Federal Court Strikes Down Texas’ SB1 Provision Restricting Assistance for Limited English-Speaking and Disabled Voters
WASHINGTON, DC — Yesterday, the state of Texas declined to appeal last month’s federal court order, which prohibits Texas from using SB1, a 2021 election law that illegally restricts necessary assistance to limited English-speaking and disabled voters at the polls. Secured by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) and pro bono counsel Fish & Richardson on behalf of OCA-Greater Houston (OCA-GH), the order modified a 2018 permanent injunction, which found that Texas had violated a voter’s right to assistance from a person of their choice under Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act.
“Thankfully, the illegal assistance provisions of SB1 will no longer be in effect for the midterm elections. This is a major win for limited English-speaking and disabled voters in Texas, and the community-based organizations that serve them. Most importantly, Texas voters who need assistance to vote will be able to obtain assistance during the whole voting process, ensuring that their ability to exercise their right to fully participate in the democratic process is not limited by their English proficiency, or disability,” says Susana Lorenzo-Giguere, Associate Director of AALDEF’s Democracy Program.
“Asian American voters with limited English often need to ask questions to understand the ballot and the voting process. This is especially true for people who provide them with assistance and must translate the English ballot and the whole process on the spot. Assistors were afraid to answer voters’ questions in the 2022 primary elections because the new law said they could only assist the voter to ‘read and mark’ the ballot,” says Debbie Chen of OCA-GH. “How can that person ’read’ an English ballot to a voter who doesn’t speak English? It’s not like a voter’s 16-year-old son or daughter is a walking Google Translate. And even if they were, word-for-word translations are so void of context that they often make no sense. SB1’s restriction on assistance is unnatural. There’s no getting around the need for the back and forth, questions and answers, between a voter and assistor.”
AALDEF, together with pro bono counsel from Fish & Richardson, David Hoffman and Rose Sun, on behalf of OCA-GH, argued that Texas’ 2021 SB1’s assistance law used the same language the court previously enjoined in 2018. SB1 restricted assistance to simply reading and marking the ballot in the voting booth. The 2018 injunction declared that such limitations on voting assistance violated the protections of Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act. Though Texas later appealed, the decision was upheld by the 5th Circuit, which agreed that voting “plainly contemplates more than the mechanical act of filling out the ballot sheet. It includes steps in the voting process before entering the ballot box, registration, and it includes steps in the voting process after leaving the ballot box.” [OCA-Greater Houston v. Texas, 867 F.3d 604, 615 (5th Cir. 2017)]
Last month’s court order again enjoins Texas from limiting voting assistance just to reading and marking the ballot (Texas Election Code 64.031). It also enjoins Texas from inserting the same prohibited language in the oath an assistor must swear to, that requires them to confine their assistance to reading the ballot to the voter, directing the voter to read the ballot, marking the voter’s ballot, or directing the voter to mark the ballot. (Texas Election Code 64.034) The court further ordered Texas to revise its training and instructional materials for state and county officials, and to distribute notice to all county elections departments clarifying the SB1 provisions that they should not enforce.
The district court’s June 6th order can be downloaded here. The 2018 permanent injunction can be downloaded here.