We invite back one of our favorite election experts, Emily Eby, to explain what happened to voting rights in the 88th legislative session. She kicks off the show highlighting the priorities that rose to the top this session – culture wars and state control. Good news – some positive voting bills made it through! We learn that it is now easier for Texans with disabilities to utilize curbside voting. But with the good comes the bad, especially for Harris County. They have lost the ability to appoint an elections administrator. If you need a refresher on what elections administrators do and how they differ from county clerks, check out our show with Beth Stevens. https://gobehindtheballot.com/who-makes-elections-actually-happen-elections-administrators-what-do-they-do-beth-stevens-explains-all/
And for a sneak peek of the ‘ugh’, Emily reflects on the common practice of representatives ignoring the will of the majority. We wrap up with what democracy means to Emily and how we can reclaim our voice at the Capitol.
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How’s Our Democracy Looking In Texas After The 88th Legislative Session? Emily Eby From Texas Civil Rights Project Reveals The Good, The Bad And Ugh
I want to tell you right from the top that Nicole Abshire is not with us for this episode. She is with her family out of state, but she’s going to be back soon. Luckily, we’re in great hands because we have a fantastic guest with us. It is Emily Eby, our first-ever returning guest, which is exciting. Before we talk to Emily, I want to remind all of you to please sign up for our newsletter. You can do that at our website, GoBehindTheBallot.com.
The newsletters are awesome because you get them once a week. It’s a great recap of the show. It’s your cheat sheet which tells you everything we discussed. If it piques your interest, you can make sure that you read it. Sign up for the newsletter, review our show, share it with a friend, and email us. We love hearing from all of you. That’s about it for our announcements. Let’s say hello again to Emily.
I would like to start by vouching for the newsletter. It is one of the only emails that I’m happy to get. I’m afraid of emails, but I love the newsletter.
Thanks. It’s been a fun project. When we were on a break, we still tried to provide relevant content for people. We talked about Attorney General Ken Paxton getting impeached and what that means and why that is relevant. We talked about some of our favorite podcasts and movies. We like to provide useful information to people.
Impeachment content is all I am consuming.
Tell us where you work and what you do.
I work at the Texas Civil Rights Project. I’m a Staff Attorney in the voting rights program. I don’t do litigation. I have a lot of team members doing great work on SB 1 from the 2021 legislative session, working on a racial redistricting case in Galveston. What I get to do is ledge work and election protection where we run the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline during election seasons. Anybody can call. We will have a team of lawyers ready to solve election issues because, spoiler alert, the Texas Election Code is too complicated.
It seems like a lot of things are complicated, which is why we’re glad to have you here. What we want to do in this episode is give a recap of what happened in the 88th legislative session, which ended on May 29th, 2023, and talk about what happened with bills that were discussed regarding elections, voting rights, democracy more broadly, and what we should know that we probably missed because a lot happened. It’s confusing. I so appreciate your Twitter because if I don’t understand, I’m like, “Emily will tell me everything.” You do so in a way that I understand, which is through memes.
That is the greatest superpower of the movement.
We’re going to break it down. We’re going to talk about the good things that happened in the session, the bad things that happened, and the, “Ugh,” which is the catchall for like, “I can’t believe this is what took the oxygen.” We say this in the show. As a reminder, our legislator meets every other year for 140 days, so they’re not there often. This is when everything’s supposed to happen. Constitutionally, the budget is supposed to be passed, but then there are other things because life changes and new laws need to be made.
Theoretically, they would be changing the law to meet the needs of every other year of Texans. In reality, it’s whatever culture war is on the minds of the people who run our state.
We heard this in another episode. If there was a headline for what the session was all about this past session, it was culture wars.
I would say culture wars and state control, like state takeover. A lot of municipalities, cities, and counties in Texas are moving more progressively. They are changing to meet the times. They are changing to meet the human rights needs of their citizens. The state doesn’t want that. In addition to these culture war battles that nobody is asking them to fight except for donors and certain news organizations, taking away the ability of local areas to do what they want has been a huge theme this 2023.Many municipalities, cities, and counties in Texas are moving more progressively. They are actually changing to meet the times. However, the state does not want that. Click To Tweet
Thank you for adding that on because that did come up a lot as well. There are so many demographic changes happening in our state with our cities becoming much more populated. Yet, it feels like the rural areas have an outsized voice in politics. Let’s start with the good. Tell us about some good things that happened.
