52 House Democrats to flee the state in July to deny Republicans the legislative quorum needed to conduct the state’s business. Three Democrats returned to Texas in late August—enough to achieve a quorum—ending a legislative impasse of 38 days, or more than five weeks.