Tue, 05/25/2021 - 13:27

We sat down with Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee this week to ask him about the voter suppression bills being advanced in the Texas Legislature. Read about what he is doing to protect your voting rights and how your actions can bring awareness to this fight for our right to vote!

Christian Menefee

Menefee was elected in 2020. He is the first African-American — and the youngest individual — to hold the position of Harris County Attorney.

During his short time in office, Menefee has worked to protect our county’s residents, especially the most vulnerable. With a commitment to social justice and equity, Menefee is creating better lives for millions.


There has been a lot of press about Texas Senate Bill 7 and Texas House Bill 6 often referred to as voter suppression bills. Can you give us a general overview of these bills that may be made into law this legislative session?

Originally, you had SB 7 and HB 6. HB 6 kind of isn't a thing anymore because they accepted SB 7 as a substitute. They then made modifications, and it was passed as committee substitute SB 7 through the House.

The Senate had the opportunity to just accept all those amendments so that there would be one unified SB 7 that would go to the governor's desk. But they have already declined that offer. So, now they've convened a conference committee to step in and decide what the final version of SB 7 will look like. It'll then go to both bodies and be voted on — and no amendments can be offered. That bill will then go to the governor's desk.


What do you expect to see in these potential laws?

What I suspect you're going to see in SB 7 is a few things that were in the original version. First, it's all directly aimed at undermining the great work that Harris County and its diverse leadership — including then-County Clerk Chris Hollins, and County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Court — did to expand voter access during the pandemic. I imagine you're going to see a cut to drive thru voting, a blanket prohibition to drive thru voting, which is relatively inexplicable. But it's just something that the Republican Party has professed to hate. I think it's in part because Democrats were the ones who adopted it.

Second, it's going to eliminate extended-hour voting, which is this concept of allowing folks to vote past what is considered the normal working hours of a polling site. Previously, there was no restriction on doing that. Harris County and its leadership had one poll that was open for 24 hours, which is important to those who cannot leave in the middle of their workday and would’ve otherwise not been able to vote.

The voter suppression bills we are seeing are "all directly aimed at undermining the great work that Harris County and its diverse leadership — including then-County Clerk Chris Hollins, and County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Court — did to expand voter access during the pandemic.”

Third, it places these inexplicable restrictions on the number of polling machines that can be at any polling site. Originally, it had a provision that said that the number of machines at polling sites had to be uniform throughout the county. That has since changed to a formula that is calculated based on the number of votes you have for state representative in the previous election. It's just nonsense.

There are people who have been voting in the same place for decades — for example, in Fifth Ward, there are African Americans who have been voting at a specific polling place for generations and it's a rich tradition for them. So, if they choose to go to the polling site, but the number of machines at this site is limited for really no reason at all, it could cause lines, discourage people from participating in the process. And most importantly, it’s completely unnecessary if your goal is election integrity. What on earth does limiting the number of machines at each polling site have to do with it?

“It allows poll watchers to intrusively be close to people while they're entering the polling site and casting their ballot. It also allows poll watchers to record those individuals. This is the voter intimidation aspect of this bill.”

Fourth, and most importantly, it allows poll watchers to intrusively be close to people while they're entering the polling site and casting their ballot. It also allows poll watchers to record those individuals. This is the voter intimidation aspect of this bill.

Texas and the Jim Crow South have a long history of African Americans and other minorities being intimidated at polling sites by people who didn't want us to participate in the process, because they suspected that we weren't going to vote for the same people that they were going to vote for. This is the latest version of that history of voter intimidation.

That's my general overview of what I suspect you're going to see in SB 7 and the range of possibilities, but there are several other terrible bills out there we are keeping our eye on.


Why is your office taking action to stop these bills, and why do you feel it is important to launch these lawsuits?

When the voter suppression bills out of Georgia were passed — which were directly in response to two Democratic senators being elected and the state turning blue in the 2020 election — you immediately saw litigation from residents and advocacy groups challenging the legality of those bills and whether they violated the United States Constitution or whether they violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Then when the voter suppression laws in Florida were passed -- which was bizarre given that Governor Ron DeSantis had previously praised the election efforts in Florida in 2020 — you immediately saw litigation again from advocacy groups and from residents challenging the legality of those laws.