I am so excited to be able to answer this question. Last session, there was one good thing that happened and it’s tied into some of the good things this 2023. The last session felt like such a nightmare for voting rights. This 2023, TCRP and many disability rights advocates across Texas, particularly Disability Rights Texas, a priority that we’ve had for a long time is improving curbside voting. There’s a lot of confusion with curbside and drive-through. Drive-through voting was something they tried in Harris County. It was for everyone. It was certain areas. It became illegal in 2021 when it served too many marginalized Texas voters for the state’s liking.
Curbside voting is enshrined in state law. It’s offered at every single polling place in Texas. If I have a mobility issue and it’s hard for me to get into the polling place, and I might endanger myself by going in, I can pull up to the polling place in my car, assuming I have a car. Someone will come out to me. A poll worker comes out and gives me a ballot. If I’m in a county with paper ballots, they use paper. If I’m in a county with machines, they have a little portable secure machine. I’m able to vote from my car.
The problem with curbside voting is the same as if a tree falls on the forest and nobody’s around, did it make a sound? If you pull up to the curb and you have no idea how to get someone to come out, do they have curbside voting at that polling place? There are some of the bigger counties in Texas that have a button that you can push and someone will come out. That’s the gold standard because not every voter has a phone. Even the voters who have cars might not have a phone or might not be able to use it. Even if you have a phone, there was no requirement that they have to post a sign with the number to call.
We had amazing volunteers in 2022 call every single county in Texas and find out how you request curbside in that county. My favorite is the smallest county in Texas, Loving County. It has fewer than 200 voters in the entire county. When they called Loving County, officials said, “Pull up to the polling place curb and honk twice and we’ll come out to you.” If it works in Loving County, that’s great that works for them, but you have to have a sign that says, “Pull up and honk twice.”
What if I don’t know and I’ve never done this before? I’m there and I’m like, “What’s the secret?”
There are a lot of places that don’t have great parking, but it’s still good for voters, particularly on college campuses. Sometimes, voters can even find where the logical curb would be. Is it at the front door or the back door? SB 477 passed is on its way to the governor’s desk. It’s thrilling. Senator Zaffirini moved this bill forward. It requires signage in every polling place. It requires marked places for people to park. This is so exciting.
TCRP and our allies have gone to the mat, particularly in Bear County, trying to get San Antonio residents a meaningful curbside. It’s in Texas law. It’s in the election code. There’s also HB 357 which passed to help clean up the vote-by-mail tracker a little bit. SB 1599 requires counties to notify people that there’s a mail-in ballot defect if their mail-in ballot has some kind of problem. 1599 says you got to notify voters within two business days. You got to get in there and let them know immediately so they have time to cure their ballot. It is also very good.
HB 3159 requires the state to allow voters with disabilities, like visual disabilities who use a digital reader. It requires vote-by-mail ballots to be in a format that can be used by voters for that. These are exciting and huge strides for disabled Texas voters. I use hearing aids. I have a disability. This is the first session where I knew about my disability, not my first session with a disability. It was exciting to see and be around all of these disability rights advocates and be part of that fight. We moved forward quite a bit in that area in this session.
That’s wonderful. I’m assuming that TCRP will be making sure that this is being implemented.
Yes. I’m really excited because, in past elections, we will call counties. We have our volunteers looking to see if there are curbside signs available. We would be able to call counties and say, “You don’t have curbside signs. Do you think that means you have curbside?” You had to do the college boy in a philosophy class of like, “Do you understand?” You had to walk them into it. This time, I can point to an election code section. That is so thrilling to me because even though the laws in our state are bad, as a nerd, I like to be able to point to a law. As a lawyer first and a nerd second, I like to be able to point to a law. That will help our election protection efforts.
It gives you some good authority. I, too, am a rule follower so I would like to have that rule to back me up and say what you’re supposed to do.
Don’t you wish the rules were better? It’s the struggle of rule followers everywhere.
We have to change the rules.
Exactly. We’re trying, you, me, and Nicole.
I appreciate you doing that. I’m curious because you brought up drive-through voting. Can you describe what that looks like and why we don’t have that?
I lived in Houston for two years. I and my husband, fiancé at the time, were in Houston. During the primary in 2020, I made him go drive-through vote with me. During the general, I made him go 24-hour vote with me because those were the two big innovations for Harris County. I was like, “We got to use them because they might be illegal soon,” and they are.
There was a statute in the election code that says, “Here are the requirements for a polling place. It has to be a structure. It has to have walls and a ceiling.” In 2020, in Harris County, the clerk at the time was Chris Hollins. He brought on a lot of great people including my good friend and former TCRP boss, Beth Stevens, whom you have talked to on the show.
