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Houston expanded voting in 2020. That put a target on its back

Deion Dorsett, who used drive-through voting last fall, said, “Every time we meet the expectation and we meet the rules, if it doesn’t fit a purpose or agenda, the goal line is moved again."
Deion Dorsett, who used drive-through voting last fall, said, “Every time we meet the expectation and we meet the rules, if it doesn’t fit a purpose or agenda, the goal line is moved again."Aaron M. Sprecher for The Boston Globe

HOUSTON — When Chris Hollins took over elections in Harris County, Texas, last year, he drafted a 23-point plan, sometimes working at his kitchen table, to make it easier and safer to vote in the midst of a pandemic.

Much of that plan became reality. But now, Republican lawmakers in Texas are threatening the expanded access Hollins and other officials fought for and brought to the nation’s third most populous county, which contains Houston — seeking to ban drive-through voting, 24-hour polling sites, and efforts to mail out unrequested ballot applications from the state house.

“It’s almost as if they read that plan and said, let’s make every aspect... illegal where possible,” Hollins said.

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Chris Hollins outside his home in Houston, Texas.
Chris Hollins outside his home in Houston, Texas. Aaron M. Sprecher for The Boston Globe

The proposed election restrictions in Texas highlight the way Republicans are battling with major cities — which are home to Democratic-leaning, majority-minority, younger populations tugging red states like this one slightly left — as they roll back expanded voting access across the country and falsely seek to paint the 2020 election as marred by fraud. Donald Trump and his allies have depicted voters and election officials in cities like Philadelphia and Detroit as cheaters, launching lawsuits and demands for audits that are aimed at more diverse metro areas.

“There is no question that the race-based allegations of fraud are now motivating laws to restrict voting access that are then going to be burdening voters of color more than other voters,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, a voting rights counsel at the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, a nonprofit that advocates for voting rights.

“We are clearly seeing a backlash to the way that voters cast their ballots last year, and an effort to try to make it harder for voters to cast their ballots in that way,” she added.

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Texas is not among the states, like Georgia and Arizona, that slipped away from Trump in 2020, although his 5.6 percent margin of victory there was Republicans’ narrowest in years. The rapid growth of big cities like Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, plus a suburban shift to the left, has helped Democrats make gains in some statewide races. That’s a development that has spooked Republicans here, even though they have thus far held onto both Senate seats, every statewide elected position, and the state’s electoral votes.

Several Republicans in Texas acknowledge their legislation is aimed at Houston, though they deny it’s for political or demographic reasons, saying instead they want to standardize voting across counties.

But officials in Harris County, many of them Black and Latino, who worked to expand voting access last year, say they feel targeted by a group of largely white politicians in Austin who are unhappy with how many Houstonians turned out to vote last year. The laws and rhetoric implying their votes were illegitimate carry an especially dark undertone in a state where Jim Crow poll taxes were on the books until the late 1960s.

“There’s no denying that urban areas are growing, [and] the balance of power in urban areas doesn’t tend to favor them,” said County Judge Lina Hidalgo, 30, the county’s top public official, in an interview from her spare office on the ninth floor of an administrative building in downtown Houston. “They’re coming after Harris County.”

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Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo sat at the Harris County Administration Building in Houston, Texas.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo sat at the Harris County Administration Building in Houston, Texas. Aaron M. Sprecher for The Boston Globe

Hidalgo said the county attorney has already been authorized to file a lawsuit against the new law if it passes.

It’s not the only voting bill that would adversely affect cities. A different Texas bill introduced this summer would require forensic audits of the 2020 election results in any county with more than 415,000 people. Florida, Georgia, Iowa, and Indiana have all passed laws this year that limit mail ballot drop boxes, which could lead to longer lines at urban polling sites. And Trump and Republicans have pushed for unusual post-election audits in the most populous counties of both Arizona and Georgia — Maricopa and Fulton counties.

The sprawling bill in Texas, which became a national symbol of Republican efforts to roll back voting rights after it sparked a Democratic walkout in the state Legislature, is stocked with provisions that would affect both rural and urban areas. It would give partisan poll watchers more latitude in polling places and add new identification requirements for absentee ballots that would make it harder to vote by mail. It would also ban officials from mailing absentee ballot applications to voters who do not request them.

But the bill also specifically cracks down on methods of voting that Harris County launched in 2020. Twenty-four-hour voting, which took place for one night, drew 17,425 voters to eight polling locations around the county, including a sports arena and Texas Medical Center, the warren of hospitals where medical workers were treating COVID patients around the clock.

More than 125,000 people used drive-through voting, which allowed people to vote on machines from inside their cars.