“...When residents and advocacy groups are standing up and fighting to have their voices heard, when they're challenging laws that are intended to keep certain people from the polls, it's important that the largest county in Texas be involved in that fight.”

Based on this pattern, we’re probably going to see litigation in Texas as well if SB 7 passes as it was presented when it came out of the Senate. This is why we went to Commissioners Court and asked for their authorization to be actively involved in any litigation that spawns out of the passage of any of these bills.

Now, the reason why it’s important is because when residents and advocacy groups are standing up and fighting to have their voices heard, when they're challenging laws that are intended to keep certain people from the polls, it's important that the largest county in Texas be involved in that fight.

The main way we're going to do that is by filing briefs in the case on behalf of Harris County — county the size of Colorado. We are the third most populous county in the country and why it's incredibly important that we are making the case for Harris County's perspective.

“Courts throughout this country, for decades, have held that laws that are race neutral on their face are still intended to discriminate.”

Supporters of the bills claim this isn’t voter suppression because it doesn't identify African Americans or Latinos in the bill. The problem with that interpretation is that's just not the proper way to determine whether a law violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Courts throughout this country, for decades, have held that laws that are race neutral on their face are still intended to discriminate. In my opinion, it’s a wildly disingenuous argument. It's almost as if they're saying, well, this can't be racist because it doesn't say Black people. But it is racist because there's a lot of covert ways you can do things.


We hear a lot about how these bills claim to be about “sensible election integrity," even though we know this is about voter suppression. That said, what would you consider a fair compromise, if there is one at this point?

I've talked with folks in the state legislature, in the state house, and those who have been involved in lobbying the legislators to amend the current versions of the bills to have some reasonable resolution. What I've heard from those individuals is that the version of SB 7 that came out of the House is much better than the version of SB 7 that came out of the Senate.

The Republicans control the governor's mansion, they control the Senate, they control the House, so best we can do is play defense. And from what I understand the committee substitute version of SB 7 that came out of the house is better for us. It would be a win for that to pass. It got rid of the prohibition against drive thru voting. It got rid of the prohibition against late night voting. It removed the restrictions on limiting the number of polling places, and it dramatically clawed back the access that poll watchers, often intimidators, have at polling places. That would be a solid resolution for us, given the fact we don't control any branch of government.

“This is just in furtherance of the big lie about election fraud.”

This is just in furtherance of the big lie about election fraud. There's a ton of evidence that there has not been any voter fraud anywhere meaningfully in the country, but certainly not in Texas in recent history. The Attorney General has successfully prosecuted just over 150 defendants for election offenses out of 90 million ballots cast since 2004. But here's an important one that you don't hear about as often. In 2016, nine judges on the Fifth Circuit Federal Appellate Court — which covers Texas and a few other states and is one of the most conservative appellate courts in the country — unanimously agreed that in-person voting has and this is a, quote, “little proven incidence of fraud.” This court included four Republican judges — three appointees of President George W. Bush, and one appointed by President Reagan. We're pushing this myth of a need for election integrity, a need to combat voter fraud through all these measures that inhibit people voting in person, and it's just not the case. It just doesn't exist.


It’s been your mission to fight corruption. In the short time that you've been in office, you've accomplished so many great things. Do you believe that there are corrupt influences within our state's legislature? And if so, do you feel it's something we can correct with a Republican-dominated legislature?

My answer to the first question is absolutely. It’s no surprise that we've seen these laws spawn throughout the country. In many instances, you have provisions that are wholly identical that are being passed through state governments in various states. “That coordination signals that there are greater forces at play.” But importantly, it's just part of a wider trend of this exact conduct.

“It’s no surprise that we've seen these laws spawn throughout the country. In many instances, you have provisions that are wholly identical that are being passed through state governments in various states. That coordination signals that there are greater forces at play.”

I just talked to you about what an appellate court that covers Texas said, but in 2015, there was an appellate court that covered a multitude of states, including North Carolina, and they were considering laws that were passed out of a Republican-majority government in that state, including voter ID laws, laws banning same-day registration and pre-registration, and laws limiting provisional voting. The court there said that those laws targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision. This is something that's going on throughout the country. There's coordination among Republican leaders throughout the country to inhibit our right to vote.

Can we fix these problems with a Republican-led state legislature? I would broadly say no. But more specifically, we certainly aren’t going to be able to fix these problems with the Republicans who are in this state government.