That is another great episode to check out.
She is awesome. They were starting to read the election code and going, “How can we maximally serve voters under the way the election code is written?” Some of the great folks in that office who are still doing great voting rights work were like, “We could do drive-through voting. We could do people staying in their cars.” Everybody was afraid of getting COVID reasonably so. There was no vaccine yet. It was a huge development.
My husband and I both were able to stay in the car. We were able to cast our ballot secretly. They made sure to turn us away from each other. We could be in the same car and both vote, which was cool. They had it in a parking structure that fit the rules of the election code. The GOP did not like that. It was too accessible. It made things too easy for people who didn’t want to have to drag four kids into the polling place and try to wrangle them while casting a ballot. You can leave them strapped in their car seats and cast a ballot, and many other folks like that.
After a lot of legal finagling that they did not win, they decided to go through the legislature. One of the things that SB 1 did in the 2021 session was making drive-through voting illegal and making all those areas of the code unambiguous so that drive-through voting can’t be done legally. It is the same with 24-hour voting.
That’s interesting. I was thinking about the pandemic and how so many businesses have switched to curbside. Who doesn’t love it? Especially when you have little kids, it is such a pain to get them out of their car seats, into the building, and back into the car if you can sit there and have someone bring it to you. Such convenience reduces friction, but for voting, no.
This is not a sponcon. I promise. After we drive-through voted, my husband and I went to Chuy’s and got drive-through margs and enchiladas. Only one of those things is legal, and it’s the drive-through margs. I don’t want them to take away drive-through margs, but I also would love to celebrate a vote with a drive-through marg. I can only do one in a drive-through even though COVID is still raging.
We got to change some rules in the future. That’s on the list. Let’s talk about some of the good representatives and some of the good moments that you noticed in this session. We can stay in this happy place for a moment.
I want to preface this by saying anytime you call out good legislators, you’re always leaving out a bunch of people. I’m very sorry to anybody I leave out. There are tons of great advocates. I wrote them down to hopefully not leave out any of the ones I did write down. Representative Bucy was the Vice Chair of the House Elections Committee this 2023. He was on two of the conference committees, which is the final stage, behind-closed-doors negotiations on two of the heinous elections bills. He got selected and was able to be the voice of reason in the room. His staff was really great at talking with advocates and making sure that they were staying on track. He was a great voice in house elections.
There were several other great voices on house elections, too. I want to shout out a particularly great dresser, Representative Manuel. He always has these great suits on. In addition to the great suits, he was on house elections and asked questions of advocates in a way that after I testified, he would say, “What about X, Y, and Z?”
He was effectively giving me more time to make a point and answering questions for the whole committee that they might have called back to later. It was fun to watch over the session as he got more invested. At the very end, he was in there duking it out on all of those bills in addition to many of the other bad bills. It was fun to see him duking it out on elections after having learned so much and becoming one of the experts.
Representative Neave Criado was also great at talking to voting rights advocates a lot and working on amendments. Representative Wally worked on and offered a lot of amendments. I’m always a big fan of Representatives Weiner and the way she is able to strike fear into the hearts of people with a point of order. From what I’ve heard, she comes up with all those points of order herself. It is these little technical things that can kill a bad bill. She has lots of points of order this 2023, killing bad bills. It was fun to see Dems use all of the tools in their arsenal.
Another representative I wanted to shout out was a Republican Chair of the House Elections Committee, Representative Reggie Smith. In 2021, the House Elections Committee was a complete circus. The chair of that committee was not somebody that had a lot of respect for different viewpoints and was there to make a lot of slam dunks or what he viewed as slam dunks. Chair Smith was not like that at all. He still put through a lot of bills that are terrible for voters, but he was friendly in person in a way the 2021 chair was not. He was friendly to both sides. He made it a place for actual policy discussion rather than a circus. As a person who wants to get up there and testify about ways to make a bill better, it was such a huge relief to have a serious person leading the House Elections Committee.
Can you remind us how is the chairperson selected?
Speaker Phelan picks all of the chairs for every committee. Chair Smith didn’t have a ton of election experience before. He passed out some bills that I do not like at all that are catastrophic for voters, but he made an effort to find out what TCRP, the ACLU, and Common Cause thought about a bill even if he was going to put it out anyway. As a result, we saw a lot of amendments. We saw some friendly amendments on some of the worst bills, which means an amendment that the bill author allows and doesn’t oppose. We saw stuff get added on the house side that improves bills even if they’re terrible bills, softening some of those blows on Texas voters.
