Texas Standard: Federal court strikes down voting law provision that limited assistance for voters with disabilities or limited English proficiency

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A voting sign at Fiesta Mart in East Austin in 2020. Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT.

Advocates say Texas’ SB1 voting law made it hard for some voters to obtain the kinds of assistance they need from family or other chosen assisters. The state declined to appeal the court’s permanent injunction in the case.

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By Shelly Brisbin and Yvonne Marquez/KUT

Voters with limited English proficiency, or who have a disability can receive assistance at the polls from a person they choose. But under SB1, the Texas voting law passed last year, the kind of assistance was limited. But a federal court order, and the state’s decision not to appeal, reinstates the ability of voters to get help that goes beyond simply reading the ballot.

Susana Lorenzo-Giguere is lead attorney on the case, and associate director of the democracy program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or AALDEF. She says voters requesting assistance can get help with navigating the polling place, and understanding the meaning and context of ballot language. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

What were the provisions of the Texas voting law you challenged and why?

Susana Lorenzo-Giguere: The provisions only allowed assistance in reading and marking the ballot in the voting booth. This was something that, in 2018, a federal court had permanently enjoined. We had filed a lawsuit in 2015 because Texas had tried to limit the voting assistance promised by the Voting Rights Act to get your assister of choice so that you could vote a fully informed ballot. And Texas tried to limit that. In 2015, they limited it to assistance only from people who are registered in your county.

So our plaintiff had a son who was not registered in her county, and she tried to get him to assist her. She couldn’t speak any English and they wouldn’t let him assist her. Unfortunately, she passed away during the pendency of the action, but the court found that that kind of limitation was violating Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act, and the Fifth Circuit agreed and said that voting is just not limited to what happens inside the voting booth. It happens throughout the entire process.

So here, in 2021, in SB1, Texas was at it again. They just gussied it up with the same language but with a different election code number and hid it in the part about the oath. It’s like lipstick on a pig. It doesn’t change. That’s still a pig. And the court agreed. And they modified that permanent injunction that we had in 2018 and said that part of SB1 was no longer valid.

So what the legislature tried to do was to somehow reframe it and hope that the courts would go along with it?

Exactly. That’s exactly what happened. There’s other parts of SB1 that we’re still litigating, so we shaved off that portion. And luckily, voters during the midterms, disabled voters and limited English-speaking voters and even illiterate voters will be able to get people they trust to assist them. But there’s other parts of SB1 that are still out there and we’re still fighting against.

Do you see this as having permanent effects or will it only cover this year’s midterm elections?

This is a permanent injunction, David. This is permanent.

And the Texas Attorney General can’t challenge it further?

Well, they tried to challenge it in our enforcement action of the permanent injunction, but the court agreed that this language really looks like the last language, and because it was already enjoined, they couldn’t do it again.

What does this mean for voters who want to be assisted at the polls?

Well, now they could bring somebody into the polling place with them and ask them questions like, “Where do I go now that I’m inside the polling place?” How do I walk from this part of the room to the other room without stumbling over barriers that they can’t see if they’re blind? Once they’re in the booth, “How do you use this machine? What does this ballot say?”

You know, if a person’s trying to simply read and mark the ballot and the ballot is in English, how are you supposed to read a ballot to a Korean-speaking voter, especially if you’re a 16-year-old child of that voter? You’re not a trained linguist. Sometimes you have to say, “Mom, do you know that part of the law that had to do with the school taxes to make the schools have lunches or something about paving the roads?” And the mom would say, “Oh, yeah, you mean that part of the law?” “Yeah, that part.” There’s like a give and take to understand the context. So those kinds of voters get the kind of assistance they’re going to need so that they can actually understand what they’re voting about.