I have a favor to ask of you few good women and men making your ways to the polls to vote in the City Council runoff elections. 

Thank the poll workers, not only for their service now but for the heroic work they did last Nov. 3 and the weeks leading up to it. It was amazing.

On that Election Day, Bexar County recorded 298 new COVID-19 infections, more than double the daily count of a month earlier, bringing the county’s total to 66,529. The county’s death toll stood at 1,260. It was a frightful, perilous time.

Elderly citizens, for whom the virus was most dangerous, made up the majority of volunteers at the polls. The county’s elections administrator, Jacquelyn Callanen, thought many would sit out the election. She put out a call for more paid volunteers, and San Antonio responded.

But few of the older veterans stayed home, so with grant money Callanen was able to hire new volunteers and speed up the voting process by having greeters at the door present voters with hand sanitizer and either latex gloves or a pencil for using the touchscreen voting machines.

The election staff and poll workers had some 12-hour days and an extra week of early voting after Gov. Greg Abbott, to his credit, extended early voting. 

The result was that in the middle of a world-shaking pandemic an election with a record turnout was run smoothly and securely, with few snafus and an insignificant number of credible allegations of fraud. This was an extraordinary feat accomplished by dedicated government workers and a phalanx of trained volunteers. 

These folks especially deserve our thanks at the moment. While they are handling the current election, their (and our) legislators appear ready to pass a bill based on the belief that our election officials are devious crooks determined to undermine our democracy by assisting in voting fraud.

The legislation, known as Senate Bill 7, outlaws the ways in which some counties made voting easier during the pandemic, especially in Houston’s Harris County, where drive-thru voting and a few nights of 24-hour voting were very popular. The new restrictions come despite no evidence that these practices led to voter fraud.

In other portions of the bill, errors by election workers could result in personal fines or even criminal charges. In addition, election workers could face criminal charges if they obstructed the view of partisan poll watchers. These poll watchers, appointed by candidates and usually given no training, would be free to roam the voting site and would be allowed to video interactions between poll workers providing assistance to people with language limitations or disabilities. Ordinary citizens and even election officials are prohibited from recording video in a polling place and would not be allowed to visually document poll watchers who were being obnoxious or even intimidating voters – behavior that has happened in the past. 

The legislation provides no sanctions for misbehaving poll watchers, apparently assuming partisan poll watchers are above suspicion, but not poll workers with a history of honest service.

In addition to this assault on the integrity of election workers, the legislation provides a formula that restricts local authorities in counties with a population greater than 1 million – which tend to vote Democrat – in the placement of polling places. 

This provision is presented as enforcing fairness, but all 13 of the Harris County legislative districts that would lose polling places under the bill have elected Democratic legislators, whereas nine of the 11 districts that would gain polling places are represented by Republicans, according to an analysis by the Texas Tribune. In total, Democratic House districts would lose 60 polling places to Republican districts.

These numbers could be changed somewhat by redistricting later this year. No similar analysis has been done of Bexar County but the Tribune reported that two GOP-held districts would be first and third in polling place gains countywide. 

In urban counties statewide, the Democratic districts, of course, tend to be heavily non-white. This provision is reminiscent of tactics to limit the franchise for minority voters before the 1964 Voting Rights Act put an end to it. 

The Legislature took one other action apparently related to the election. It effectively fired Secretary of State Ruth Ruggero Hughs. Having been appointed by Abbott in between legislative sessions, she required confirmation by the Senate in order to continue in office. But Sen. Dawn Buckingham (R-Lakeway), who chairs the Senate Nominations Committee, never called a hearing for Hughs, thus blocking a Senate vote and triggering Hughs’ resignation. 

Buckingham has refused to explain why she silently stuck a knife into Hughs’ back, which has encouraged speculation. That has made it fair in the current climate to wonder if it was because Hughs took appropriate credit for her part in the successful November election. Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) may not have helped her when, shortly before the election, he posted on Facebook that, based on a Zoom conversation with her, “We know firsthand the importance of election integrity and I’m confident that Secretary Hughs and her office are prepared to keep this a smooth and secure process for all Texans.”

That’s what Hughs did, but saying that out loud doesn’t support the concern for “election security” that is being used to justify the current legislation. (You would think it would be Democrats who would raise suspicions, given that Trump carried Texas and Republicans down ballot forcefully turned back what many polls indicated would be Democratic gains.)

For her part, Bexar County’s Callanen says Hughs was doing an excellent job.

“This woman made an attempt to know us,” Callanen said. “She came down here and stayed for a day. She went to the warehouse and asked staff how and what we did. She was so personable and wanted to learn, and we don’t get that a lot. It’s going to be a loss. She wanted to learn and did.”

Given the suspicions with which Republicans regard the state’s election officials, at least in the urban counties, such an endorsement would not have helped Hughs.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.