The law rolls back early voting and mail-in voting options across the state, one of the largest yet to adopt Republican-backed proposals to restrict ballot access in the wake of 2020 elections, and a state that already is among the most difficult to vote.
The law will disenfranchise Texas voters “with limited English proficiency, voters with disabilities, elderly voters, members of the military deployed away from home, and American citizens residing outside of the country,” according to the lawsuit filed on 4 November.
“These vulnerable voters already confront barriers to the ballot box, and [the law] will exacerbate the challenges they face in exercising their fundamental right to vote,” federal prosecutors allege.
“Our democracy depends on the right of eligible voters to cast a ballot and to have that ballot counted,” US Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement on Thursday. “The Justice Department will continue to use all the authorities at its disposal to protect this fundamental pillar of our society.”
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, the chief of the agency’s civil rights division, called Texas restrictions “unlawful and indefensible.”
The Justice Department also filed a 24-page statement of interest in a separate lawsuit from Latino voting rights organisations and civil rights groups against the Texas law.
Texas is among at least 19 states that have enacted 33 laws that will make it harder for people to vote, including attempts to consolidate electoral oversight in Republican-dominated state legislatures to do what Donald Trump’s spurious attempts to overturn election results could not.
States have also started the once-a-decade process of redrawing political boundaries without federal guardrails against racial gerrymandering for the first time since passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act in 1965. Texas lawmakers recently approved new redistricting maps, and civil rights lawsuits have followed.
The Justice Department lawsuit was filed the day after Senate Republicans used their fourth filibuster this year to block voting rights legislation; the John Lewis Voting Rights Restoration Act aimed to rebuild parts of the law gutted by the US Supreme Court in 2013 to prevent states with histories of racial discrimination – like Texas – from implementing new election rules without federal “preclearance” review.
The Texas law imposes severe criminal penalties for voter assistance, which the Justice Department alleges is “improperly restricting what assistance in the polling booth voters who have a disability or are unable to read or write can receive” in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
According to the Justice Department, the law harms voters who need help answering basic questions or visual assistance. The lawsuit also alleges that Texas violated the Civil Rights Act by forcing the rejection of mail-in ballots or mail-in ballot request forms because of paperwork errors or omissions that are not related to a voter’s eligibility.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 1 into law in September. It eliminates drive-through and 24-hour early voting periods that proved popular in Harris County, one of the largest counties in the country, and where voters of colour disproportionately relied on expanded ballot access during the coronavirus pandemic during 2020 elections.
The law also grants partisan poll watchers “free movement” at polling locations, which critics argue will embolden partisan groups to harass voters while they cast their ballot.
The Justice Department lawsuit is its second against the state in recent months after seeking to block the state’s recently passed abortion law that bans abortions after six weeks, when most people do not know they are pregnant, and effectively deputises state residents to file lawsuits against those accused of aiding or abetting abortions after the six-week mark.