I also want to circle back because you mentioned testifying. When you testify, there’s invited testimony when you sign up with a little kiosk. Were you invited? Answer that. You have 2 to 3 minutes, and then how you had an additional time when they asked you questions, the folks on the dais.
It is different on the House and the Senate side. The election bills go through the Senate State Affairs Committee chaired by Bryan Hughes who is not a friend to voters and Senator Bettencourt who is also on State Affairs and not a friend to voters. When you go to testify on Senate State Affairs, you feel like you’re shouting at a brick wall or speaking in a reasonable tone at a brick wall.
They use invited testimony, not as a way to find out what experts are saying, but as a way to trot out their points of view. I have not ever been invited to testimony. I would love to be. I’m available if anybody’s reading. On the house side, they did less invited testimony this time around. Last time, the House used it as more of a bludgeon like the State Affairs Senate Committee does. On house elections, it’s usually three minutes. Sometimes, they cut it down to two if there are a ton of people. I wasn’t invited to testimony over there either.Testifying on Senate affairs feels like shouting at a reasonable tone at a brick wall. They use invited testimony not as a way to find out what experts are saying but to trot out their point of view. Click To Tweet
As the session went on, you got your usual suspects. You could tell who was coming from the anti-voter side AND who was coming from the pro-voter side. You get 2 or 3 minutes. You have to cut what you want to say. Sometimes, if somebody else would say something I wanted to say, I’d cross through it in my notes because I am not going to waste my time.
I’m an elections expert, I get up there. A lot of the people who testify are voters. Those are people who have maybe worked the polling place once or people who have looked at this and thought, “This will be bad for Texas.” A lot of times, their testimony is more valuable than mine because the House Elections Committee knows what I’m going to say. I might score a couple of points on telling them if something’s going to end up being constitutional or telling them if something conflicts with existing law. That helps, too. I can talk to the representatives.
A lot of times, they want to hear from a regular voter who says, for example, on drive-through voting, “I have four kids. I don’t want to haul them out of their car seats and take them into the polling place. I want to drive-through.” I always encourage people, case in point, that listening to a couple of hours of testimony in almost any committee is a great cure for imposter syndrome. That is because you’re like, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t get up there and testify.” You can. There are a lot of people who testify who do not know what they’re talking about. If you have a thought or an inkling and you do one Google search, you will be miles ahead that a lot of the people who show up.
You can polish your speaking skills, too, I’m sure.
Sometimes, you get questions that are friendly. I had one Republican representative ask me, “Do you have any idea why anyone would be against this bill?” It was a good pro-voter bill. I said, “I sure don’t have any idea why anyone would be against this bill.” Sometimes, you get a little bit of a tougher question. Somebody’s trying to bounce their point off of your face. You don’t have to answer those.
This is another one of my ledge soap boxes. You can say, “I don’t know. That’s not something I’m here to testify on. I’d like to keep my remarks to the bill.” A lot of people get scared that they’ll get questions that will make them look bad. I’m here to tell you those people, you do not have to answer their questions. It’s not a court of law. You are fine to say, “No, thanks. I’m not here to have a point bounced off my face.”
Thank you for letting us take that side tangent. To a lot of folks, the legislature or the capitol can feel very intimidating. Having you tell us that we are all welcome there and this is how you prepare yourself is reassuring. This is how we have our voices heard to participate in our democracy.
Thanks for letting me step on my soapbox.
I love it. Is there anything else on the good before we go into the bad?
I mentioned there were some amendments. It’s tough because, at the beginning of the session, you want the bad bills to die. There’s some point where it’s the movie moment where you have the light bulb realization of, “This bill’s going to get through one way or another.” Even if you have an idea for a guardrail or something that you think could make the bill, you always want to try to kill it because deadlines and time running out kills a ton of stuff.
There are so many ways to water down, fix, and change a bill in the process. There are a lot of ways that people can make these changes, but if the legislators don’t make them correctly, that can result in the bill dying later on altogether. There are a lot of machinations to make. You don’t have to get involved all the way, but if you have an idea for something that would make a bill better, especially later in the session, April and May, it’s good to get those out there.
That’s good to know. Let’s talk about the bad. It sounds like this session wasn’t as bad as the last session. What slipped through that TCRP was not very happy about?
I want to start by saying anytime I talk about the bad bills or how things weren’t as bad as they could have been in elections, which they were still bad but could have been much worse because they were much worse last session, that’s not acknowledging. It was a historically horrible session for so many folks. I am particularly thinking of our trans neighbors in Texas, drag performers, freedom of speech in general, local control as well as gun rights advocates. We saw the Uvalde families battling over and over again. There were folks who live on the border. It is not just the migrants coming through, but also the people who are trying to live their lives on the border without all of these crazy Military swarms disrupting their lives. It had all of that stuff. It was historically a bad session for those folks.
