In Texas, Efforts To Make Voting Harder Have Some Worried In Harris County Harris County, which includes Houston, has more than 4.7 million people. Many of the voting rights innovations installed last year are at risk of being eliminated by the Republican-led legislature.

In Texas, Efforts To Make Voting Harder Have Some Worried In Harris County

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Texas already has some of the strictest voting laws in the country. And now Republicans there are trying to make those laws even tougher. Most of the state's Democratic lawmakers have flown to Washington, D.C., to prevent a vote on legislation they call voter suppression. Houston Public Media's Andrew Schneider spoke with voters who use the methods that Republicans are trying now to ban.

ANDREW SCHNEIDER, BYLINE: Last year, Harris County introduced an array of voting innovations to make it easier and safer to vote during the presidential elections. They included drive-through voting, expanded voting hours with one day of 24-hour voting and sending out mail-in ballot applications to all eligible voters. Joy Davis is a stay-at-home mom. She voted in a drive-through location on the east side of Houston.

JOY DAVIS: Oh, it was amazing. It was so convenient. It - I felt safe because it was at the highlight of the pandemic before I was able to get any vaccinations.

SCHNEIDER: Almost immediately, Republicans sued to block the innovations. One suit would have thrown out roughly 127,000 ballots cast at drive-through locations.

DAVIS: And it was horrifying. It felt as if I was going to be disenfranchised as a voter.

SCHNEIDER: That suit ultimately failed, though one banning the mass-mailing of mail-in ballot applications succeeded. In the end, Harris County had its highest voter turnout rate in almost 30 years. The county has been trending Democratic, but for the most part, local Republicans held their seats. Donald Trump carried Texas by fewer than six points. Republicans soon responded with proposals to change the state's election laws. The alleged reason was to prevent fraud, even though Governor Greg Abbott, who called for the legislation, admitted he knew of no significant fraud in 2020. Jaison Oliver used a drive-through voting site at the Toyota Center in downtown Houston.

JAISON OLIVER: So it definitely seems directed at Harris County's efforts to expand opportunities for people to vote - shutting down or reducing people's access to the mail-in ballots, reducing access to drive-through voting...

SCHNEIDER: ...And banning 24-hour voting. James Llamas participated in a 30-person midnight bike ride from midtown Houston to NRG Park on the city's south side. He voted around 1:00 a.m., not because he had to, but because he wanted to support shift workers who couldn't vote during regular daytime hours.

JAMES LLAMAS: I mean, I don't see any legitimate security concern with letting people vote at one hour versus another. I mean, it was the same process, same protocols at the polling location at midnight as there would be at noon.

SCHNEIDER: Texas House Democrats have broken quorum twice in order to prevent passage of voting restrictions, once at the end of the regular legislative session and now in the special session. Maria Benzon, an assistant principal who used to drive-through voting in Bellaire, says she's proud of those lawmakers.

MARIA BENZON: Sometimes you need to shake up the system for people to be made aware of what's going on. And what's going on in our state, what the governor's trying to do - it's so wrong.

SCHNEIDER: Governor Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan are demanding Democratic lawmakers return from Washington, D.C., to do their jobs. But hospital worker Cylenthia Hoyrd, who used drive-through voting at Houston's NRG Park, says that's just what they're doing by staying away.

CYLENTHIA HOYRD: You represent the people. You do what the people want you to do. And in their districts, we don't want this.

SCHNEIDER: Still, it's uncertain how long Democratic lawmakers can sustain their walkout. Governor Abbott says he'll continue to call one special session after another until the voting legislation is passed.

For NPR News, I'm Andrew Schneider in Houston.

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