By Jessica Montoya Coggins/Texas Signal
Voting rights advocates have seen few wins in Texas, especially since the Republican legislature passed the sweeping voter suppression bill known as Senate Bill 1. However, recently, there was one ruling that struck down at least a portion of SB 1, which impeded assistance to disabled or non-English-speaking voters at the polls in Texas. This latest legal win was obtained by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) and the law firm Fish & Richardson on behalf of OCA-Greater Houston.
Thanks to this ruling, voters in Texas who need assistance during the voting process will now be able to access that help without fear of criminal penalties from SB 1. Under SB 1, anybody helping a non-English or disabled voter could only “read or mark” from a ballot. That limited assistance would make it nearly impossible for a limited-English speaker to understand who or what they are voting for. Voter assisters also had to affirm in an oath that they were solely reading or marking.
That provision from SB 1 violated a court injunction from 2018, which prohibited that same language from being used as it violated Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act. The Signal spoke with Jerry Vattamala, their Director of the Democracy Program at AALDEF about this, and their efforts to combat further voter suppression techniques in Texas.
Despite that 2018 permanent injunction about voter assistance from a federal judge, Republicans inserted the prohibited clauses in SB 1 anyway. “I guess they hoped that the court would not notice that they basically enacted a law, which they were prevented from enacting,” said Vattamala.
Though Vattamala is pleased that disabled or non-English-speaking voters will be able to have some “relief” knowing that assistance can be provided to them at the polls, he is still concerned. “The problem is there is so much uncertainty because things are changing and this is not a civil issue, it’s a criminal penalty,” he said.
The mantra from Republicans as they passed SB 1 was that it made it “easier to vote, and harder to cheat.” In reality, that’s woefully inaccurate. Thousands of mail-in-ballots were rejected during the March primary. Vattamala and his team at AALDEF remain concerned about voters who might be fearful of having a family member or loved one who translates for them assist them in voting, even if the court has determined they cannot be held criminally liable.
Outside of this specific case, Texas is keeping the legal team at AALDEF quite busy. The voter suppression bills have only intensified since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act with the case Shelby County v. Holder. “Now we’re playing whack-a-mole, and we’re not able to keep up,” said Vattamala.
AALDEF is also one of the many groups that is challenging the latest redistricting maps that Texas drew last year. Those challenges have been consolidated into one streamlined case. “We are focused on the AAPI community in several different areas mainly Harris County, Fort Bend County, and the DFW area.” Unfortunately, the trial next year will not impact the November election.
For now, AALDEF is planning to stay in Texas as long as possible to combat any discrimination to the AAPI community, which is the fastest growing demographic in Texas.