Another group it was historically bad not as much for Texas voters was Harris County voters. They have had a horrible session. The two Harris County-specific bills that came out towards the end of the session were SB 1750 and SB 1933. 1750 takes away Harris County’s choice to have an elections administrator and moves elections duties back to the county clerk and tax assessor-collector.
What that means is in Texas, there are two ways that a county can run its elections. Either they are consolidated where all the duties are consolidated under an election administrator’s office or the election duties are split. Tax assessor collectors do voter registration duties and county clerks who also do property records and things like that are running the election, doing that administration of elections. These two are elected positions. This one is appointed by the elections board of the county, which includes the county judge, the tax assessor-collector, and the county clerk as well as the Democratic and Republican Party chairs. They are still accountable, but these are directly accountable to the voters.
The idea is that it’s more professionalized when it’s not an elected position.
That’s right. The reason the tax assessor-collector does voter registration is that they used to have to collect a poll tax in order to register people, particularly people of color, and administer tests and things like that to keep people from voting, particularly people of color. That racist relic that lives in the tax assessor collector’s office doesn’t live under the elections administrator’s office.
Counties get to choose for themselves which of these two systems they want to be under. Travis County is the biggest county in Texas that does not have an election administrator until SB 1750, which removes the elections administrator’s office that Harris County created in 2020. It moves it back to the tax assessor-collector and county clerk.
Both of those, the county clerk and the tax assessor-collector, in Harris County are extremely competent, intelligent women. They are both Democrats. In 2018, Harris County’s county clerk was Stan Stanart who is an anti-voter, a national laughing stock. There was a Last Week Tonight segment about how terrible he was. He ran again in 2020 and he did not win. That kind of person can still get back in under this system. Hopefully, they do not.
SB 1933, since they’ve split it back into these two offices, would allow the Secretary of State to take over the election duties in either one or both of those offices. If the Secretary of State has good cause to believe that a pattern of problems exists, that is not a legal standard. It’s not found anywhere else in the law. You can say good cause to believe about anything.
There were a lot of myths about the Harris County paper ballot shortages that turned out to not be true. The initial number was, I believe. One hundred twenty-one polling places ran out of paper. The Harris County Republican Party only put 26 polling places in their lawsuit. When you’re doing a lawsuit, you have to be sure you’re right. The way that the Secretary of State could take over this county could be based on that 121 where everybody’s scrambling around and rumors are flying. It’s election night and nobody has fact-checked anything. That constitutes good cause to believe.
While the Secretary of State has taken over those offices, they have veto power over every single election decision. They can say, “No polling places in this historically black neighborhood.” They can say “We’re not going to turn around and call folks about their mail-in ballots that are inaccurate. We are going to mail them back and hope that they check the mail.” There are all kinds of things that the county has the discretion to do that the Secretary of State would have veto power over.
Ironically, it is the exact same kind of pre-clearance that the United States federal government used to have over bad Texas laws about voting before the Supreme Court struck down most of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. It is very ironic that they’re like, “We like pre-clearance now of a larger body over a smaller body.” At the end of the Secretary of State, it can last for years. There is some disagreement about whether it’s 2 or 4 years that the Secretary of State can take over these offices for.
At the end of those years, the Secretary of State can move to fire these elected officials. They would still have to go through a process, thankfully, thanks to an amendment. They would be able to move the firing forward. That bill only applies to Harris County. I can’t stress enough how the appetite for state takeover is ravenous. The Eye of Sauron was turned on Harris County, Travis County, and Dallas. Maybe even Fort Worth and San Antonio are not far behind.
These other counties can still have their elections administrators, but that could change.
They still have their elections administrators and they can’t be brought under Secretary of State takeover.
That’s just for Harris County?
That’s correct. I’m sure it has nothing to do with all of those advancements they made in 2020. The author of both of these bills, Senator Bettencourt, even said to the Houston Chronicle, “We could do this in other counties. It’s no big deal.” I was like, “Don’t say it out loud, but do say it out loud because that helps advocate against these things.”
It’s the foot in the door to maybe other things. Can votes be invalidated in this scenario?
It’s not specifically that votes can invalidate the Secretary of State. It would be illegal for them to say, “All the polling places in Sunnyside are throwing out their ballots,” but they could certainly say, “This machine malfunction means that we have to take a closer look. This machine malfunction means we have to treat all these ballots as suspect.” It’s a lot more soft power than hard power.
