Breaking Down the Voter Suppression Bill: An interview with ali lozano

by | Sep 10, 2021 | Politics, Voting

The following is a transcript of the Tex Mix podcast with host Jessica Montoya Coggins and Ali Lozano, the Director of Advocacy and Communications at Texas Civil Rights Project. You can listen to the Tex Mix podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Jessica: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Tex Mix podcast brought to you by the Texas Signal. I’m very delighted to be joined by our guest Ali Lozano from the Texas Civil Rights Project.

Ali: Hello, thank you so much for having me

Jessica: Happy to chat with you. So Ali, you’re the director of advocacy and communications at the Texas Civil Rights Project. Folks from the Texas Signal, we know your organization very well. We had a couple of op-eds your group did with us. It was a really cool project. Could you tell us about yourself and what brought you to the Texas Civil Rights Project?

Ali: Sure. My journey to TCRP is an interesting one and trajectory wise sort of makes a lot of sense. I’m actually a Los Angeles native, so nobody in Texas hold that against me too much, please. But when I graduated from undergrad, I was in D.C. and I ended up working as the political manager for the LGBTQ Victory Fund. And I got deployed on a bunch of campaigns over the two and a half years that I was with that political action committee. And I did races in Arizona, New York, Texas, Wisconsin. And the one thing that I noticed was there were very different voting laws in all of these places. And so that’s really where I got really interested in voting rights work and differences in election code and election administration. I moved to Texas actually very shortly after the people’s filibuster that Wendy Davis had done at the ledge.

Jessica: A big moment for a lot of us.

Ali: It was a pretty inspiring moment for me, and ended up doing organizing work with the Texas Freedom Network where I was doing hardcore voter registration with primarily college students around Texas, mostly in Houston and the North Texas area. And then went to graduate school for macro political social work, where I really dug into voting rights. And TCRP happened to have a position on the voting rights team available just as I was graduating. So the stars aligned there and I joined TCRP in May 2019 working on the voting rights team and have since transitioned to this new role as the Director of Advocacy and Communication. So now I’m managing and leading all of our press comms, digital and advocacy across all three programs. So that’s criminal justice, racial and economic justice, which is basically our immigration work and voting rights, of course. So that’s the last 10 years of my life in a couple minutes.

Jessica: The Wendy Davis filibuster, that is something that we’ve heard from so many folks that really inspired a lot of their activism, inspired them to come to Texas. I would just like to point out that we are just a couple days removed from heinous anti-abortion legislation. So I’d imagine that’s going to kickstart a new wave of folks coming down to Texas. With TCRP y’all have been really at the forefront of fighting against this voter suppression bill. Through the House and Senate, there’s been a lot of changes to it. We saw House Democrats break quorum to try and prevent this. Some of those Democrats did come back. Can you let us know what’s in this bill and what it means for Texas voters?

Ali: Yes, definitely. Okay. Buckle up everybody. Are we, are we ready? For clarity sake for folks listening, today is September 2nd. So the governor has not yet signed the bill, but we anticipate that he will literally any minute. So we are waiting for him to sign. So probably by the time this airs it will be signed. The one sentence summary of everything in this bill is that SB 1 would set new rules for voting by mail, boost protections for partisan poll watchers, and roll back local voting initiatives that are meant to make it easier to vote. And namely those that were implemented by Harris County, which were disproportionately used by voters of color. TCRP actually did some extensive data analysis showing just what percentage of the total voter turnout, how many folks of color actually turned out in Harris County and specifically used the two methods that the legislature went after, which was drive-through voting and extended early hours voting.

Ali: So I’m going to kind of go into section by section of the big chunks of what this act changes and what this means for Texas. So number one, a ban on drive through voting that’s pretty self explanatory. So, you know, Harris County was doing drive through voting. Other counties actually also did some drive through voting, but obviously Harris County was front and center as an enormous county in Texas. So there’s now a ban on drive-through voting. The county’s drive through polling places were mostly set up under large tents, voters remained in their cars and showed a photo ID, verified their registration before filling out their ballots. And that option was very popular, about 1 in 10 people actually cast early voting ballots through drive-through locations. So that’s now gone.

Ali: There are also new regulations for early voting hours, including also a ban on 24-hour voting. So SB 1 now restricts early voting to a newly established window of 6:00 AM to 10:00 PM, which outlaws the 24 hours of uninterrupted voting that Harris offered. The legislation also requires more counties to provide at least 12 hours of early voting each weekday of the second week of early voting in state elections. So that’s currently already required of counties with a population of 100,000 or more people, but SB 1 is actually lowering that population threshold to 55,000 people, expanding hours in smaller, mostly Republican counties. I also want to preface TCRP is completely non-partisan. We are strictly non-partisan, but I’m just giving you all the demographic facts here.

