Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo at a virtual Commissioners Court meeting on May 11, 2021.

Harris County signaled it will sue the state of Texas if new Republican-backed restrictions on voting become law, after county commissioners voted 3-2 along party lines to pursue legal action Tuesday.

County Attorney Christian Menefee argued that the main bills, House Bill 6 and Senate Bill 7, specifically target Harris County voting practices and would discriminate against minority voters. 

SB 7, as passed by the Senate, would ban drive-through voting and 24-hour voting. The House version would bar election administrators from mailing vote-by-mail applications unless asked. Harris County attempted all of those things during the 2020 presidential election, saying it would make voting easier during the pandemic.

“We’ve seen initial modeling indicating that removing the extended hours voting options that Harris County leaders made available in 2020 would disproportionality impact Black and brown residents in our county,” Menefee said. “And early indications are that these bills would decrease the number of polling machines at polling sites in minority neighborhoods.”

Menefee cited lawsuits that had already been filed in Florida and Georgia to combat voting restrictions passed by those states’ legislatures.

State Rep. Briscoe Cain is the author of HB 6 and the House’s substitute version of SB 7. Both bills include language that state the purpose of the legislation is to “punish fraud and preserve the purity of the ballot box.”

During the House floor debate over Cain’s substitute version of SB 7, state Rep. Rafael Anchia asked Cain whether he was aware that the term “purity of the ballot box” had been historically used as a justification to disenfranchise minority voters. Cain claimed not to be familiar with that usage.

But whether or not the language of the bill purposefully singles out one group of people is immaterial, according to Menafee: Voting laws that appear race neutral can still be discriminatory.

“One of the things I’ve heard defenders of these bills, judge, argue is that the bills are not discriminatory because they do not explicitly target African Americans or Hispanic people,” Menefee said. “Well, Rep. Cain’s ‘purity at the ballot box’ language aside, that’s an antiquated way of assessing whether voting laws are discriminatory.”

Texas is among the most difficult places to vote in the nation, experts say. The state has reduced the number of polling locations, and set a 30-day deadline for in-person voter registration. In addition to targeting reforms put in place or attempted by Harris County last year, HB 6 would also offer protections for partisan poll watchers that critics say invite voter intimidation.

Major corporations have called on legislators to kill the bills, and voting rights groups have condemned the legislation as voter suppression.

In the Houston area, Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo have pulled out of events sponsored by the Greater Houston Partnership over the commerce chamber’s silence on the bills. The partnership later released a statement broadly condemning voter suppression, but did not mention the GOP-backed bills in the legislature.

During discussion of the motion at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, Republican Commissioner Tom Ramsey appeared to confuse the language of the bills with one that has already been law for several years: a requirement that voters provide a state-sanctioned photo ID before casting a ballot.

He also pointed to a number of amendments to the legislation — most offered by Democrats — that he said should ease concerns.

“I just think there’s probably merit in some level of security,” Ramsey said.

He and Republican Commissioner Jack Cagle both voted no on the motion.

In sealing the 3-2 vote, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo seemed to acknowledge that the effort to stop the election bills would be decided in the courts, not the legislature.

“It’s not over,” Hidalgo said. “The fight’s not over now, even.”