Where's the line between protecting against voter fraud, and voter suppression?

That's a front-burner question – and argument – in Congress and in most state legislatures this year – including Texas.

Gov. Greg Abbott went to Houston March 15, to announce he was declaring emergency status for Republican legislative proposals to protect "election integrity."

At a press conference in the Houston district office of Republican State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, Abbott said, "One way to do that is to reduce the potential for voter fraud in our elections."

Bettencourt's bills would clamp down on efforts like Harris County officials made in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, to expand early voting and mail-in ballot access, and have drive-thru voting.

Abbott said the proposed limitations would heighten election security in Texas.

"There's really one thing that all of us can and should agree upon, and that is we must have trust and confidence in our elections," Abbott said.

Legislators in Texas and most other states, and Congress, are being faced in 2021 with efforts to alter rules for voting. The same is happening at the federal level.

The changes proposed at the state levels -- at the behest of Republican officials like Abbott – are typically described as "election security" or "election integrity."

That means preventing those who are ineligible to vote from doing so.

Democrats, meanwhile, describe the restrictions as "voter suppression" –making it harder and less convenient, rather than easier and more accommodating, to exercise the right to vote that defines of a democracy.

"Whether it's the unauthorized expansion of mail-in ballots or the unauthorized expansion of drive-thru voting, we must pass laws to prevent election officials from jeopardizing the election process," Abbott said.

Harris County election administrators actually had planned in 2020 to send out applications to request a mail-in ballot, not the actual ballots.

Harris County officials quickly fired back at Republicans' proposals in their own press conference.

"These kinds of attempts to confuse, to intimidate, to suppress are a continuation of policies we've seen in this state since Reconstruction," said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

"It is a continuation as well of the big lie that's being peddled by some far-right elements that the election in 2020 was somehow not true and should be overturned," Hidalgo said.

Despite continuing contentions by former Republican President Donald Trump and many of his followers that his 2020 re-election bid was stolen by election fraud, on behalf of Democrat Joe Biden, election experts have said the election was the most secure in history.

Abbott, questioned during his press conference, had not charged there was fraudulent voting in Texas.

“I don’t know how many or if any elections in the state of Texas in 2020 were altered because of voter fraud,” Abbott told reporters.

“What I can tell you is this," Abbott said, "and that is, any voter fraud that takes place sows seeds of distrust in the election process.”

We'll see how that battle goes in Austin this spring. And don't be surprised if whatever happens gets tied up in courts for quite awhile.

Meanwhile, in Congress, Democrats in the House of Representative, which they narrowly control, have passed a voting rights, elections, and ethics bill that would do the opposite of what Abbott is seeking.

It is H.R. 1, meaning it is a very high priority for the Democrats in Congress. And it has several very bold proposals to make voting easier and more accessible, and to make elections and redistricting less subject to partisan control – and in general, attempt to forestall the Republican efforts to discourage Democratic-leaning minorities voters from going to the polls.

Its ambitious goals include:

- Requiring top state election officials – usually secretaries of state – to establish and keep up-to-date an automatic voter registration system, that gathers information from other government databases and registers people to vote unless they opt out.

- Guaranteeing voters same-day registration at early voting sites or at precincts on election day.

- Establishing on-partisan redistricting commissions, not made up of office-holders, to combat partisan gerrymandering.

- Require Super PACs and "dark money" groups to disclose their donors publicly.

- Require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns.

A similar bill passed the House in 2019, but then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) refused to bring it to the Senate floor.

Current Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), with a 50-50 Democrat-Republican tie in the Senate, which gives Democrats control with tie-breaker Vice President Kamala Harris, has promised to end what he called McConnell's "legislative graveyard," and bring more bills to the Senate floor for a vote.

The bill is ambitious, and unlikely to pass. But Schumer hopes that just reaching the Senate floor will make Republicans sweat just for voting against it.

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