The Democratic narrative on voting is becoming unglued. “The 21st-century Jim Crow assault is real,” President Biden claimed Tuesday. “We’re facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War — that’s not hyperbole,” he said in the same speech. “The Confederates back then never breached the Capitol, as insurrectionists did on January the 6th.”
As Biden apparently sees it, the latest Civil War is in Texas, where state lawmakers want to make voting “so hard and inconvenient that they hope people don’t vote at all.” On Monday more than 50 Democrats from the Texas House absconded to Washington, D.C., to deny their chamber a quorum. “I left because I am tired of sitting as a hostage,” one lawmaker told the awaiting press at Dulles airport, “while Republicans strip away the rights of my constituents to vote.”
This partisan rhetoric is detached from the facts. We’ve already gone through the misrepresentations of Georgia’s and Florida’s voting laws. What’s proposed in Texas? First, the bills would end two practices that Harris County pioneered last year amid the pandemic: drive-through voting and 24-hour voting. These options were used disproportionately by nonwhites. Perhaps they made sense when every Texan was urged to stay six feet from every other Texan.
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But if the Legislature doesn’t want them to be permanent, then reverting to the pre-Covid status quo of 2019 is not some epochal loss for voting rights. Gov. Greg Abbott argues that drive-through voting breaks the traditional privacy of the polling booth. “Are you going to have people in the car with you?” he asked. “It could be somebody from your employer or somebody else who may have some coercive effect on the way that you would cast your ballot.”
As for 24-hour voting, it isn’t unreasonable to think polling-place mischief might be more likely at 3 a.m. Public confidence can be undermined by even false claims about what happened in the dead of night, including President Trump’s wild allegations about ballot “dumps.” The Texas bills would allow broad voting hours: 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the Senate version, or 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. in the House version.
This is not a blockade of the ballot box. To the contrary, in some places the bills would expand mandatory early voting hours. Current law says that in the final week before Election Day, counties with 100,000 people must open their “main” polling place for 12 hours on weekdays and five hours on Sunday. The House would lower the population threshold to 55,000, and the Senate would set it at 30,000. Both would also require six hours of Sunday voting.
Mail voters would be asked to verify their identities by supplying a state ID number or the last four digits of a Social Security number. That way election workers could quit squinting at people’s signatures. A study of Georgia in 2018 found that 54% of the ballots rejected for signature or oath issues were from black voters. Under the Texas plan, if the ID numbers matched, the voter’s signature would be presumed valid.
The voting bills propose many other provisions that are hardly extreme: Local officials would be barred from sending unsolicited mail-ballot applications. Courts would have to “instruct” felons about how their convictions affect their voting rights. Employers would be required, “while early voting is in progress,” to permit workers to be absent for the purpose of going to the polls. Ballot harvesting for compensation would be banned.
The argument is not that these bills are perfect, because no election system is. The point is that they are not some “un-American” throwback to Jim Crow, as Biden claims. If Texas Democrats think one provision or another is wrong, then they should stay in Austin and argue the case to the public. They claim to be fighting for democracy, even as they deny a quorum to prevent democracy from functioning.
The Legislature’s special session ends Aug. 7, and the Texas Democrats plan to camp out until then. If they set foot back in Texas, Governor Abbott says they will be arrested and taken to the Legislature. But even if they hold out until the session expires, Abbott can simply call a new one. Their flight might be a delaying tactic, but it looks more like a PR stunt.
Biden is escalating his rhetoric about Jim Crow and now the Civil War. Part of his aim, after Republicans made gains in 2020 among nonwhite voters, might be to reinforce the message that the GOP is racist. But Biden is also distorting the truth to justify congressional passage of H.R.1, a constitutionally dubious takeover of voting rules in all 50 states. He is trying to appease frustrated progressives who are starting to blame him for the Senate’s refusal to kill the filibuster.
Before Democrats hail quorum breaking as heroism, they might recall that they are trying to pass the most radical agenda in decades with the narrowest majorities in decades. Who’s really undermining democracy?
This editorial was first published July 13 in the Wall Street Journal.