Pat Covarrubias stuffs mail-in ballot envelopes at the Bexar County Elections Department. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As a professor whose discipline is devoted to the understanding of government and politics, I regularly emphasize that civic engagement is at the heart of American democracy. And as a political scientist, I view it as my responsibility to prepare students to be effective citizens and political participants. I frequently share information and ideas aimed at increasing awareness about public issues.

This semester, I’m teaching a course on comparative democracy. While we focus on comparing and contrasting democratic systems throughout the world, we’ve also discussed the concept of the so-called “democratic recession,” a theory that posits authoritarianism is rising as democracy declines throughout the world — including within the United States.

As one might expect, my students have asked myriad questions and offered numerous comments regarding the state of democracy in the U.S. and Texas. Among the topics that have surfaced are efforts by Republicans across the country to restrict how and when voters can cast ballots and severely limit local control of elections in the aftermath of former President Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020.

The culmination of these efforts in Texas — a state that already significantly limits the ability to vote absentee — was Senate Bill 1, a law that places a number of new restrictions on who can vote and where, when and how they can vote.

The new vote-by-mail provisions require that voters provide a specific identification number — a driver’s license, a state ID, or partial social security number — in order to request an absentee ballot and again to return that ballot. Prior to the law’s enactment, voters didn’t have to provide either of these on an application. Some readers will ask, “Well what’s wrong with that?” What’s wrong is that the new voter law requires that the identification number that a voter uses when they vote by mail matches what’s on their voter registration record or their application will be rejected.

And that is exactly what is happening. Voter registrars across Texas are reporting that many people don’t remember which type of identification they used to register, in some cases, decades ago. The result: a growing number of mail-in ballots for the March primary are being rejected because they lack the newly required ID information.  

One of the most basic elements of what political science defines as a fair and open election is the ability of eligible voters to safely and easily access and submit a ballot. Texas’ highly restrictive vote-by-mail law has created a Hobbesian choice that compels the vast majority of Texans to vote in person. For those whose health is at risk by voting in person, the state has presented them with a no-win option in which they risk their life by voting in person or give up their right to vote. No voter should ever have to make this kind of decision. The goal should be to increase voting, not decrease it.  

It is ironic that Texas supposedly prides itself on innovation, efficiency and national leadership, yet codifies regressive and burdensome requirements via SB 1’s provisions for voting by mail. Many states — including some red ones — allow anyone to vote by mail. Some states even automatically send vote-by-mail applications to every registered voter. But as other states expanded voting by mail during the pandemic, Texas decided to take a counterintuitive approach and made it more difficult to vote by mail.

Rather than complicating the ability of Texans to register to vote and participate in an election, SB 1 could have addressed the state’s crying need to thoroughly modernize Texas’ antiquated voter registration and vote-by-mail systems. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

False claims about massive voter fraud drove efforts in the 2021 Legislature to craft election laws that hinder the ability of thousands of people with disabilities, newly naturalized citizens, veterans and seniors to vote. When only two people were prosecuted for voter fraud in Texas last year, SB 1 is a solution in search of a problem.  

Registering to vote, getting educated about issues and candidates, and casting a ballot are key elements of an engaged and participatory citizenry. Rather than constraining citizen engagement and local control of elections by limiting counties’ ability to expand voting options, Texas should be removing barriers to voting and encouraging greater electoral participation — particularly for marginalized voters.

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Jon Taylor

Jon Taylor is a professor of political science and chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at The University of Texas at San Antonio.