The lawmaker picked to oversee voting legislation in the Texas House helped former President Donald Trump try to overturn the election results in November. The member who will take the lead on redrawing state and congressional districts for the next decade was accused last time of trying to disenfranchise Latino voters.
On Thursday, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan announced his picks for committee chairs, coveted roles that will help decide what bills live and die this year in the state Legislature. Two of the selections, Rep. Briscoe Cain for the Elections Committee and Rep. Todd Hunter in the Redistricting Committee, are already raising concerns among voting rights advocates for their past political stances.
Cain, R-Deer Park, was one of several lawyers who volunteered for the Trump campaign’s failed effort to throw out the election results in Pennsylvania, traveling to Philadelphia and interviewing poll workers and watchers. He declined Thursday to say whether he believes the federal election results were legitimate, or that the Pennsylvania lawsuits were adequately vetted.
“For me, the process is what matters,” Cain told a local television news station in November. “This is not about ensuring that Trump wins; it’s about ensuring that we have a fair election, because I believe the people do not trust in their elections or the systems.”
Since then, the Houston-area lawmaker has filed three election-related bills in the House, two aimed at rooting out non-citizen voters and one proposing to increase criminal penalties on voters who list an incorrect home address.
Voting rights advocates say the efforts are veiled attempts to suppress turnout, especially within minority communities that are more likely to have limited access to primary forms of identification and resources to navigate the state’s already-complex voting process. Texas has among the most restrictive voting processes in the country.
“Texas already makes it harder to vote than any other state. Rep. Briscoe being put in charge of the Elections Committee is a clear signal that the politicians in charge intend to make it even harder,” Anthony Gutierrez, the head of Common Cause Texas, a non-partisan public-interest group, said in a statement. “We’ll be fighting to stop them at every step.”
In 2019, then-Texas Secretary of State David Whitley was forced to resign after his office attempted to purge tens of thousands of voters, few of whom were confirmed to be ineligible, and the Senate did not confirm his nomination. Under Cain’s proposed legislation, gathering data for similar purges would be required.
Cain, a third-term House member, served on the Elections Committee in 2019. This is his first committee chairmanship.
“I’m looking forward to getting input from Texans, members and policy experts in order to better gauge what needs to be done,” Cain said Thursday, adding, “Texans deserve to have trust and confidence in the process and outcome of our elections.”
A spokesman for Phelan said the speaker met with more than 140 members to discuss the House assignments and repeatedly stressed the need to work together and fairly.
“Speaker Phelan has full confidence that each chair will preside over their committees in an impartial manner befitting the gravity of these important positions.”
The appointment comes just days after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott made “election integrity” an emergency item this session, without saying what type of legislation he supports. Republicans have often raised voter fraud as a chief concern in crafting election laws, without evidence, including from the 2020 election.
A poll released this week by the University of Houston showed 83 percent Republicans in Texas believe there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, compared to 45 percent for the electorate overall.
As of Thursday, all of Cain’s Twitter activity before Dec. 21 appeared to have been scrubbed, including a widely shared post from November sent on his way to Philadelphia. Asked about the apparently deleted tweets, he said, “News to me.”
Debate within the Elections ommittee is likely to be especially intense this session. Serving alongside Cain as vice chair will be Rep. Jessica Gonzalez, D-Dallas, a second-term Democrat who worked as a voting rights lawyer for former President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012.
“I look forward to working with our partners in county government, as well as voter rights advocacy organizations, to protect and enhance the right to vote for every Texan,” Gonzalez said in a statement.
Hunter, an eleven-term Republican and civil litigation attorney from Corpus Christi, has previously served three times on the House redistricting committee. He was accused in a 2011 federal lawsuit of illegally gerrymandering the districts in and around Corpus Christi — HD32 and HD34 — to “undermine Latino voting strength.”
Staffers for Hunter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Federal judges ruled in 2017 that the state’s map drawers, and specifically Hunter, had diluted the vote of minority residents in violation of the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.
They “intentionally packed Hispanic voters into HD32 to minimize their number and influence in HD34 and protect Hunter,” the judges wrote. “There is also evidence that they targeted low-turnout minority areas for inclusion in HD34 and intentionally drew out potential Hispanic rivals (both Republican and Democrat), again to protect the Anglo incumbent.”
The ruling was eventually overturned by a 5-4 decision in the U.S. Supreme Court, with the court’s conservative majority saying broadly that there was not enough evidence to prove the discrimination had been intentional.
“The choice of Rep. Hunter as Chair of the House Redistricting Committee is everything wrong with our current Republican leadership and sends a clear signal that Republicans will attempt to draw maps that silence the voices of Black and Brown voters,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement.
Note: This story has been updated to reflect comments from House Speaker Phelan’s spokesman.