Politics & Government

State Rep. Rafael Anchía Went Viral With a History Lesson About Voting Rights

Dallas' elected legislators played a big role in getting changes made to the Republican-led plan to introduce new voting restrictions.

It’s rare that a history lesson goes viral. But state Rep. Rafael Anchía (D-Dallas) managed just that in a clip recorded last week on the floor of the Texas Legislature, where lawmakers were debating a bill that would introduce new voting restrictions to the state.

Anchía, who’s already done some high-quality grilling this legislative session, was questioning Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park), the author of the bill, about its inclusion of the phrase “purity of the ballot box,” language that had previously been used after the Civil War and again during the Jim Crow era to discriminate against Black voters.

“Are you aware that references to purity of the ballot box used throughout this country’s history has been a justification for states to disenfranchise groups they deem unfit to vote or somehow lacking?” Anchía asked.

He was not, Cain said, somewhat sheepishly. It was uncomfortable. The phrase was removed from the bill.

“This is not just old-timey history,” Anchía said in a phone interview this week. “It’s contemporary history as well. Last decade alone there were multiple findings of intentional [voter] discrimination against the legislature from three federal courts.” (This is true, although higher courts have upheld Texas’ controversial political maps and voter ID laws.) “What I wanted to emphasize in my questioning of the bill author was that there has been a continuous effort to try to roll back voting rights at different points in Texas history, and we’re experiencing one of those especially provocative points in time.”

Democratic lawmakers did soften the bill to the point that the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board wrote that it now “accomplishes some of what Republicans claim to be their core mission — protecting election integrity. At this point, the worst thing about the bill the House passed last week is that it was ever filed at all. Indeed, if Republicans had introduced the current version from the get-go, Texas might have avoided some of the polarizing debate over voter rights, the shrill accusations of suppression and the allusions to ‘Jim Crow 2.0.’”

Legislators from Dallas are in large part responsible for those changes. State representatives Jessica Gonzalez (D-Dallas) and Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie) joined Anchía in piling on the seemingly unprepared Cain, and Rep. John Turner (D-Dallas) initiated the parliamentary wrangling that got more than a dozen amendments added before the voting bill with the best chances of becoming law went back to the Senate. The Chronicle’s editorial board described it as an extremely rare instance of a “a compromise voting bill that didn’t reek of discrimination.”

Anchía wouldn’t go that far. “It’s chipping away at a bad bill, but it’s still a bad bill,” he says. The bill no longer contains provisions that would, for example, require big counties to move polling places out of areas that tend to have more Black and Latino residents, or that would end extended polling hours and drive-through voting. It does, however, prohibit counties from sending unrequested vote-by-mail applications, and the bill will continue to be reworked in the Senate.

“We’ll see what the ultimate version looks like,” Anchía says. “As it left the House, there were concerns about the ability of people to help elderly persons in their neighborhood go vote. If you’re helping your madrina and padrino—which, in Spanish, are your godmother and godfather, not blood relatives but family—to vote, and you advise them or encourage them, you have to swear an oath under penalty of perjury in a written document if you help them with their mail ballot.”

As with most things in Austin, the fight over this voting bill has broken down along partisan lines. Republicans in Texas and across the country say they are protecting election integrity; Democrats say this is based on the “Big Lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from former President Donald Trump, which is being used as an excuse to disenfranchise voters. (There has been no evidence of significant voter fraud in the 2020 election, which the Texas secretary of state has said was found to be “free, fair and secure.)

It’s also another case of Republican state lawmakers being at odds with the leaders of Texas’ biggest urban areas. Certain provisions of the bill seemed to be specifically targeted at stopping efforts Harris County took to increase voter turnout last year, and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat, is among those who have spoken about against the proposed new voter laws.

But voting access isn’t (or shouldn’t be, at least) a partisan issue. (As I wrote last week, there are plenty of Democrats in Dallas who seem uninterested in one of the most straightforward available means to increase voter turnout.) Coincidentally, Dallas’ nonpartisan City Council members are today grilling the county’s elections administrator over problems with this month’s City Council elections, in which several polling stations in South Dallas and elsewhere were reportedly down for hours on Election Day. (Council members were also discussing the costs of upcoming runoff elections, which would be defrayed if the city adopted ranked-choice voting, something that was mentioned during this morning’s meeting by Councilman Adam Bazaldua and proposed last week right here on this very blog.)

All of which is to say that many of Dallas’ elected leaders, both down in Austin and here at home, are right now focused on voting rights—or election integrity, if you prefer to frame it that way. This is not a new debate, as Anchía’s history lesson shows us. But this may be a unique moment in which we can make lasting changes to ensure all Dallas voters are given a voice in free, fair elections.

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