Federal court orders State of Texas to stop restricting needed assistance to limited English speaking and disabled voters
This week, a federal district judge ruled that the state of Texas must stop using a new election law to illegally restrict needed assistance to limited English speaking and disabled voters. The order modified a permanent injunction secured in 2018 by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) on behalf of OCA-Greater Houston (OCA-GH), which ruled Texas’ limitations on assistance violated a voter’s right to assistance from a person of their choice under Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act. Now the court says that SB1’s identical language violates its 2018 injunction.
“Texas was permanently enjoined in 2018 from restricting necessary assistance to limited English speaking and disabled voters as they navigate the entire voting process,” says Susana Lorenzo-Giguere, Senior Staff Attorney at AALDEF. “This order is a strong reminder to Texas that a voter’s right to assistance cannot be taken away by mocking the court’s 2018 injunction and imposing the very same restrictions on assistance they were told not to do. Just because Texas disagrees with the 2018 permanent injunction and Section 208 does not give it permission to violate the permanent injunction and the law, as they tried to do with SB1.”
OCA – GH argued that Texas’ 2021 SB1 assistance law continued to use the same language the court previously enjoined in 2018. Instead of a voter getting assistance for any part of the voting process when needed, Texas tried to limit assistance just to reading and marking the ballot in the voting booth. Texas was already told not to limit assistance this way by the federal court in 2018, because it violated a voter’s right to assistance under Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act. Texas appealed that earlier decision but the 5th circuit 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).
“Asian American voters who can’t speak English well often need to ask questions to understand the voting process and how to vote. People who provide assistance 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. “The judge has restored our community’s ability to vote effectively in the upcoming general election, even those voters who can’t speak English well. AALDEF, along with pro bono counsel David Hoffman at Fish and Richardson, helped us obtain the first order for voter assistance in 2018, and they helped us again this year when Texas tried to get around that order.”
This week’s order 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.
For more information, contact:
Susana Lorenzo-Giguere, Senior Staff Attorney
Stuart Sia, Communications Director