If you've seen the language that has come out of the bills that are offered by Sen. Betancourt, Sen. Creighton, Rep. Kane, it’s so obvious they are attempting to inhibit our right to vote. These folks have proven time and time again that they're not interested in being reasonable on these issues. They're interested in pandering to their base about election integrity because they believe that an election was stolen.

“There's coordination among Republican leaders throughout the country to inhibit our right to vote.”

They're not trying to reach a resolution; they're just trying to reach a solution that allows them to penetrate their base. They're making it pretty clear to us that they have no intention of doing anything other than stopping certain people who look a certain way who believe certain things from exercising their right to vote.


If the For the People’s Act is passed by Congress, how will that impact your lawsuits?

There are two laws right now that are being considered at the federal level one is HR 1 and the other is HR 4.

HR 1 is an incredibly comprehensive piece of voter rights legislation and is intended to stop states from passing these covert ways of attacking our voting rights and placing these restrictions on where, how, and when we can vote. That would be incredibly helpful for us here in Texas, if the timing of when the law passes is right. If HR 1 doesn't pass prior to the time our lawsuit is filed, then it probably won't have much of an impact on the latest round of bills.

“HR 1 is an incredibly comprehensive piece of voter rights legislation and is intended to stop states from passing these covert ways of attacking our voting rights and placing these restrictions on where, how, and when we can vote. That would be incredibly helpful for us here in Texas, if the timing of when the law passes is right.”

HR 4 is intended to restore the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act. This means that lawmakers from states that have historically penalized and tried to pass restrictive legislation on voting to prohibit minorities from voting would then have to get approval from the U.S. Attorney General’s Office.

Because there is this larger movement within the Republican Party to actively suppress our right to vote, it’s important that these bills get passed. There was a case in 2013 called Shelby County v. Holder, where Attorney General Eric Holder removed the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act. Prior to this case, there was a formula for states that had a history of restrictive voting legislation aimed at targeting minorities. Those states were required to hit a certain number within this formula to get preapproval from the Attorney General of the United States any time they passed a law that impacted a voting condition. In 2013, the conservative-majority Supreme Court gutted that provision, and what that means is now when laws like SB 7 go up, there’s no pre-approval required from the federal government. The first time there's any type of outside approval of that law is going to be in the court cases like the ones we’ve filed and that's why we will continue to file these lawsuits.


How can citizens help with this fight against voter suppression bills and this movement to restrict our right to vote?

Stay vocal.

One of the things that has been helpful in this fight is residents putting pressure on businesses to speak out against voter suppression legislation. We've seen major moves from companies making clear that they're not going to stand for a government and a jurisdiction where they bring a lot of capital and jobs to that economy. They are taking a stand against state government restricting people's rights to vote in an unreasonable way. Continue to stay vocal with the people you know in the business community, and especially stay vocal with your elected officials.

“Continue to stay vocal with the people you know in the business community, and especially stay vocal with your elected officials.”

Republicans try to spin this narrative as anybody who is against these laws is against election integrity. We all know that that is completely untrue. I am 100 percent in support of fair elections. In no way do I want an election to be unfair or to be subject to fraudulent activity.

The more people who say no, we believe in election integrity, but we also believe that these laws are overly restrictive. The more people who voice that opinion, the harder it'll be for elected officials at the state level to turn a blind eye to what's being done in these bills.

“The more people who say no, we believe in election integrity, but we also believe that these laws are overly restrictive. The more people who voice that opinion, the harder it'll be for elected officials at the state level to turn a blind eye to what's being done in these bills.”


Any final thoughts?

In addition to being incredibly frustrating, seeing this blatant attempt to restrict voting is sad. My family is from Texas. My grandfather paid a poll tax in Texas, and to see the latest resurgence of laws that are intended to keep certain people out of the democratic process is shameful.

“...It's incumbent upon leaders in all communities to stand up and say that they acknowledge there are ideological issues and partisan issues, but this is not that. This is about free and fair access to elections and we’re going to stand up and not allow this to happen.”

I think it's incumbent upon leaders in all communities to stand up and say that they acknowledge there are ideological issues and partisan issues, but this is not that. This is about free and fair access to elections and we’re going to stand up and not allow this to happen.

I'm committing to continue that fight, and I hope everybody reading this will as well.