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Texas is barred from enforcing new restrictions on voter assistance

The Texas State Capitol
Tamir Kalifa
/
Getty Images
The Texas State Capitol

Parts of a 2021 Texas voting law that cracked down on assistance for voters with limited English skills and voters with disabilities can no longer be enforced.

A federal judge in Texas issued a ruling last month striking down provisions in Texas' new law, known as Senate Bill 1, that set limits on how people can help voters cast their ballots. State officials had until last week to appeal the ruling, but they declined. The office of the Texas attorney general has not responded to requests for comment.

Lisa Snead, a litigation attorney at Disability Rights Texas, said the court decision is a big win for voters with disabilities in the state.

"The provision of SB 1 limiting assistance ... really limited what voters with disabilities could receive," she said. "And it had a grave impact on voters who tried to vote in ... elections in March and May."

The wide-ranging Texas law was among measures passed in Republican-led states across the country after the 2020 election that added new restrictions to voting.

Among its provisions, SB 1 restricted assistance to only reading the ballot for a voter, marking the ballot for a voter, directing the voter to read the ballot and directing the voter to mark the ballot.

Groups including the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund went to federal court and argued that the voter assistance parts of SB 1 directly violate a 2018 injunction that ruled that similar limitations in Texas' election code at the time violated the federal Voting Rights Act. The court agreed and also directed the state to change its training for voting assistants.

In addition, the court barred Texas from including those restrictions in the language of an oath an assistor must swear to when helping voters. SB 1 requires people aiding voters to fill out paperwork disclosing their relationship with the voter and whether they are compensated. It also requires they recite an oath under the penalty of perjury stating they did not "pressure or coerce" the voter into choosing them for assistance.

Debbie Chen with Organization of Chinese Americans of Greater Houston, which was the plaintiff in the 2018 case, said in a statement earlier this month that SB 1 made assistors afraid to answer voters' questions in the state's primary elections.

"Asian American voters with limited English often need to ask questions to understand the ballot and the voting process," Chen said. "This is especially true for people who provide them with assistance and must translate the English ballot and the whole process on the spot."

Snead said that although the court has ensured that voters with disabilities have some of the help they need, there are still other restrictions created by SB 1 that limit access for voters with disabilities. She said that includes a ban on drive-thru voting and restrictions on mail-in ballots.

"We have moved a little back towards folks with disabilities having some of that same access that they had before SB 1," she said. "There is still much to be done. There are still limitations in place, but it's not quite as bad as it was before."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.