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Deion Dorsett, 40, was among those who used drive-through voting last fall because he was already spending so much time in his car, having taken on shifts with Uber and Doordash after he lost some of his regular work because of the pandemic. It was easy and safe, he said — and the thought of losing the option felt like a gut punch.

“Every time we meet the expectation and we meet the rules, if it doesn’t fit a purpose or agenda, the goal line is moved again,” said Dorsett, who has done volunteer work registering people to vote and worries new restrictions will demoralize voters.

Turnout surged in the county, which officials credit to the expanded methods of voting. The use of mail-in ballots, which remains largely limited to the disabled and elderly in Texas, jumped 76 percent over 2016. Overall, nearly 1.7 million people voted in Harris County — more than a 20 percent increase over 2016, according to the county. More minority voters than white voters used 24-hour voting and drive-through voting, according to statistics tracked by the Texas Civil Rights Project.

“For all the attempts to make Harris County look like the big bad bogey monster, when we implement solutions, they work,” said Isabel Longoria, 33, who is now the county’s elections administrator. If the new methods of voting are lost, she said, “I think fewer people are going to vote.”

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Isabel Longoria, Harris County elections administrator, posed for a photo in her office in Houston, Texas.
Isabel Longoria, Harris County elections administrator, posed for a photo in her office in Houston, Texas.Aaron M. Sprecher for The Boston Globe

Republicans have been direct about the fact that parts of the bill are aimed at Harris County, but they deny that is about seeking to suppress the city’s voters.

“Two hundred and fifty-three counties ran their elections according to Texas law this last cycle, and one county did not — but it’s the largest county in the state of Texas,” said House Speaker Dade Phelan in a local TV interview in April. “In Harris County, they were creating election law every single day.”

State Senator Bryan Hughes, the chair of the committee on state affairs, said the law is simply about standardizing election requirements across the state. “The bill is not aimed at anyone, but instead aims to provide every Texan with an equal opportunity to vote,” he said.

Republicans seized on the voting expansion to turn the county into a legal battlefield during the election. They sued the county over its plans to mail absentee ballot applications to all residents and won, leaving a mountain of applications piled up in a warehouse in view of Hollins’s desk.

Another Republican lawsuit sought to throw out 127,000 votes cast at Harris County’s drive-through voting centers, but it was ultimately rejected by the Texas Supreme Court.

“It’s been very clear that the law was on our side, that what we were doing was legal, so what they’re doing is saying, well, let’s just change Texas law now,” said Hollins, who also serves as an official in the state’s Democratic Party.

In Texas, tension between Republican state government in Austin and the state’s Democrat-run cities has been building for years. In 2019, state Representative Dennis Bonnen, then the House speaker, was caught on tape saying he hoped that legislative session would be “the worst session in the history of the Legislature for cities.”

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Greg Abbott has repeatedly clashed with the mayors of cities including Austin and Houston over mask mandates and other public safety measures.

At conservative gatherings in the state, the Houston area’s voting expansions have become a punchline of sorts, as Trump supporters continue to cling to the fiction that the ex-president won the election.

“Who votes at midnight?” asked Irene Armendariz-Jackson, a former realtor who is running for Congress in the El Paso area, in an interview at the Conservative Political Action Committee’s Dallas meeting in early July. “Most people are asleep at home, hardworking people are asleep at home. Legal people are asleep at home.”

Joe Vannatta, a 63-year-old retired electrician, supported efforts to curb the fraud he is convinced happened in big cities but not in the rural area where he lives.

“You can’t harvest ballots in Lampasas County. Eight hundred people live in my town,” he said. “In Houston, where there’s 20 million people, you can count dead people, you can count dogs.” (Houston’s population is 2.3 million.)

But to voters here, the efforts to curb ballot access in one of the most diverse big cities in the nation feels particularly personal, and it has eroded their trust in state government.

“All of it is a bunch of damn baloney to turn things their way,” said Thelma Taylor, a retiree and a Houston Democrat, as she emerged from a shopping center in the shadow of NRG Park, the sports complex where an arena became a drive-through and 24-hour voting site last fall. “It’s a method of changing democracy, and their control.”

“They don’t want my vote, for sure,” said Domini Bryant, 40, a social worker who was tending a community garden outside of a community center that served as a 24-hour polling place last fall. “To continue to treat our communities as if we are less … you’re basically saying to us that you’re our enemy.”

The community center, in the historically Black neighborhood of Kashmere Gardens, is a low-slung building decorated with shiny orange tile, where the parking lot fills up on Election Day, Bryant said, and the traffic builds up on the street.

“It’s been an individual struggle,” Jesse McDonald, a 64-year-old security worker who lives across the street, said of holding onto voting rights, “especially from this little neck of the woods.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.