There is hard power, too, but as far as invalidating votes, they could cast a lot of aspersions that are harder to cast.
It’s keeping your eye on Harris County and what happens.
There’s also a bad bill statewide. It’s like a comedy of errors. It cracks me up. It’s horrible and results in wrongful imprisonment so it’s not funny. The way that Republicans got to this bill in SB 1, the 2021 anti-voter omnibus bill, is someone added an amendment at the last minute during one of the special sessions that they called to lower the penalty for illegal voting from a felony to a Class A misdemeanor. It still comes with up to a year in jail and still a huge fine. Class A misdemeanor is still very serious.
They all rubber-stamped that. All the Republicans in the legislature and all the ones who are still there said, “Not a problem. SB 1, let’s go. We love it.” With this session, they are pretending like they didn’t rubber stamp it a few years ago and saying, “We never meant to do that. We didn’t know about it but we knew. We have to raise that penalty back up to a felony where it has always been.” They have lied about how long it’s been a felony.
Illegal voting has been a felony in Texas. They said 50 years. It has been way less than 50 years. There was no huge bump in in-person voter fraud. There’s no huge spike or even minor spike to justify raising it back up to a felony. A Class A misdemeanor seems to deter plenty of people, the same number of people that a felony deterred if you believe that penalties deter behavior, which I don’t. They were like, “We got to raise it back up again.”
I’ve been talking about it like The Office episode where Dwight says he can raise and lower his cholesterol at will and Pam says, “Why would you want to raise your cholesterol?” He said, “It’s so I can lower it.” That’s like, “Why would you want to lower the penalty? It’s so I can raise it.” That bill passed towards the very end of the session as well, raising it back up.
It sounds like bad bills targeted at Harris County.
One statewide that makes all of our lives worse.
Were there any representatives that particularly disappointed you or you were shaking your head like, “I can’t believe what they’re doing?”
It is hard to be disappointed in some of these people because the bar is so on the floor. I am maybe amazed at Senator Bettencourt for going after Harris County. He used wrong numbers constantly, like that 121 made-up figure. He held up this little map that was not only inaccurate but horrible to behold. It looked like Harris County had like a bad case of acne like I used to have as a teenager. It had 121 zits on it that turned out to only be maybe up to 26 zits on it.
Senator Bettencourt himself had to resign from running Harris County elections in disgrace in the ‘90s. I do not think that County Clerk Bettencourt would’ve survived what Senator Bettencourt has put into law. It is a little bit ironic there that he would go after Harris County so gallingly when he himself was not a good elections official in Harris County. Isn’t it amazing?
That’s an interesting rabbit hole I could find myself going down, like, “Who is this guy? What has he done? What’s his MO?”
I would not recommend his Twitter. He pays for Twitter Blue so that he can post these Facebook-length screeds. You will feel your brain melting out of your ears as you read it.
I need the HBO movie of that, too, so it will save me some time. Let’s turn lastly to the ugh. This is part of the catchall. What made you say, “Ugh?” You were there pretty much every day.
I was there probably three days a week, and most of those days were fourteen hours. It was the worst.
I love it’s titled the ugh because that’s exactly how it feels. The overarching ugh is how many times there was overwhelming public opposition to a bill that they then voted out of committee. Sometimes, they would have some semblance of shame and wait until everyone had left to vote the bill out of committee. There were so many anti-trans bills that had a huge group of people there to testify.
This trick that they pull that drives me up the wall is when they have 700 people registered to testify against a bill and 20 people registered to testify for it. They will alternate testimony between someone who’s for and someone who’s against. Usually, there’s no rule about this, but it makes sense. It usually goes that you testify in the order you signed up. People would get there at 6:00 in the morning, wait for testimony to open, and be the first people to sign up on the little iPads in the capitol. They would then have to go after somebody who wants to ban rights for trans children who got there at 4:00 PM, and this is 11:00 at night. It is things like that.
They did that with some of the horrible anti-border bills, too. It was not just anti-border, but anti-migrant rights and anti-border resident rights bills. They did this back-and-forth trick to make it seem like the opposition is balanced. It was maybe to avoid hurting their own feelings with all these people telling them how damaging their bills are. It is hard to say with some of the egos in those buildings. It is the general ugh of waiting to testify.
