TEXAS, USA — U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, is taking heat this week for sending out campaign mailers containing unsolicited mail-in ballot applications to voters who are 65 and older.
Last year, Texas Republicans in the Legislature passed an elections law that banned local election officials from that very same practice under the banner of protecting election integrity. However, the law made an exception for candidates and political parties to continue the practice, which has long been a popular get-out-the-vote tactic typically employed by both parties, but especially by Republicans.
Democrats this week said Crenshaw’s mailer highlights hypocrisy in the new voting law and shows that Republicans who railed against vote-by-mail expansion efforts last year were only concerned about the ways it could benefit Democrats. Crenshaw’s mailer includes a prefilled mail-in application and instructions that tell the recipient to “simply sign, stamp, and mail” it and to “be sure to vote for Dan Crenshaw” when the ballot comes.
“The hypocrisy here is absurd,” said Chris Hollins, the former Harris County Clerk, who inspired the provision in the Texas legislation because of a hotly contested plan to send mail-in ballot applications to all of the county’s registered voters during the pandemic. “Voting by mail is a safe way that is utilized for people to exercise their right to vote. … We should be promoting the right to vote by mail for all those who are eligible, not making it illegal to inform voters of their right.”
The Texas voting law — which Republicans passed after Democrats walked out on bill negotiations twice — contains several measures that restrict the expansion of voting by mail, in addition to banning 24-hour early voting and drive-thru voting. The law, which went into effect last month, creates a state jail felony penalty for local election officials — but not politicians or other third parties in the voting process — who send applications for mail-in ballots to voters who don’t request them.
Justin Discigil, Crenshaw’s campaign spokesperson, said sending unsolicited applications is normal practice, and the campaign did it in 2020. Asked how Crenshaw’s support of mail-in voting for candidates squares with the new Texas law, Discigil distanced Crenshaw from the Texas Legislature.
“That was a state Legislature decision. …” Discigil said. “Dan did not write the bill.”
In a 2020 interview with The Texas Tribune, Crenshaw likened expansion of voting by mail to “playing with fire” and said that it could increase voter fraud, raising concerns about states such as Nevada that have more expanded mail-in ballot options than Texas.
Discigil said Crenshaw’s criticism of mail-in ballots applies to states other than Texas that provide insufficient safeguards for voter integrity. Crenshaw said during the interview that the mail-in ballot process in Texas — which requires identification and an application for the absentee option — was fine.
Crenshaw’s 2020 comments came at a time when Texas Republican leadership resisted expanding vote-by-mail eligibility during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people sought to vote through absentee and nontraditional methods more than normal.
State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, a co-sponsor of the GOP elections bill, defended the use of politicians sending applications for mail-in ballots despite making it illegal for local officials to do the same.
“It is my understanding that rural counties did not and do not have the resources to send out unsolicited applications,” Cain said. “That section helps bring equity and uniformity to our election laws.”
Cain did not respond to a follow-up question about whether the provision addressed voter fraud, which Republicans said the law would prevent during the debate over its passing. There has been no evidence nationwide or in Texas of widespread voter fraud.
The law’s restriction on sending unsolicited applications takes aim at an initiative spearheaded in 2020 by Hollins, whose plan to send mail-in ballot applications to all of the 2.4 million registered voters in his jurisdiction during the pandemic was stopped by the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court.
Hollins said he believes the law targets election officials — especially those in large cities — since they’ve increasingly invested in efforts to increase voter turnout, which favors Democrats in urban areas.
“They’ve done the math, and they’ve determined that in those larger cities and counties, the votes are less likely to go their way,” Hollins said. “Every single thing that they’re doing is not about American democracy.”
As Texas heads into primary election season, local election officials have rejected hundreds of mail-in ballot applications because the new law requires a state identification number, like a driver’s license or a partial Social Security number, on the form. These numbers must match information in the state voter registry, or the application can be rejected.
State Rep. Jessica González, a Democrat from Dallas and vice chair of the House Committee on Elections, also said Crenshaw’s use of the mailers was hypocritical, especially since he has supported former President Donald Trump, who falsely claimed that mail-in ballots were less secure than voting in person.
“This shows that they don’t want Democrats to vote,” González said, noting that allowing local elections officials to send mail-in ballot applications to registered voters doesn’t target one party over another. “They’re not basing that off of what political party you belong to. When you allow elected officials or candidates to do that, they only want to be able to target people from their party.”
González, one of the Democrats who fled to Washington, D.C., during this year’s Legislative sessions to block passage of the bill, said this provision of the new law particularly impacts Texans who have disabilities or may not otherwise know about their voting options.
This story comes from our KHOU 11 News partners at The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans - and engages with them - about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.