The Texas law violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by restricting the ability of voters with disabilities to receive certain types of assistance at the polls, the department said. The state law also violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by requiring Texas election officials to reject absentee ballots based on minor paperwork errors that are “immaterial” to determining whether a voter is eligible to cast such a ballot.
Both provisions would unlawfully disenfranchise voters in what is already one of the nation’s most restrictive states, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said.
“Our democracy depends on the right of eligible voters to cast a ballot and to have that ballot counted,” Garland said in a news release announcing the lawsuit. “The Justice Department will continue to use all the authorities at its disposal to protect this fundamental pillar of our society.”
Texas’ Republican-majority legislature passed the voting restrictions in late August after months of wrangling and over opposition from Democratic legislators, voting rights groups and disability advocates. The law, which bans drive-thru voting access and imposes new restrictions on absentee ballots, made Texas one of 19 states that have passed at least 33 laws restricting voting rights this year.
The Justice Department took particular issue with the law’s provisions limiting the types of assistance voters can receive when filling out and returning ballots, which opponents of the legislation warned would make it harder for Texans with disabilities to vote.
Those provisions, Garland and the Justice Department argued, would also have a disproportionate effect on elderly voters and Texans with limited English proficiency ― two groups that, like people with disabilities, already often face significant barriers to voting.
“Prohibiting assistors from answering voters’ questions, responding to requests to clarify ballot translations, and confirming that voters with visual impairments have marked a ballot as intended will curtail fundamental voting rights without advancing any legitimate state interest,” the lawsuit said.
The law also implements new restrictions on mail-in voting, which is already heavily limited in Texas relative to other states. The law requires that voters provide either their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on both their application to vote by mail and on the ballot envelope used to cast their vote. The number must match the data in their voter file.
That, the Justice Department argued, risks disenfranchising voters based on minor paperwork errors, not on any concern related to their actual eligibility to cast ballots in a Texas election.
“Conditioning the right to cast a mail ballot on a voter’s ability to recall and recite the identification number provided on an application for voter registration months or years before will curtail fundamental voting rights without advancing any legitimate state interest,” the DOJ said in the lawsuit.
Texas Republicans, like GOP lawmakers in other states, have argued that the law they enacted in August is necessary to prevent fraud and protect the integrity of the state’s elections. But no widespread fraud occurred there during the 2020 election or any other recent contest, contrary to claims made by former President Donald Trump and many GOP lawmakers.
The Justice Department previously sued the state of Georgia over a similarly restrictive voting law Republicans enacted there, and it has reached settlements with other states and cities in voting rights lawsuits.
The Texas legislation was subject to numerous lawsuits alleging that it was unconstitutional and violated the Americans With Disabilities Act and other federal laws before Abbott even signed it on Sept. 7. In addition to its lawsuit, the Justice Department also filed a statement of interest in one of those suits to assert that the plaintiffs had the right to sue the state under the Voting Rights Act.
The Justice Department and its Civil Rights Division “are committed to protecting the fundamental right to vote for all Americans,” said Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. “Laws that impair eligible citizens’ access to the ballot box have no place in our democracy. Texas Senate Bill 1’s restrictions on voter assistance at the polls and on which absentee ballots cast by eligible voters can be accepted by election officials are unlawful and indefensible.”