I also came out with a huge renewed respect for gun safety advocates. There was one bill, it fortunately died. HB 636 would’ve allowed every election judge that’s the name of the head poll worker to be carrying a weapon in a polling place including schools. It is wild to me. It goes against everything that makes sense to me, especially who could potentially be on the ballot in 2024 and how intimidating.
I got to testify against that bill with two of my friends on the committee. There were so many people in that room who were testifying for the bill and who had guns on them in the capitol. I and two of my friends from two other great organizations, MOVE Texas and Common Cause, as we walked out of that room, someone chased us down. He wanted to make some point about how one of us mispronounced the name of a county in testimony or whatever. He had a gun. He was known for carrying a gun at the capitol. He was chasing these women out of the room who were against gun rights. It was so rattling.
I was okay. Nothing happened to me, but you can never know. Thinking about how close to our hearts this gun safety legislation is, all of us who know any one other person in Texas are terrified of it. It was one of those moments where I was like, “These advocates as well as the border advocates and trans advocates are putting their bodies on the line for this legislation.” That makes me go, “Ugh. We shouldn’t have to do that.”
Speaking of ugh, and this is connected to the gun thing, I remember one of the first times I went to the Capitol. When you enter the capitol, you go through a metal detector. You put your bag on the conveyor like the airport. I noticed someone off to the side of my eye who zoomed past. I was like, “Do they work here? What is this fast pass that they have? What is it?”
It is a gun license fast pass. If you’ve got a handgun, you enter the west entrance with nary a care in the world.
I was like, “Why are they checking me for a gun when these folks clearly have one or own them at home and they’re good to go?” It didn’t make any sense to me.
It doesn’t make any sense. It’s crazy. The most dangerous thing comes through and I have to put my little battery pack for my dying phone through the security.
That’s for another day. What are they there for?
Intimidation to make sure that they can hire DPS officers. I have no idea.
Wouldn’t it be nice?
This is another investigative road.
There were so many people who walk through the metal detector. It beeps like they have something on them and the officers are like, “Have a nice day.” It’s like, “Why do you have this?” It’s wild. It’s not meaningful at all.
What else falls into the ugh?
I mentioned 636, that horrible, thankfully, dead bill to allow guns in polling places. There was another one. It was SB 990, which would’ve eliminated countywide polling. Countywide polling is an extremely popular program in Texas where a county can opt into it. If you opt-in, then voters in your county can vote at any polling place in your county on Election Day.
I believe 83% of Texans live in a county with countywide polling. It’s extremely popular. One of the first people to testify in house elections was an invited testimony from Heather Hawthorne who’s the County Clerk in Chambers County, which is a more rural county. It is north, I believe, of Harris County. She had blonde hair. She had a Texas accent. She was a very classic Republican official. She’s married to the sheriff in that county. They said, “Is it true you’re married to the sheriff?” She would go, “I am sleeping with the sheriff. The rumors are true.” It was so funny. It was a nice moment of levity.
She got up there and one of the first things she made sure to say was, “My residents love countywide polling. Please don’t do anything to take it away.” On the Senate side, they were like, “We’re going to try to take it away.” It doesn’t matter if it’s universally popular with rural and urban Democrats and Republicans. If it helps voters, they will come for it.
There was another bill. I can’t recall the number. It is dead. It was filed by Representative Carrie Isaac that would’ve made it illegal to have polling places on college campuses. It was clearly aimed at college voters. Representative Isaac might’ve filed it because she was a little bit sore about having lost her seat in 2020 to Representatives Weiner when the college down in San Marcos was drawn into their district. I didn’t know that we could file bills about personal vendettas, so I look forward to running and filing bills against women who wear champagne-colored dresses to other women’s weddings. That is my vendetta.
It was one of those things where it was like, “You don’t have a policy reason for this. This is personal to you. It doesn’t help anybody. I know that you run for election and you win, and you get to file whatever bills you want, but that doesn’t mean I have to take them seriously or like them.” That’s hard, too, because the countywide bill and college campus polling place bill got a lot of attention. We want to speak out against these things, but the more you talk about them, the more you make them real. It’s like Tinker Bell clapping them into existence. It’s always hard to balance like, “I hate this bill. I’m not going to dignify it with a response.”
Let’s say goodbye to the ugh and look ahead happily. We are probably going to have more special sessions. Is there anything specific in the voting realm that you guys have your pulse on?
I’m so nervous about the countywide bill. Lieutenant Governor/Twitter Screamer Dan Patrick has been talking about some of the bills. He still wants the statewide Secretary of State takeover elections bill. He still wants that anti-countywide bill. I hope that the will doesn’t exist in the House because the lieutenant governor is also the head of the Texas Senate. I hope that the will doesn’t exist for that, but as soon as you look away, that’s when they put it on the special session call. They’re focusing on the border and something about property taxes that I do not yet understand.
