Renewed Texas GOP efforts to target voter fraud could be more ‘performance’ than substance

Two bills that have cleared the Texas Senate would increase penalties for illegal voting and allow party officials to trigger election audits in Texas counties.

By Jill Ament & Caroline CovingtonOctober 6, 2021 9:13 am,

In this third special legislative session, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is pushing for more improvements to so-called election integrity in Texas despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud. A new bill Abbott appears to favor would increase the state’s ability to audit election results. Abbott also signed Senate Bill 1 into law during the previous special session, which restricts some voting practices adopted during the pandemic.

Texas political expert Juan Carlos Huerta tells Texas Standard that some of Abbott’s critics argue he’s continuing to pursue election-related matters to appeal to former President Donald Trump and his supporters. Trump has called for an audit of Texas’ 2020 election results.

Listen to the interview with Huerta above or read the transcript below to learn more about how Abbott’s focus on election laws this special session may be more performative than substantive, and how redistricting might get in the way.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: Let’s talk about some of these renewed, so-called election integrity pushes that Gov. Abbott and other GOP lawmakers are initiating during this current special session. I thought they were supposed to be focusing on redistricting, right?

Juan Carlos Huerta: What we’ve seen is there was an item added to increase the penalty for illegal voting. I was reading about that the other day. Recall, they lowered the penalty in the last bill they passed, and now they’re trying to put it back. And the other thing, it’s not on the agenda, but the Senate’s taking action on it, is to respond to that – the pressure for having audits, election audits, particularly in the larger counties in the state of Texas. So apparently, it’ll be easier for party officials and candidates to request these very detailed audits of the elections.

The governor has already ordered audits in four Texas counties, including some of the biggest counties – Harris and Dallas. Is it known how far those audits have gone?

What I understand is that there’s limited authority to really call for an audit at the state level. And so what’s really happening is it’s more along routine procedures that are done after every election. So I think what’s happening here, the critics are saying, “Hey, that’s not enough. We need to have new legislation that gives the state leaders, just [give] more control of elections to state officials so they can instigate and direct these more detailed audits.” You know, really getting into looking at the ballots themselves and trying to analyze what was going on with this.

The governor and lieutenant governor are denying that these are direct responses to former President Donald Trump’s request. But many political science experts and Democrats are saying these are direct responses to what Trump is pushing. What does all of this say about how dependent Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick are on Donald Trump’s support when it comes to their own election battles?

What it seems to be is that it’s more along the lines of they don’t want his opposition. They’re both out for reelection, if they choose to run for reelection in the next upcoming election in 2022, and they don’t want to have him opposing their efforts and endorsing somebody else. And so they might look what happened to Brian Kemp, the governor of Georgia when he stood by the election officials and said, you know, there was nothing wrong with the election results from the 2020 election in Georgia. But then he received a lot of criticism from the president. I’m not sure, but I suspect that’s what they’re trying to avoid.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, doesn’t think that these measures are necessary. What’s he saying that contradicts what the governor and lieutenant governor have been pushing, and what are the dynamics there?

What I’ve read from the House and from the speaker is that the focus is on redistricting, and that’s where it needs to be. The effort to undo the change in the penalty for illegal voting: he also expressed criticism, activism, but he wasn’t supportive of that idea, so, [in other words] let’s just leave it the same. Now, the house is a different; it’s got a different dynamic in it. And so it’s not as dominated by social conservatives as the Senate is. He may be giving the sentiment, look, we don’t need to do this; let’s just move forward to redistricting. That’s the top priority.

What does that mean for these measures actually coming to fruition?

One thing you learn when you study politics is sometimes it’s more of the symbolic side of politics. So sometimes it’s the performative part of it. So, if we show, we’ll get effort that we’re trying to do this. Sometimes that’s enough. Oh well, we tried to get this stuff passed, but that darn House didn’t come along well. But if you made the effort at it, then you may shield yourself from criticism that you didn’t do anything. And then you can say, well, somebody else is the reason it didn’t pass. So that’s what it could be. I don’t know for sure, but that’s the one thing that we see happen in these political situations.

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