By Sahar Chmais
State Rep. Erin Zwiener (D-Driftwood) took her toddler and left Texas during the special session, as part of the more than 50 legislators who made the move to block the passage of bills that would add restrictions on voting.
Zwiener and fellow legislators plan to stay out of Texas until the special session ends.
During the legislators’ stay, they have sought the guidance of U.S. senators and Vice President Kamala Harris.
Zwiener said the limitations added through Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 are like “death by a thousand cuts.” These bills do not blatantly state that certain residents cannot vote, but they add hurdles that will affect some populations more than others with access to voting, she explained the analogy. So the Democratic representatives decided to seek the help of law makers in DC.
Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) joined the fight against SB 1 by staying in Texas, but she said that the bill “unfortunately and inevitably, will pass – whether during this special session or the next.” Zaffirini proposed five amendments to the bill, which were rejected.
“As long as we are able to have productive meetings [in DC], we are committed to staying out of Texas through the end of the special session,” Zwiener said. “We may move out of DC to focus on our work together – only if we are continuing to have productive meetings, we will stay [in DC].”
U.S. senators can stop House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1 if they pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Act. If HB 3 and SB 1 pass prior to the proposed federal laws, preclearance would not apply as those laws would be in effect. Preclearance is the process of seeking U.S. Department of Justice approval for changes related to voting.
The John Lewis Act would put states with a history of discriminatory practices, such as Texas, under preclearance.
Many residents have been critical of Texas representatives leaving the state during special session and not performing their jobs.
“I’m aware that not everyone understands why I decided that removing myself from the Texas House Chamber was the best decision,” Zwiener told the Hays Free Press/News-Dispatch. “I also know many constituents are supportive and I’m grateful. We are actively reaching out to the folks who have earnest questions, but not everybody has earnest questions … and I will call constituents who have questions.”
The legislators left Austin on chartered flights and flew to Dulles International Airport just outside of Washington D.C. The flights were paid by the Democratic Party and by campaign funds, not on the taxpayer dime.
Other residents have been curious as to how these bills would restrict voting.
Zwiener gave some examples on how the new provisions would make voting a more difficult practice for some. HB 3 would make it more difficult for county election offices to recruit elections workers, which can lead to less polling places. This bill would treat small crimes as felonies for volunteers who want to work at polling places.
HB 3 would also make it more difficult for people to vote by mail if they are over 65, have a disability, or if people are out of their county and want to vote, Zwiener said.
Mail-in requests to vote have to be resubmitted every year. Hays County is home to many retirees who moved in from another state who might be used to looser regulations, where they only register once to vote by mail, Zwiener explained. To help residents remember to submit their mail-in ballot requests, some counties began sending reminders to applicants. Under HB 3, this practice would be banned.
While it is possible to access the application online, many elderly residents do not have printers or do not know how to get the form, Zwiener said.
Additionally, HB 3 bans the ability for residents to pay somebody to fill in the voter registration form.
“It’s an arbitrary hurdle designed to target voter outreach groups and not campaigners,” Zwiener said. “It makes it harder for them to do their work and harder on any elderly folks that have people helping them … For example, this means a property manager at a nursing home couldn’t fill out the application for somebody.”
These are a few of the ways the bills would act as a “death by a thousand cuts,” according to Zwiener.
When the legislators flew out of the state, local residents voiced their opinions loudly.
Some residents were posting supportive comments online, while others were disdainful of the move.
The situation ballooned as Zwiener received at least one death threat, and some residents began yelling and disrespecting the representatives’ staff members.
This was one of the reasons Zwiener decided it would be best to take her daughter along. She and her husband had to consider safety before Zwiener and her daughter left.
Childcare was another consideration, as the representative would be staying out of the state for 25 days and did not want to spend that much time away from her daughter.
Zwiener’s daughter was not the only one experiencing new things on the DC trip. Zwiener met the U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and had an inspiring take away from that meeting.
Harris told the legislators that there are people across the nation who are still using the 2020 elections as a justification to make more strict changes to voting rights.
“She put that in context for us and reminded us we are living in challenging times that won’t go away overnight,” Zwiener said. “It reminded us how hard fights were for John Lewis and Frederick Douglas, but in the end, they did prevail. In this moment we need to stay strong and we are part of the national fight. As a Texan, I am thinking about LBJ and the work he did for voting rights. It’s going to take folks who are Texas tough to protect [these voting rights]now.”