The Battle Over State Voting Rights Is About the Future of Texas

The current skirmish is the latest in a tug of war being waged between the state’s increasingly Democratic cities and its deeply conservative rural areas.,

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HOUSTON — The flight of Texas Democrats to Washington, a last-ditch effort this week to stop Republicans from passing new statewide voting rules, is perhaps the most dramatic illustration of a broad national fight over access to the ballot.

But it is something more than that in Texas. The battle over voting rights is also the latest in a tug of war over the future of what it means to be Texan, one being waged between the state’s rapidly diversifying and increasingly Democratic cities and its deeply conservative rural areas, which wield overwhelming power in the State Capitol.

The tension grew during the coronavirus pandemic, when cities like Houston, Dallas and Austin clashed with Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, over mask mandates and business restrictions. But it had already been increasing for years, with each political session marked by Republican state officials rolling back progressive changes made in cities led by Democrats.

The most direct new restrictions sought by Texas Republicans, who have maintained control of the state for nearly two decades, are a reaction to local polling innovations, notably in Houston, the state’s largest city, and surrounding Harris County.

The county introduced drive-through voting for the first time in November, when people were concerned that traditional polling places would spread the coronavirus, and it proved popular, accounting for more than 130,000 votes. Access also expanded at eight polling sites that held a day of 24-hour voting.

Officials believed that drive-through polling, which has been used in three subsequent municipal and state elections in Harris County, would soon expand to other areas. “In a place like Houston and Texas that loves cars so much, why shouldn’t we offer drive-through voting?” said Christopher Hollins, who served as interim election chief in the county last year and oversaw the expansion of voting options during the presidential election.

Turnout increased in Harris County as it did throughout the state, and out of more than 11 million votes cast, President Biden got within about 600,000 votes of winning Texas — the closest a Democrat has come in decades.

Now Texas cities are ground zero in the fight over whether to expand access to the vote, as state Democrats did during the pandemic, or curtail it, as Republicans are seeking to do with a measure that would ban 24-hour and drive-through polling.

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Drive-through voting was offered in Harris County, which includes Houston, last fall.Credit…Go Nakamura for The New York Times

The conflict is a national one, heightened by former President Donald J. Trump’s false insistence that he lost in 2020 because of voter fraud. On Wednesday, Democratic members of the Texas House met with senators in Washington and urged the passage of bills aimed at expanding and safeguarding voter access.

The group fled Austin on chartered planes this week, just days into a 30-day special legislative session, to delay passage of the state’s voting measure. They vowed to stay out of Texas until early August, when the session expires.

But in Texas, the fight over voting is only the latest skirmish in the deepening chasm between progressive and conservative versions of the state.

“Harris County is being attacked already at a base level because it is one of the most diverse counties in the country,” Mr. Hollins said. “This certainly predates the pandemic.”

Elected officials in Texas cities have found themselves forced to govern with the knowledge that many of the things they do in their backyard will be undone the next time lawmakers meet in the Capitol, which they do every other year.

“I see a lot of our job as to do 50 good things a year, knowing that the Legislature will only have time, while it’s in session, to undo half of it,” said Greg Casar, a progressive Democratic councilman in Austin.

“Each marquee issue over the last three sessions has been the state wanting to attack local governments,” he added, listing efforts to protect immigrants, transgender Texans and workers that each faced stiff resistance at the state level.

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Texas House Democrats at an airport outside Washington after fleeing Texas in an effort to block a voting restrictions bill.Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times

That view is something more than a hunch on the part of Democrats. Before the previous legislative session, in 2019, the speaker of the Texas House at the time shared an animus toward cities in a private conversation with a Republican lawmaker and a conservative activist.

“My goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the Legislature for cities and counties,” the speaker, Dennis Bonnen, a Republican who represented a district just south of Houston, said in a conversation that was secretly recorded.

His comments about cities reflect a commonplace view among some Republicans in Texas, even if they are not always as pointedly expressed. Republican operatives and officials described the dynamic as one of concern over the progressive turn in the state’s cities, a change in culture and politics that has accelerated rapidly over the past decade.

And the changes have begun spreading into the suburbs. Populous counties outside of Houston and Austin that once reliably voted Republican have swung in recent years toward the Democrats, said Mark Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University.

“With the bluing of the major urban counties and the blushing of many of the major suburbs, what has allowed the G.O.P. to continue to win statewide has been its increasing dominance in the state’s rural counties,” Dr. Jones said.

Most states have similar divisions between blue cities and red rural areas. But in Texas, the divisions have taken hold only relatively recently — Houston voted for a Republican, George W. Bush, for president in 2004 — adding to the alarm among Republicans and anticipation among Democrats that the state could soon be up for grabs.

In the meantime, said Richard Pena Raymond, a Democratic state representative from Laredo, cities are being punished by the Republican majority in the Capitol for daring to extend voting opportunities, particularly in places where it benefited low-income communities of color and disabled people.

“They are trying to thin out the crowd,” Mr. Raymond said of the Republicans in the state. “And that’s just wrong.”

Republicans have disputed such characterizations. They have said their efforts to pass the voting bill are a way to instill confidence in future elections and to make uniform the rules that govern Texas elections.

“It increases transparency and ensures the voting rules are the same in every county across the state,” the lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, said in a statement after the State Senate passed its version of the voting measure on Tuesday.

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Signage in Austin ahead of the presidential election.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

The Senate bill, and one before the House, includes provisions to ban 24-hour voting and drive-through voting; limit third-party collection of ballots; increase criminal penalties on election workers for violating regulations; grant more freedom of movement to partisan poll watchers; and require large counties — which include the state’s largest cities — to make available a livestream video during vote counting.

Democratic lawmakers have described the changes as a means of voter suppression in a state with a long history of such tactics.

But without enough votes to block the bills, more than 50 Democrats, representing the state’s largest cities and suburbs, opted to leave the state in order to deny Republicans the quorum necessary for the House of Representatives to conduct its business. Mr. Abbott has threatened to arrest Democrats to bring them back to the State Capitol, though his jurisdiction to do so stops at the state line.

“Everything that the Democratic cities do, particularly if it’s progressive, they attack it and they say cities can’t do that,” Eddie Rodriguez, a Democrat representing Austin, said on Wednesday as he rushed between meetings in Washington. “Which is ironic because they were the party of local control.”

Like other Democrats, he vowed to remain outside Texas until Aug. 7, when the 30-day special session ends.

Back in Austin, Mayes Middleton, a Republican representing Galveston, awaited the Democrats’ return and bemoaned their flight as hypocritical.

“The Democrats say that the state should not dictate how counties run their election laws, but at the same time, they’re in Washington trying to have the federal government dictate how Texas should run its elections,” Mr. Middleton said. “We’ve got to let Texas run Texas.”

Edgar Sandoval contributed reporting from San Antonio.

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