Chris Hollins

Georgia’s recently enacted “voter suppression” law has opened the door for Republican-led states across the country to attempt to pass similar laws. The Defender caught up with former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, whose leadership during the 2020 presidential election facilitated record-breaking voter turnout, to get his take on Texas’ 2021 version of Jim Crow voter suppression legislation in the form of Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 6.

DEFENDER: With the passing of Georgia’s recent law, which some are calling a voter suppression law, and attempts to pass similar legislation here in the Texas Legislature, we wanted to get your initial thoughts on Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 6. What were your first thoughts when you heard about this legislation?

CHRIS HOLLINS: Well, voter suppression is exactly what it is. This voter suppression is the definition of what these bills are. The entire intention of House Bill 6 and Senate Bill 7, and numerous other bills that are flowing through the state legislature here in Texas right now, they are meant to reduce the number of people who are ultimately going to be able to make it out to cast their ballot and to make their voices heard in our democracy. And they’re focused specifically on reducing the number of people of color, Black and Brown people, and young people who were able to vote by trying to make it that much more difficult; trying to take away the services that are critical for those populations and to ultimately reduce access and to make it harder to vote more broadly in Metro areas like Harris County and the Houston area.

And why are they doing that? Well, they look at the census. They look at numbers about who lives here in Houston and Harris County. And they say, “Okay, there’s more Black and Brown people there, a younger population. It tends to skew a little bit more progressive or democratic or however you want to describe that. So, if we disenfranchise all those people, even if we disenfranchise some Republicans in the process, we’ll disenfranchise more Democrats, and that’s a good thing.” And that’s a terrible way to view our democracy. It should be unacceptable in a place like the United States of America, but that’s the tactics that they’re taking and that’s what we have to stand up against.

DEFENDER: What are some of the very specific things that these bills are proposing to make voting more difficult?

CHRIS HOLLINS: Just to take us back to 2020, we did everything that we could here in Harris County to make sure that voting was accessible and that it was safe and that it was fair, that it was efficient. And that was an unmitigated success. Nearly 1.7 million people came out to cast their ballots, and did so securely. And in fact, our Texas Secretary of State, as well as the United States Department of Homeland Security, have said that this was a safe and secure election. In fact, the most secure in the history of the United States. But so many of those things that we did to ensure those outcomes here in Harris County would now be impossible or illegal because of these laws. And I’ll give you some examples. You know, we had really large voting centers, like the Toyota Center, and we had neighborhood voting centers like those in city libraries. Those voting centers would not be allowed in the future. According to these laws, they would force us to standardize the size of a voting centers so that you couldn’t have really large ones or really small ones.

And so, we tripled the number of voting centers and that’s why it was so much easier to find one near your house, near your place of business or your child’s school. And it was so much easier to get in and get out. They would make that illegal. And so it would be much harder just to find a voting center. And when you got there, the line would be a lot longer. What else did we do? We put more voting machines in places where there was higher traffic, again, to make sure that you wouldn’t come and find a long line there, that you could get in and get out. That would be illegal.

Screenshot of Chris Hollins during an April 7, 2021 Zoom interview with the Defender Network.

Because our senior citizens were so susceptible to the coronavirus, we took an extra effort to inform those senior citizens about their rights to vote by mail. And we sent them applications that if they wanted to use them, they could use them. If they didn’t want to use them, that’s fine. They didn’t have to apply at all to vote by mail. That would be illegal. We wouldn’t be able to provide that kind of information to our senior citizens anymore. We expanded voting hours. We made sure that there were multiple nights where you can vote later into the evening. And there was even a night where we had 24 hours of voting, so, regardless of your situation, whether you were a doctor or a nurse in the medical center, whether you were a first-responder that clocks in at 5am, whether you were an electrician or a welder out at the Port of Houston, whether you were stocking shelves at grocery stores around town and getting off at 2 and 3 in the morning, we made sure that you could cast your ballot at a time that was convenient for you and your family. That would be illegal under this bill.

And then, of course, drive-thru voting. Drive-thru voting was extremely popular because of how safe and convenient that it was. Nearly one in 10 voters across Harris County utilized drive-thru voting, to vote in person. And the feedback was just phenomenal. People thought it was really great, really safe, really convenient. The number one question that we got was “Why didn’t we do this before? And can you promise, we’re going to have it again in the future?” Drive-thru voting, if these bills were to pass, would be illegal in the future. And the guise under which these laws are being passed, they say election integrity. They say they’re trying to prevent voter fraud. Well, I already mentioned that our Secretary of State here in Texas and national departments that were run by Donald Trump at the time, stated that this was the most secure election in history.

Hollins at work in 2020 in preparation of the Nov. 2020 presidential election.

So, there’s no problem of voter fraud in Texas or in Harris County, period. So, that reason makes no sense. We know that the real reason is to target Black and Brown communities. The other thing is that, my office in 2020, we cared deeply about security. So, in addition to the first time ever 24-hour voting, the first time ever having drive-thru voting, it was the first time that we had a multi-agency security task force in Harris County, focused around elections to make sure that you were physically safe when you went to vote, to make sure that there was no election fraud going on in Harris County. We had the Sheriff’s office. We had HPD. We had constables, the DAS, the County Attorney’s Office, all working together throughout the election season to make sure that your election in Harris County was secure. This bill would replace something like that, essentially with vigilantes. This would empower poll watchers to come in with cameras, to come in with firearms, to voting centers, and to be able to intimidate folks at voting centers in ways that certainly rival what took place during the Jim Crow era in the South. These bills are awful for so many reasons. And we have to do our part to fight against them.

Just to give you a statistic, in the United States, it is more likely, at least twice as likely, that you will be struck by lightning, then that you will be a victim of voter fraud in this country, period. And that is a fact. So again, this problem does not exist at any type of scale in this country, in this city, in this county, in this state. So, those claims are totally bogus and they’re based on the “Big Lie.” They’re based on Donald Trump’s claim that the election was somehow stolen from him, which we know to not be true, to not be factual. So, we can’t allow this bogus premise to stand. And we certainly can’t allow so many of these obvious negative effects of this law to come into play here in Texas.

DEFENDER: With that being said, what are your thoughts on the 253 pieces of legislation floating around in 43 states across the country that mirror the aims of the Georgia law and Texas’ SB7 and HB6?

CHRIS HOLLINS: I think there are about 47 States where they are now. However, only a handful of those have the trifecta where you have the governor’s office, the state senate, and the state legislature. Texas is among that handful. So, without the right sort of pressure, these laws can be passed through with little opposition. And that’s extremely discouraging. But that doesn’t mean we can give up. Whether it’s through your community of faith, whether it’s through your fraternity and sorority, whether it’s through the corporation or the business that you belong to, we have to all stand up as a community and fight for democracy. We need to have freedom in this country. And to have freedom, you have to have free and fair elections that are not in any way tainted by suppression, by keeping people away from exercising, their constitutional right to vote. But because this is a national problem, it needs a national solution. And that’s why we need HR1 which has been already passed through the U.S. House of Representatives at the national level and is waiting in the Senate, and HR4 which is more so known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Expansion Act. Those laws need to pass to protect us from this type of suppressive action taking place at the state level.