Jessica: Another thing that I just can’t sort of wrap my head around is when Harris County and other places were implementing these new voting methods it was because of a pandemic. And this pandemic is still ongoing. Many of the Republicans in state leadership have exacerbated this by discrediting vaccines. Our hospitalization rates in many places are very scary. I’m in North Texas. There are no more pediatric ICU units. The ICU units for adults are also very slim at this moment. So this was stuff that was not out of thin air. This was because of a global pandemic.

Ali: That’s right. And that’s actually what TCRP has been pushing in all of the interviews that we’ve been doing. Rep. Andrew Murr, who carried this iteration of the bill in the last stretch, he actually noted on the floor, “well, the pandemic is over, so we don’t need these things anymore.”

Jessica:  That’s not what our hospital administrators or medical professionals are saying.

Ali: That’s not our reality. I don’t know where in Texas you’re living, Mr. Murr. And so that’s right. So these were really critical safety measures that now are gone. The other big change is a ban. You’re noticing that I’m using the word ban a lot because that’s exactly what happened, a ban on the distribution of mail-in ballot applications. So Texas going into the regular session, we already had 103 criminal provisions on the books in our election code, which is more than, than most states, if not all states. And now it will become a state jail felony for local election officials to send unsolicited applications to request a mail-in ballot. That same punishment applies to officials who approve the use of public funds to “facilitate the unsolicited distribution applications by third parties.” So that’s just, that’s nuts, right? Political parties would still be able to send out unsolicited applications on their own dime, but for third parties, you know, like the League of Women Voters, that impacts them. Obviously that proposal, just like many of the others, is a direct response to Harris County then-County Clerk Chris Hollins, who attempted to proactively send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters last year. Despite him providing clear instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. That went through a whole grueling litigation. 

Along those same lines, there’s also a new ID requirement for voting by mail. This is, and I’m not an attorney, but I work with a lot of attorneys and this seems, you know, slightly illegal. The legislation tightens rules for voting by mail by setting the new ID requirements. So now under SB 1 voters must provide their driver’s license number, or if they don’t have one, of course, the last four digits of their social security just like, you know, our regular voter registration applications. But they must also provide those numbers on the envelope used to return their completed ballot. So that’s new. And I guess there’s also a correction process for mail-in voting now. So the bill creates a new process allowing voters to correct their mail-in ballots. If they’re at risk of being rejected for a technical error, this is also something TCRP worked on extensively. As part of our democracy from the ground up campaign, we’ve actually been working on this sort of what we call a curing process for a few years now. And then it enhances poll watcher protections. So, you know, there’s—

Jessica: We’ve been hearing from a lot of folks about that one.

Ali: Yes. This is probably the one that folks were seeing in the news that poll watchers are going to be able to videotape you right? As you’re casting your ballot and that’s not scary? So now there’s a little change from the original version of the bill. Now SB 1 includes language to strengthen the autonomy of partisan poll watchers at the polling places. So it grants them free movement within a polling place, except for being present at a voting station when a voter is filling out their ballot. So that was the scary part that people were like, oh my God. But it does exempt being present at a voting station as someone who’s actually filling out their ballot. SB 1 now also makes it a criminal offense to obstruct the partisan poll watcher view or distance the watcher in any manner that would not allow them to be reasonably effective, which is kind of subjective. And then the Democrats actually had pushed a change, so SB 1 now requires training for poll watchers and does now allow for them to be removed from a polling place without warning if they violate the penal code. So a previous version of the bill was only going to allow them to be kicked out if they blatantly violated the law after receiving a warning. So that was also something we were pushing for. We were like, there needs to be ability for election workers to do their jobs and get these folks out of there if they’re causing a ruckus in the polling locations. Okay, just two more. It’s just, it’s a huge bill, right?

Jessica: Indeed.

Ali: It also establishes new monthly citizenship checks. So if folks were kind of paying attention to voting rights news in Texas, back in 2019, we had this whole voter purge situation happen with the former secretary of state. So SB 1 now sets up  a new monthly review of the voter rolls to identify non-citizens. And that is going back to the state’s botched 2019 purge that I just talked about, which TCRP sued over by the way. So that is going to require the secretary of state’s office to compare our very large voter registration list with data from DPS to identify people who told DPS that they were not citizens while obtaining or renewing their driver’s license or ID card after registering to vote. That’s revised language from previous iterations of the bill that I believe should match the legal settlement that the state had ultimately entered into after three federal lawsuits, by agreeing to rework how they actually did that. And the state number never restarted that work after all of those lawsuits in that debacle, but now that’s going to be required under this bill. And then the very last thing is that the bill creates new rules for voter assistance as well. So the bill now establishes new requirements and possible criminal penalties. There was a lot of push for new criminal penalties for people who are assisting voters who need help filling out their ballots. And this provision is particularly violent against voters with disabilities. Since the very original version of this bill that has morphed in all these different ways, like it has just been particularly egregious towards folks with disabilities and voters with disabilities. So the person assisting the voter must fill out new forms disclosing their relationship to the voter and assistance have to now also recite this oath under penalty of perjury stating that they did not pressure or coerce the voter into choosing them for assistance. So those are all the big buckets of major changes for this massive bill. It’s quite a sweeping bill and, I mentioned this to you before, and it’s no secret many different entities, both nationally and statewide, plan to sue around some of these provisions once it’s signed.

