McNeely: Dems file federal lawsuits on voting discrimination

Texas Democrats recently filed two separate federal lawsuits complaining of state laws they say give Republicans an advantage in elections.

One lawsuit challenged the state’s 1985 law giving the top spot in every race on the general election ballot to the party of the governor. Texas Democrats, joined by several national Democratic organizations, say the top spot has a built-in advantage called “position bias.”

It gives an “unfair, arbitrary and artificial advantage” to Republicans — the party of Gov. Greg Abbott — in every race on the ballot for national, state and local offices.

Being first on the ballot is so widely acknowledged as an advantage that in party primary elections, state law requires counties to have lotteries for ballot position, the suit said.

“This system was put in place precisely so that no preference be given to any candidate,” the lawsuit says. “The same safeguards, however, are not in place for Texas’ general elections.”

In the 2018 election, Democrats picked up 12 Texas House seats, the lawsuit points out, leaving Republicans with 83 seats to the Democrats’ 67. Democrats gaining nine more seats could put them in control of the House — very important going into a redistricting year.

“Because Republicans carried 17 districts by single digits in 2018, this opens up the very real prospect of majority control of the Texas State House being up for grabs in the 2020 election,” the lawsuit argues.

State Democrats and the Democratic National Committee, plus two national committees working to elect and reelect Democrats running for the U.S. House and Senate, are asking U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel to rule that the law setting up the ballot order is unconstitutional.

The Democrats are asking Yeakel to rule in time for the 2020 elections.

The other recently filed lawsuit challenges the legality of a Texas law passed earlier this year, to require that mobile early voting sites be open for every day early voting is allowed.

The Democrats say the law, opposed by several local election officials, causes a big increase in county expenditures on voting, or wipes out sending a mobile site for a day to colleges, senior citizen centers and other places with transportation problems.

Southwestern University is in Georgetown, in Williamson County, north of Austin. There, campus officials used a one-day mobile voting site to turn out more than half of the 1,500 students, said Emily Sydnor, an assistant professor of political science who’s trying to engage students in the electoral process.

According to The Texas Tribune, Sydnor said there’s a 66% chance that someone without a car will vote if their voting site is two football fields away. If it’s two-thirds of a mile away the chance drops to 42%.

With students required to live on campus their first two years, the nearest early voting location is just over a mile away.

The sponsor of H.B. 1888, Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, told the House Elections Committee in March his bill was to cut abuse of early voting, by officials choosing one location over another, like in school board elections, to influence the outcome.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir opposed the bill. She said keeping the 60 temporary and mobile sites open eight hours a day for 12 days of early voting would cost an additional $1 million per election.

The Texas Democratic Party asked that the committee write an exemption for general elections. But the Republican-dominated House and Senate passed it without the requested changes.

In a previous lawsuit on voting the Democrats had filed and won in district court, they got bad news from the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

A three-judge panel threw out San Antonio federal District Judge Orlando Garcia’s order that Texas was in violation of the federal government’s Motor Voter law on grounds the plaintiffs no longer had standing because they had since registered to vote.

The motor-voter law enables people to register to vote when renewing their driver’s license online, just like they can when they do so in person.

But Texas refers to the Secretary of State’s Office people renewing their licenses online at the Department of Public Safety’s website who also want to register to vote.

Then, they must download a voter registration form, print it, fill it out and mail it to their county voter registrar.

Judge Garcia ruled the cumbersome process violates the National Voter Registration Act’s motor-voter provision by adding several steps to the process, contrasted to obtaining or renewing their license in person.

This fight probably isn’t over.

— Dave McNeely is an Austin-based columnist who covers Texas politics. His column appears Thursday.

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