Texas politicians and journalists often use football metaphors to describe legislative efforts. Representative Bryan Slaton “threw a Hail Mary pass” when he unsuccessfully attempted to tack an amendment restricting medical treatment for transgender children onto an unrelated bill about a cost-saving drug program. When a flustered House Elections Committee chairman Briscoe Cain called a hearing on a bill he claimed to have written and then abruptly adjourned the meeting after it became clear he hadn’t even read the legislation, he had “fumbled the ball on the goal line.”
Now San Antonio representative Lyle Larson, a die-hard Aggie, has a new football metaphor in mind for Republican colleagues who, a year after the Texas GOP withstood what Democrats promised would be a “blue wave” and won decisive victories up and down the ballot, want to make it harder for eligible voters, especially in minority communities, to cast ballots. Larson says his colleagues are “changing the quarterback and changing the offense [and] the defensive scheme, after we won the national championship.” In other words, Republicans are turning out their voters in record numbers, winning Texas elections, and even expanding their support among Latinos. So why make it harder to vote?
That argument has left Larson, who’s as apt to quote Marcus Aurelius as he is to talk football, nearly stranded in his party. In the wake of charges of widespread voter fraud—unsupported by evidence and refuted by dozens of Republican election officials and Republican-appointed judges across the country—73 percent of Texas Republicans think the national election results in 2020 were inaccurate, according to a February poll by the University of Texas at Austin. Early in the legislative session, elected GOP officials latched onto “election integrity” as a key part of their platform. Governor Greg Abbott declared it an emergency issue for the Lege to pick up, and both Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick in the Senate and House Speaker Dade Phelan have taken up the call.
The leaders of the Lege have prioritized bills that would make more than fifty alterations to the election code. These bills would limit early voting hours and the locations of polling places, give poll watchers unprecedented power, and ban county clerks from soliciting eligible voters to apply for mail-in ballots. A stringent omnibus bill, SB 7, passed the Senate without a single Republican defector on a party-line vote in the early morning hours of April 1. The bill’s counterpart in the House, HB 6, was sponsored by Cain, of Deer Park, who volunteered to help Trump’s campaign try to reverse election results in Pennsylvania. That bill passed out of the Elections Committee on a party-line vote after 22 hours of testimony. Democrats, who lack the numbers to kill the bill, are now trying to negotiate concessions from an almost-unanimous Republican caucus before the legislation comes to a vote in the full chamber.
Civil rights groups, Democrats, and corporate giants including Fort Worth’s American Airlines and Round Rock’s Dell Technologies, have argued against the Republican-led Legislature’s efforts on moral grounds. To the irritation of Patrick, many argue the bills would make casting a ballot disproportionately harder for voters of color and those who have disabilities, are low-income, or speak limited English.
The few Republicans who oppose the bills, however, have made a different case against their passage. Larson is convinced that efforts to increase restrictions on early voting and give more leeway to poll watchers will backfire on the party. According to a survey led by Republican pollster Chris Perkins, majorities of Republican voters oppose key provisions in the bills. Fifty-eight percent want to extend early voting by a week rather than shorten the period, 80 percent want to increase the number of polling stations rather than limit them, and 51 percent oppose threatening felony prosecution for an accidental vote.
Larson also points out that most Texas Republicans likely cast their votes before Election Day in 2020, so limiting the early voting period could hurt GOP turnout. According to Republican data wizard Derek Ryan, of Ryan Data and Research, 81 percent of those who have voted in a Republican primary since 2016 cast ballots early, in-person, in 2020. While 15 percent of Democratic primary voters in that period cast a ballot by mail last year, so did 9 percent of Republican primary voters. Larson argues, too, that Democrats can also wield new powers for partisan poll watchers to get uncomfortably close to voters—and, in the case of SB 7, take photos and videos of them. “It will hurt Republican voters as much or more than the Democrats,” he told me. “Are we trying to make it harder for Republican voters to vote?”
The representative assured me that roughly a half-dozen Republicans in the Lege privately grumble over the bills even as they fear to do so publicly, lest they incur the wrath of their leaders and of the many GOP voters who believe election-fraud myths. Larson said some share his concerns that voter suppression might have unintended consequences for Republicans. But only one other, Representative Kyle Kacal, a rancher from College Station who declined to be interviewed, has publicly voiced opposition to the legislation. He told a Brazos Valley morning TV host based in Bryan that he doubts there’s enough voter fraud in Texas to justify the House bill, which he described as “having a few problems,” without citing specifics. “I don’t know if the measures that are being talked about are necessary,” he said. “I don’t know how much fraud there really is, but people need the opportunity to vote.”
Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, by contrast, couches his opposition in terms of local control. The longtime Fort Worth Republican, who has spoken out against state lawmakers for meddling with school funding issues, said the election bills are another example of big government micromanaging matters traditionally left to local decision-makers. He bristles at SB 7, in particular, which would require local officials to use what he calls a “ridiculous” formula to decide how many polling places should be in certain parts of the city. If passed by the House, that provision would jeopardize the large voting center the county established in downtown Fort Worth for the convenience of those who work there but live elsewhere. “Everyone screams that there’s a lot of fraud,” he said. “Where? Where? I just haven’t seen it.” Whitley said he felt “really good” about the integrity of the vote in 2020: Tarrant County voters opted for President Joe Biden over Republican Donald Trump by 1,800 votes, but at the bottom of the ballot, they chose Republicans for district judgeships. That shows, he said, that “it wasn’t Tarrant County turning blue and it wasn’t fraud. I would say it’s anti-Trump and anti-Cruz.”
Other Republican dissidents are trying to persuade their fellow party members to vote against the bills over concerns about the economic impact if some companies decline to move or expand in Texas, and if some conventions, major sporting events, and tourists avoid the state. Former house speaker Joe Straus, from San Antonio, has been warning that his old colleagues in the Lege should pay attention to the giant companies speaking out about voter suppression. According to a study by the Perryman Group, a Waco-based team of analysts, if Texas passes more restrictive voting laws, the state will lose $16.7 billion annually by 2025 and nearly 150,000 jobs. “Major Texas employers are stepping up and speaking out against voter suppression, and for good reason,” Straus tweeted hours after Republicans approved the Senate bill. “It’s bad for business and, more importantly, it’s bad for our citizens.”
Of course, proposing voter restrictions is not a new phenomenon in Texas. But the Trump-era allegations of stolen elections strike Larson as different in kind. In 2019, when Secretary of State David Whitley sent local election officials a list of 90,000 voters to purge from the voter rolls on the pretext that they had not been citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses, Larson opposed the effort. Trump latched onto Whitley’s attempted purge as evidence of widespread fraud, but the rationale for the move fell apart within days. Local officials found that thousands of the voters Whitley had identified had become naturalized citizens in the years and even decades since they’d obtained their driver’s licenses, and a lawsuit brought by the Texas Democratic Party ended the purge. Larson called what Whitley had done a “fiasco” and “a manifestation of hearsay and unwarranted conspiracy theories.”
Two years later, Larson argues that passing overly restrictive election laws will undoubtedly lead to another expensive lawsuit Texans will have to fund, not to mention having to fight the perception that Republicans are making it tougher to vote. “The party is going to have hell to pay if we go through with this,” he said. “We’re about to give an issue to our opponents in the fall election of 2022.”