Jessica: Right. And the mantra from Republicans with this bill is that it makes it easier to vote and harder to cheat. And I’m just going to call bunk on that. I want to remind folks that there is no real online voter registration in Texas, which I found out the hard way when I moved back from New York state; there I could register to vote in about three minutes and in Texas, we don’t even have that option. So with SB 1, there was a big process for this bill to even make it back into the special session. The house elections chair, Briscoe Cain, a lot of Texas Signal folks know who that is. He wasn’t quite ready for prime time. So this bill was not passed in the main legislative session, which is why Abbott ordered this special session. House Democrats, many of them broke quorum. They were in Washington D.C. but ultimately enough returned where quorum was established at the Capitol. Several representatives have outlined why they came back, James Talerico in Texas Signal had a very lengthy 3000-word post about this. What were your thoughts about that decision from certain members?

Ali: Yeah, so look, obviously there was a lot of internet chatter and, you know, members were going after each other about coming back or about not coming back and a lot of drama around the quorum break and folks returning. I’m not going to comment on individual members who chose to come back, because they did at the end of the day, they did leave and some members did not leave at all. Um, right. So I think that the spotlight should kind of actually be on the members who never left at all and never did anything versus the ones who actually did leave and then did come back. But what I will say is that in addition to folks having a lot of feelings around Democratic lawmakers returning to the Capitol, there’s also been a bunch of discussion around if it was even worth it at all, right, because at the end of the day, this bill is getting signed. We’re taking an L on that. Right? But in my opinion, the walkouts and the quorum breaks, basically all that extra time: it was worth it because all of that extra time at the end of the day made the bill less restrictive over time. I mean even aside from the fact that the bill is still horrible, awful, but we got a lot of harm mitigation done. Like we actually were able to do a lot of harm reduction. The quorum break and the walkouts to be perfectly frank, gave advocates and organizers a bit of time to rest because we were so exhausted. So if someone were to ask me was the quorum break worth it, even though Dems did end up returning back? I think. Absolutely. I think that the situation for voters in Texas would be much worse if that hadn’t happened.

Jessica: And this is kind of the reality for us in Texas, where harm reduction at some point is the strategy. I know TCRP also has done a lot of advocacy with the bail reform bail reform bill. And that was also part of the special session. Could you let us know a little bit about what that is and what is happening with that now?

Ali: Yeah, absolutely. So that bill, the sweeping bail bill, also has gone through and is expected to be signed by the governor. Similarly to the voting bill, the bail bill that has now gone all the way through and has gone through a lot of iterations as well. And a lot of changes during the regular session. The Senate and the House actually had drastically different interpretations and visions for what they wanted to see in terms of bail reform in Texas. By the time we got to the second special though, both chambers had obviously talked because the bills that were introduced in each chamber were pretty much identical. So they had obviously worked out their differences during the quorum break. There’s also a lot more bipartisan support around some of these bad bail bills certainly than there was with the voting bill. There were actually a lot of Dems signed on to the bail bill. The bill that has gone through is known as Senate Bill 6 for bail, and it’s a rewrite of the state’s bail system aimed at keeping more people in jail who can’t post cash. One of TCRP’s top campaigns actually within our criminal injustice program is eliminating cash bail altogether. So this has been a big battle for us. And so SB 6 requires people accused of violent crimes to put up cash basically to get out of jail. So there were three major provisions that we were super concerned about. One of them was around charitable bail funds and the house committee actually removed that controversial provision, which would have restricted charitable groups from posting bail for people. That was a practice that gained immense popularity last summer when charitable bail funds were posting bail to get people out of jail who were protesting the murder of George Floyd. So this was a provision pretty targeted, uh, and part of a much larger revitalized racial justice movement. House members added a related provision back into the bill that does not allow limitation of charitable bail groups to post bail. So instead the amendment that passed requires charitable bail funds to be certified by county officials as nonprofit organizations, and then file reports on who they bond out of jail, but it doesn’t outright ban the ability of charitable bail funds to do their thing, which was in another iteration. We were super worried about that provision.

Jessica: I bet.

