Word of aggressive poll watchers emboldened by new Republican voting bills will spread like “bad chisme” and intimidate Black and Latino voters in Texas, a San Antonio legislator told members of Congress in a voting rights hearing Thursday.

State Rep. Diego Bernal, one of seven Texas Democratic House members from Bexar County who joined dozens of their colleagues in Washington, D.C. to block the bills pending in the Texas Legislature, spoke at a Thursday hearing to a subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. The event gave Texas Democrats one of their biggest platforms thus far to raise alarms about the Texas GOP voting bills, SB1 and HB3.

Bernal, a lawyer and former District 1 councilman, was the only San Antonio state legislator to testify. He described several concerning measures within the bills; one that would require a pen-and-ink signature on mail ballot applications, “something that many people with disabilities cannot produce.” Another would make it a crime for someone to encourage a voter to choose them to help fill out the voter’s ballot.

“I think that the details matter,” Bernal said, adding that “we have not had a substantive debate at large about the bill. … In the state House, we tried to have it, but we were ignored completely.”

Bernal called voter fraud “a phantom wrong” in Texas, where the Attorney General has successfully prosecuted 155 people for election fraud since 2005, out of tens of millions of votes cast. Those figures don’t include cases brought by local or federal prosecutors.

“The odds of being struck by lightning or a meteor are greater than voter fraud occurring in Texas,” Bernal said.

‘Zero tolerance’ for election fraud

State Rep. Travis Clardy, an East Texas Republican who also testified at the committee, looked at the same figures and drew a different conclusion.

“The difference is there’s nothing we can do to stop lightning strikes,” Clardy said. “We can stop election fraud. We need to have zero tolerance for election fraud in this country.”

The Texas bills are part of a wave GOP-led election reforms around the U.S. that followed former President Donald Trump’s lie that he won the 2020 election. Texas Democrats left Austin earlier this month in a last-ditch effort to block the bills, using the time to urge for Congressional action. But federal voting rights legislation is stalled in the U.S. Senate, where Republicans have used the 60-vote supermajority rule to block the For the People Act, which the U.S. House passed in March.

The Senate could change its rules to allow bills to pass with only 51 votes, but doing would require the cooperation of U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona). Both have said they oppose changing rules that require 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.

On Wednesday, Manchin met with Senate Democratic leaders to discuss limited voting legislation he might be willing to support. The compromise could look similar to a memo Manchin released in June proposing automatic voter registration, at least 15 days of early voting, and banning partisan gerrymandering, among other changes.

Texas House Democrats are working to build more support in Washington for reforms that would neutralize the bills. On Thursday, members met with voting rights activist and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams, as well as former President Bill Clinton and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Texas Republicans, meanwhile, have said they will tweak controversial language in the state bills that election officials say could disenfranchise as many as 1.9 million Texas residents, if they attempt to vote by mail. Voters would have to correctly guess whether they originally registered to vote using their driver’s license or Social Security number when applying for a mail-in ballot.

At the hearing Thursday, U.S. Rep. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper) said he had received confirmation from Texas House members that the language would be changed.

“They are aware of it,” Fallon told Bernal and other Texas Democrats. “They’re saying they discussed it with y’all, and they are going to cure it via an amendment. So we spent a lot of time on something that’s going to get fixed.”

‘Struggling with the past’

In the committee hearing Thursday, discussion often swirled around a central question: Is racist voter suppression in Texas a thing of the past?

The question came up most often during exchanges with State Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston), 82, who has served in the Texas House since 1972. Since the GOP voting bills’ introductions, Thompson has described them as a continuation of historical efforts to suppress Black and Latino votes in the South.

“I’m hoping that during my lifetime, that I don’t have to keep struggling with the past,” Thompson said.

Some Republicans on the committee decried the poll tax and similar treatment Thompson experienced as a Black woman at the ballot box in the 1960s. Fallon called historical efforts to suppress the Black vote “horrific” and “a stain on our great country.”

“Those were awful, but let’s address the matter at hand today, which is the bill that you all broke quorum not to vote for,” Fallon said, describing them as “not voter suppression, but voter integrity.”

His remarks were in sharp contrast with those from U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), who told Thompson the provisions in the Texas voting bills “sound an awful lot like the Jim Crow that you grew up in.”

“Based on your lived experience, would you say that these proposed voting laws are remnants of Jim Crow?” Ocasio-Cortez said. “I shouldn’t even say ‘remnants.’ Revival?”

“Absolutely,” Thompson said. “Jim Crow 3.0.”

Later came an exchange between Thompson and U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds, a 42-year-old Black Republican from southwest Florida first elected to Congress in November. Thompson had spoken earlier at the hearing about white poll watchers behaving in intimidating ways in majority-Black precincts in Houston.

“Is there anything in the Texas law … that would stop somebody from being able to file a complaint if they felt some form of intimidation from a poll watcher?” Donalds asked Thompson.

“Congressman, you are Black like me, how many Black people do you think are going to be intimidated to go file a complaint against some white person in the South?” Thompson replied.

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the San Antonio Report's environment and energy reporter.