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Houston's Creativity To Expand Voting Access May Inspire New Voting Restrictions


Texas already has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country. And now GOP leaders want to make it even harder for local election administrators to expand ballot access. Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin reports.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Isabel Longoria is the elections administrator in Harris County. It's home to Houston, one of the biggest and most diverse cities in the country. Like all election officials last year, Longoria had a big task ahead of her. She had to figure out how to make voting safe during a deadly pandemic. And while it was kind of daunting, Longoria says she also saw an opportunity to do things differently.

ISABEL LONGORIA: I just started dreaming. And I just said, OK, let's start from the beginning not with what's possible first, but what do voters want, and what's going to make it safer?

LOPEZ: Just like most businesses, Longoria looked for curbside options and came up with drive-through voting. Longoria also increased voting hours. Some polling locations were open 24 hours at one point. She says being open late at night gave shift workers more opportunities to vote.

LONGORIA: Especially if you were a medical worker or first responder - so that we could spread out, if you will, the number of people voting at any time.

LOPEZ: Longoria and her team also tried to make voting by mail easier by sending out applications to all eligible voters. But Republican leaders say these efforts were an overreach. They argue local officials were doing things not explicitly allowed by law. And Governor Greg Abbott says they were effectively opening the door to voter fraud.


GREG ABBOTT: Whether it's the unauthorized expansion of mail-in ballots or the unauthorized expansion of drive-through voting, we must pass laws to prevent election officials from jeopardizing the election process.

LOPEZ: Republican bills would make distributing applications to voters who didn't ask for one a felony. They would outlaw drive-through voting and not allow polling locations to be open for more than 12 hours. And some measures even go as far as to require that election administrators put the same amount of voting machines in every one of their polling sites no matter what. Chris Davis is the election administrator in Williamson County, which is a swing county in central Texas. He says this makes no sense.

CHRIS DAVIS: If you have a smaller-size room and one part of your county that could only fit eight, well, by golly, eight is as many as you can have in an arena.

LOPEZ: Davis also takes issue with Republican proposals that would allow people to record video and sound in polling locations and ballot counting sites. He says that creates election security concerns. But mostly, Davis just feels like lawmakers are accusing election administrators of doing bad things, which he says just isn't true.

DAVIS: We contend that this isn't based in reality. It's a perception brought on by very, very visible candidates. And that perception has kind of, like, taken on a life of its own.

LOPEZ: And voting rights advocates in Texas say these bills could make it harder for marginalized communities to vote. Isabel Longoria says this is frustrating because her efforts worked. Turnout in Harris County hit a 30-year high in 2020. She also worries about the role of race in this crackdown, as lawmakers zero in on things like drive-through voting.

LONGORIA: A hundred and twenty-seven thousand voters did drive-through voting, the majority of which - right? - were Black and brown voters. It's hard not to draw a line and say, why are you going after this innovation?

LOPEZ: Some of the most sweeping voting bills are backed by Republican leaders and have started moving through the legislature, so it is likely that Texas' already strict voting laws will become even stricter.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.
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