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Justice Department sues Texas to stop two provisions in new GOP elections law from taking effect

This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas.

The lawsuit says new mail-in ballot ID requirements and restrictions on voter assistants will make it harder for some eligible Texans to vote.
Vote Center
A voter exits a polling place on Election Day at Lakeside Activity Center in Mesquite, Texas on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (Elias Valverde II/The Dallas Morning News)(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

By Allie Morris

AUSTIN — The U.S. Department of Justice is suing Texas to stop parts of the state’s controversial, GOP-backed election law from taking effect next month.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday, the department objects to the law’s new ID requirements for mail-in ballots and limits on voter assistance, which it argues violate federal voting and civil rights protections.

“Our democracy depends on the right of eligible voters to cast a ballot and to have that ballot counted,” U.S. 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.”

Republicans who control the Texas Legislature passed the expansive rewrite of election laws this year, despite Democrats’ monthslong crusade to block what they said would disenfranchise Black, Latino and disabled voters in an increasingly diversifying state.

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After two dramatic walkouts and a series of special sessions, enough Democrats returned to Austin to end the stalemate. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, signed the divisive elections bill into law in September saying it would promote trust in elections.

The law, also known as Senate Bill 1, has already faced a barrage of lawsuits from civil and voting rights groups. It’s scheduled to take effect in early December, ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

Texas is one of several Republican-led states to tighten election laws after President Donald Trump’s loss in 2020. The Biden administration has already sued Georgia, alleging the state’s new law is intended to restrict Black voters’ ballot access.

On Twitter, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he would see President Joe Biden in court.

“Biden is coming after Texas for SB1, our recently enacted election integrity law,” said Paxton, a Republican. “It’s a great and a much-needed bill. Ensuring Texas has safe, secure, and transparent elections is a top priority of mine.”

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The lawsuit marks the Biden administration’s latest against Texas, the nation’s most populous red state. Recently the Department of Justice challenged the state’s new six-week abortion ban, which went before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.

The administration’s lawsuit over the state’s new election restrictions makes no mention of the most highly politicized parts, such as the ban on 24-hour and drive-through voting deployed by Houston’s Harris County in a bid to make voting easier during the pandemic.

Instead, the lawsuit calls out two specific provisions it argues will disenfranchise eligible Texas voters who are disabled, elderly, out of the country or who have a limited English proficiency.

One requires absentee voters to include a Department of Public Safety-issued driver license number or identification card number on their application to vote by mail and on the envelope used to send in their ballot. Those without either can use the last four digits of their Social Security numbers. The information must match what’s in the voter’s registration file.

The lawsuit contends the new requirement will “disenfranchise some eligible mail voters based on paperwork errors or omissions immaterial to their qualifications to vote.” In Texas, people who are disabled, sick, 65 or older, in jail or out of the county on election day can vote absentee.

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The Department of Justice also challenges the law’s new limits on what kind of assistance voters can get if they need help casting a ballot. By prohibiting assistants from answering questions, responding to requests to clarify ballot translations and confirming that voters who can’t see have marked the ballot as intended, the lawsuit said, the new Texas law “further, and impermissibly, restricts the core right to meaningful assistance in the voting booth.”

Texas House Democrats applauded the Biden administration “for taking decisive action to stop Texas Republicans’ continued attacks on our democracy.”

“This bill was never about election security or voter integrity. It was always about Texas Republicans using the Big Lie to justify restricting access to the ballot box,” Texas House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie; Mexican American Legislative Caucus Chair Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas; Texas Legislative Black Caucus Chair Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth; and Texas Legislative Study Group Chair Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said in a joint statement.

The group also called on the U.S. Senate to pass federal voting rights legislation.

House Democrats who fled to Washington, D.C., over the summer to block the Texas elections bill have been lobbying Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. Both bills have been blocked by a Republican filibuster in the U.S. Senate.

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