Mayor Turner urges nation's mayors to take action on voting rights
Mayor Sylvester Turner gives remarks at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Jan. 19, 2022. In his comments, Turner called on Senators to pass voting rights legislation. Courtesy Photo/U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called on Congress to pass a pair of bills designed to protect voter rights during remarks in Washington, D.C Wednesday.

Turner advocated for both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, currently before the U.S. Senate. Lawmakers have been working on the bills just a short distance from where Turner made his remarks before the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

​”This is the moment, this is the time,” Turner said. “It’s a defining moment. Because when we go back home we at least want to be able to say, ‘we stood up for every single person within our respective cities.’”

Turner was one of 151 mayors around the country who signed and sent a letter to the Senate requesting the bills’ passage.

That’s unlikely to happen unless two breakaway Democrats — U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema — agree to change procedural rules that prevent a simple majority in the Senate to pass legislation. No Republicans are expected to vote for the bill, which would at best lead to a 50-50 split among senators, plus one Democratic vote from Vice President Kamala Harris.

Turner’s comments came a day after the Texas Secretary of State’s office confirmed to KUT in Austin that supply chain issues have made it more difficult and more expensive to get paper, leading to fewer registration forms for groups who help Texans register to vote.

The mayor called on the state to rectify the issue, which he said was “embarrassing” and “unacceptable.”

The Secretary of State’s announcement comes with less than two weeks left to register to vote for all primary elections in Texas, and has led voting rights groups and elections officials to push for the state to implement online voter registration.

On Wednesday, the Secretary of State’s office took to Twitter to encourage registration.

The office also got into a Twitter spat with the Travis County Clerk’s Office over its own criticism of the state’s new restrictive voting law.

Right now, the closest thing to online registration in Texas is for new voters to download a registration application and mail it in. Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria, who called the process “a little onerous,” said voters must make sure to print, fill out and send their applications well in advance in order to reach registrars by Jan. 31.

“We are making, in Harris County, every attempt possible to reach out to you by phone, by email, to talk to voters directly to figure out why there might be missing information or a mismatch to make sure that we can update and accept your application ahead of the deadlines,” she said.

The push for expanded voting access comes amid Texas’ recent push for tougher restrictions. Senate Bill 1, which went into effect on Dec. 2, banned certain types of voting, added a number of new voter restrictions, and created new criminal penalties for alleged voter fraud.

The law eliminated certain reforms made in Harris County, including 24-hour and drive-thru voting. It also created new identification requirements for mail-in ballot applications. Under the new law, applications must include either driver’s license or Social Security information.

That information must match the data on the previously submitted voting record, no matter when the person originally registered. Critics argue most people don’t remember which number they used when originally registering. The law also raises the penalty for illegal registration from a class B misdemeanor to a class A misdemeanor.

Counties across the state have seen an uptick in rejected applications since the law went into effect, turning away hundreds of forms.

State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston — who was part of the group of Texas House Democrats who broke quorum and were threatened with arrest this summer in an effort to block the law — told Houston Matters on Tuesday that he wants the law to be refined in order to address such issues.

But, he added, he doesn’t believe it will be.

“It’s giving a bogus reason to reject actual valid eligible registered voters from voting by mail,” he said.