Compressions and something.
It’s not because something isn’t on the special session call with what the governor wants out of the special session that it means they can’t draw attention to it. They are not supposed to be able to pass bills that aren’t germane to the special session call, but as soon as you look away, that’s when they do it. There are no elections coming up. I don’t understand what they will have to get grumpy about before 2024. They have hand-selected who’s going to be running Harris County. We’ll see what happens.
We are going to pivot and look at democracy, which is a big focus we want to have at the forefront of our minds going forward with the show. Democracy is so important because that’s the government we still have in place. We love to ask our guests as we wrap up, what does democracy mean to you?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. As a voting rights attorney, a lot of my personal identity is wrapped up in my work, what I do, and what I’m fighting for. Also, we’re seeing our elected representatives get farther away from what people want. This happened in Georgia at the city level in Atlanta with their fight against Cop City.
Every time you see hundreds of people testifying against something that ends up getting passed anyway, you think, “Who are those representatives beholden to if not the hundreds of people testifying who put them in office?” It’s the big money. It’s the way the Supreme Court keeps handing elections to corporations and carving away individual rights.
To me, democracy means that when you say something, your representative listens. When you say something, they take it under advisement. They take you as seriously as they take themselves. It also means that communities are able to have self-determination. Democracy is a majority rule, but there have to be minority protections. They’re supposed to be built into the fabric of our democracy, but they keep getting eroded, too.
Especially at the local level, we’ve done a great job in Texas of asserting that. The state answers by trying to take it away by these “small government conservatives” who are suddenly not a huge fan of smaller governments. It is shocking how that works. To me, democracy means self-determination, self-actualization, and that voice mattering. Unfortunately, that means that a lot of us have to do extra work outside of the polling place. Hopefully, we are able to do so much work during the interim that polling place vote makes a difference.
That’s a wonderful answer. It was making me think, too. I thought of this earlier in the interview about when people go to testify, how much work that is. We’re a huge state, and they’re driving from all corners to come and have their voice heard. It is a shame when you have an outsized influence for or against a certain thing that it’s still ignored. Hopefully, going forward, we’ll have more representatives who take note, stop, pause, and say, “They really like this thing,” or, “They don’t like this thing.”
No matter where you live in Texas, your house representative is home. The house has adjourned sine die much to the senate’s chagrin. The gossip in Texas has been amazing even if the laws are bad. Your representative is home. They have a district office. Call them. Try to make an appointment. Come in and talk about the things that matter to you. It might not always sway your representative, but if you can get you and everybody in your book club or you and everybody in your immediate family, or your sewing circle, or whatever group of people that care about something, if you can all go and talk to your representative, I do think that still moves the needle, at least for some folks.Even if the laws are bad, but your representatives are at home, try to call or make an appointment with them. It is still a good way to move the needle. Click To Tweet
I agree. It never hurts to build some relationships. Where can people find you and keep up-to-date on what’s going to happen next?
Follow Texas Civil Rights Project. We’re @TXCivilRights on all social media. I’m @EmilyEbyTX on Twitter, which is where I mostly am, unfortunately. Stay plugged in. Read the Texas Tribune. Talk to your friends. Unfortunately, Twitter is where a lot of the gossip is. It is run by a person I’m not a fan of, but we’re still hanging out there, too.
That’s right. You have great content, which I appreciate. Thank you for putting it out there even if it’s on Twitter. Thank you for speaking with us.
Thanks so much for having me.
This has been so informative. I know for myself, I learn a lot through shows, so hopefully, this is helping other people wrap their heads around what happened with elections.
Thanks for having me on one of my favorite shows.
Thank you. Thank you, everybody. We will be back with you soon.
- Emily Eby
- Who Makes Elections Actually Happen? Election Administrators. What Do They Do? Beth Stevens Explains All – Past Episode
- @TXCivilRights – Twitter
- @EmilyEbyTX – Twitter
About Emily Eby
Emily Eby is a voting rights attorney and incurable Twitter addict. At TCRP, she has helped lead the Election Protection program for three election cycles, training over 1200 volunteers to provide non-partisan “customer service” for voters. She has also worked on local reforms via Democracy from the Ground Up and fought the zombie voter suppression bills that just wouldn’t die during the endless Texas legislative sessions of 2021. Emily enjoys watching movies at Alamo Drafthouses, drinking Dr Peppers, and consuming media about time travel.