AUSTIN, Texas - Nancy Crowther needs an aide around the clock to help her with meals and other daily household tasks. Her personal attendant of three years lives with her in Austin.
Crowther, 63, would also like her attendant to help her cast a ballot in the primaries. Crowther has spinal muscular atrophy, a progressive neuromuscular disorder that makes it difficult for her to reach the touch screen at the polling booth. She also uses a wheelchair that limits her mobility around polling places.
But even though Crowther says she trusts her attendant to respect her voter privacy, Texans with disabilities — and attendants who get compensation for assisting a voter — could face criminal penalties under new voting legislation.
"We don’t want to jeopardize our attendants, but we want to be able to vote, but we need our attendants’ help, so we’re in a Catch-22," Crowther said. "It’s a bigger swath of the voting populace that will be scared off and what will happen is that people will not vote. But I’m not going to give in to that."
As polls opened up for early voting this week, disability advocates say they still do not have adequate guidance from the state about new voter assistance rules and worry that the lack of clarity on what constitutes a violation might dissuade people who provide assistance services from helping voters with disabilities.
Republicans enacted restrictions last year on the state’s voting process, including rules on how Texans can assist voters when casting ballots. Texans assisting other voters must now fill out paperwork disclosing their relationship, indicate whether compensation was provided and recite an expanded oath, now under the penalty of perjury, stating that they did not "pressure or coerce" the voter into choosing them for assistance.
Texans who offer or accept compensation for providing voter assistance would be in violation of the new rules, creating anxiety among those who assist people with disabilities as part of their job.
"There are voters with disabilities who use their personal aides or personal attendants to assist them in completing daily tasks, and voting is a daily task," said Molly Broadway, a voting rights training specialist at Disability Rights Texas, adding that she has already received calls from assistants afraid of incurring criminal charges for activities that are usually part of their duties. "It’s a very present, very real need that exists."
Texans who drive at least seven voters to the polls are also considered assistants and must comply with new rules on compensation. Broadway said she has heard concerns from nursing home employees who provide transportation to polling places.
The new legislation also limits any kind of voter assistance to "reading the ballot to the voter, directing the voter to read the ballot, marking the voter’s ballot, or directing the voter to mark the ballot." But voters with intellectual and developmental disabilities might need additional help, such as gestures or reminders about how they had intended to vote, to get through the process, Broadway said.
Broadway has instructed those providing assistance to sign the expanded oath, inform poll workers about the help they’re providing to the voter and reach out to county election offices and request additional accommodations when necessary.
If an assistant appears to be breaching the new rules, poll watchers have been instructed to inform their county’s election administration office. Upon reviewing the case, election administrators may reach out to authorities to investigate the case.
If there’s evidence that an assistant was paid for their services, Potter County elections administrator Melynn Huntley said she would need to refer the case to the attorney general.
"We gather screenshots or copies of the actual papers that may have been signed or not signed, and then we submit them to the appropriate enforcement authority," Huntley explained.
Brazoria County election director Lisa Mujica said her office has trained clerks around the new regulations for voter assistance. If an assistant appears to be violating the rules, clerks are instructed to step in and educate them about the limitations of their role.
But Chase Bearden, the deputy executive director at the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said that’s part of the problem: Inadequate state guidance has created confusion among voters and leaves the responsibility of determining what may constitute a violation to election workers.
"At the end of the day, we aren’t sure how this is going to play out," Bearden said. "We’re kind of in the dark and are hoping that most election workers will be fair and want to make sure that people get the assistance they need."
The Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, Disability Rights Texas and other disability rights groups have said they have received little guidance from the secretary of state, which oversees elections, about the steps voters with disabilities should take if they need assistance that conflicts with the regulations established in the new rules.
The secretary of state’s office did not immediately respond to The Texas Tribune’s request for comment.
Broadway, of Disability Rights Texas, said she has seen more hesitation among Texans to assist voters with disabilities at the polling station than in previous years.
"It’s really giving people second thoughts about whether they want to put themselves on the line of being seen as committing voter fraud," Broadway said.
Disability rights advocates also said they have already seen how other new rules have deterred folks from voting — particularly restrictions on voting by mail, which many voters with disabilities use. Already, counties are reporting that hundreds of mail-in ballots are being initially rejected because of new identification requirements under the new voting laws.
Turnout among voters with disabilities has increased in recent years, but disability rights advocates fear the new restrictions could undermine those gains.
Bob Kafka of Rev Up Texas, a grassroots organization focused on increasing participation among voters with disabilities, called the new restrictions chilling.
"In their ignorance of the fact that there is a disability vote, what they did will have a dramatic effect just by the nature of who uses mail-in ballot and who uses assistance," Kafka said.
More from The Texas Tribune
Disclosure: Coalition of Texans with Disabilities has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
2022 Texas Primary Election: What you need to know to vote
2022 Texas Governor election: Democratic, Republican candidate guide
2022 Texas Attorney General election: Democratic, Republican candidate guide