Ali: And we were working really closely with the coalition to get that taken out. So that was again, a harm reduction win right for the coalition. SB 6 changes now, how, and if people can be released from jail before their criminal cases are resolved. This bill really limits when people, without monetary resources can be released. The exclusion rate of only cashless bonds is definitely going to exacerbate the wealth based detention and is going to increase the amount of people that are already in our overfilled jails, plain and simple. We’ve argued that the bill would wrongly increase the state’s reliance on cash bail because it’s now heavily restricting personal bonds, primarily which will penalize low-income people and poor people. And also, there’s no regulation at all on for-profit bail bond companies. So it’s kind of a nod to the for-profit bail bond industry, because you could have two people accused of the same crime now, but one is poor and one has actual financial resources who can get out of jail. It doesn’t matter how dangerous they are. It depends if they have money or not, whether or not they’re able to get out of jail now through this bill. I just want to note that this bill is going to get signed. It’s going to go through, it’s going to be implemented. And multiple federal courts in recent years have found that the bail practices in Texas, in its two largest counties, have been unconstitutional because they are blatantly discriminatory against poor people. I would expect to see some movement on this as well. But a summary of SB 6 on the bail front, more poor people will be in jail because they cannot afford to pay cash.

Jessica: Yeah. And I can’t help but think too, that we have seen that prisons have been huge vectors for COVID-19 already, which will just disproportionately impact communities of color. And during the winter storm, that was some of the worst places during the power outage. Which we do want to remind folks that, you know, the legislature could have worked on our power grid, but they decided not to do that. So these were the things that they decided to do. So again, thank you so much for sharing this insight, I guess. This has been a trying couple of days, weeks, months for many Texans. But organizations like TCRP, y’all are doing some really great work. Do you have any sort of advice or something that you would tell someone who does feel really, really sort of bogged down at this moment?

Ali: Oh, I would love some of that advice as well.

Jessica: This is maybe for me too, I’ve definitely had a few nights this week where I’m just like curled up with Oreos.

Ali: Yeah. I mean, I think first and foremost, I’ve been talking to a lot of fellow comrades at other organizations who worked so hard during the legislative session. I mean amazing organizers and advocates at Texas Freedom Network, Move Texas, ACLU Texas, Texas Appleseed, Fair Defense Project. The list goes on and on. I think first and foremost, everyone needs to rest. We’ve been going hard with these legislative sessions for over nine months now. That’s a long time to be in a state of constant urgency and rapid response while being met with proposed state sanctioned violence. Right? That is mentally tolling, emotionally tolling. So I think first and foremost, I would just tell people to rest. I think that’s what we can do now for ourselves and for the movement. And you know, we’re in Texas. We have always known that we are in a marathon, not a sprint. It is a long fight here. This state is not going to change overnight. It’s going to take a long time. But I do think that we have some of the best organizers in the country. And I think, something else I’ve been thinking about a lot, particularly working at a legal advocacy organization, and we mentioned early on with the Wendy Davis filibuster, and now this abortion law that’s gone into effect and what we’re seeing at SCOTUS around this abortion law. I don’t know how my lawyer colleagues are gonna feel about me saying this, but the courts are not going to save us there. They’re simply not. The fifth circuit is not a friendly court to us. SCOTUS is not a friendly court to us. It is going to take a mass multi-racial movement and it is going to take mass organizing that is cross-generational, multi-racial and organized. At the end of the day before the courts and before the legislature, we have us. We have community and that is not going away. And if anything, I think that’s gotten stronger. So that’s personally what gives me hope when thinking about being so deflated right now. We’re just going to have to keep working at it. I mean, we have made progress in this state in terms of organizing infrastructure. I mean, we have made massive improvements around our organizing infrastructure. And I think we just got to keep our eye on the ball there and continue to build up that infrastructure and also just continue to support each other as advocates. And at the end of the day, I do think that we will win. But with these courts and with this state government, it is going to just take a while. So rest up.

Jessica: I did like the advice that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Ali: Yeah, that’s right.

Jessica: Well, my thanks again to Ali Lozano from the Texas Civil Rights Project. Thank you so much for tuning into this episode of the Tex Mix. We’ll have some more episodes down the pipeline. You can follow us on Apple podcast, Spotify, Google. I think we’re coming up to Amazon pretty soon. Be sure to check out Texas Signal and we’ll keep you up to date. Thanks guys.

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A longtime writer and journalist, Jessica was thrilled to join the Texas Signal where she could utilize her unique perspective on politics and culture. As the Features and Opinion Editor, she is responsible for coordinating editorials and segments from diverse authors. She is also the host of the podcast the Tex Mix, as well as the co-host for the weekly SignalCast. Jessica attended Harvard College, is a onetime fitness blogger, and has now transitioned to recreational runner (for which her joints are thankful).

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