Houston Chronicle: Court blocks new restrictions on voters’ assistants in Texas

Image for Houston Chronicle: Court blocks new restrictions on voters’ assistants in Texas
Disability rights advocate Lydia Nunez heads towards the microphone to address access issues with Texas' proposed voting law during Beto O'Rourke's Powered By People rally at Finnigan Park in Houston's Fiffth Ward on Sunday, June 13, 2021. The tour was hitting multiple counties in Texas to drum up support for voting rights. Credit: Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle.

By Taylor Goldenstein/Houston Chronicle

Texans who assist voters with disabilities or those with limited English to fill out their ballots will no longer face felony charges if they go beyond simply helping the person mark or read them.

The provisions were part of the controversial elections bill passed by the Republican-majority Texas Legislature last year, Senate Bill 1.

A federal judge overturned the law’s provisions regarding voter assistance earlier this summer, and the Texas attorney general’s office declined to challenge it.

The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment on why it declined to challenge the injunction.

The voter assistance case was brought by the Organization of Chinese Americans-Greater Houston, which in January asked the court to block the provisions in SB 1 by modifying a 2018 injunction on similar rules that were found to have violated the Voting Rights Act.

They argued the provisions unlawfully restricted assistants to the point that this group of voters would be denied an equal voting experience. It would also infringe on the voter’s right to choose the person who assists them, as many may be deterred by the prospect of signing a narrowly worded oath under penalty of perjury, they said. The court ruled in favor of the group.

Jerry Vattamala, an attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which represented the Houston group in court, said there is a lot more involved in the voting process than reading and marking a ballot, especially for voters with limited English. A translation may not be, and often isn’t, verbatim and often requires explanation.

“We know many times a voter has more questions beyond a rogue translation,” Vattamala said. “Like ‘where do I go?’, ‘what do I do with my ballot?’, ‘what is this ballot provision?’, ‘what does that mean?’ They usually have clarifying questions.”

People with limited English skills tend to be people of color, Vattamala added, which meant the provisions had a discriminatory effect.

They argued that the new requirements were especially burdensome for Asian American voters who are more likely to need to take an assistant to the polling place with them, as translators in their native languages are often not as available as Spanish-speaking ones, for example. Just three Texas counties — Harris, Dallas and Tarrant — have enough Asian voting-age citizens to trigger a federal language assistance requirement, Vattamala said.