MAY 30, 2021
The Republican-controlled Texas State Senate passed a bill early Sunday that would impose a raft of new voting restrictions in the state, moving a step closer to the expected full passage of what would be among the most far-reaching laws in Republicans’ nationwide drive to overhaul elections systems and limit voting.
The bill would tighten what are already some of the country’s strictest voting laws, and it would specifically target balloting methods that were employed for the first time last year by Harris County, home to Houston.
In addition to banning drive-through voting and 24-hour voting, which were used by nearly 140,000 voters in Harris County during the 2020 election, the bill would prohibit election officials from sending absentee ballots to all voters, regardless of whether they had requested them; ban using tents, garages, mobile units or any temporary structure as a polling location; further limit who could vote absentee; and add new identification requirements for voting by mail.
Partisan poll watchers would also have more access and autonomy under the bill’s provisions, and election officials could be more harshly punished if they make mistakes or otherwise run afoul of election codes and laws.
The bill, which was hashed out in a closed-door panel of lawmakers over the past week, was rushed to the State Senate floor late Saturday. In a legislative power play orchestrated by Republican lawmakers and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Senate moved to suspend rules that require a bill to be public for 24 hours before a final vote. The maneuver came just hours after a 112-page report comparing the bill with its previous iterations was delivered to senators, and it set debate for the bill to begin at 10 p.m. before voting would unfold.
Democrats immediately objected, denouncing the prospect of a dark-of-night vote on a measure that Senator Borris L. Miles, a Democrat from Houston, said people in his largely Black and Latino district called “Jim Crow 2.0.”
“They do ask me, every time I’m in the neighborhood, is this 2021 or is this 1961?” Senator Miles said on the Senate floor. “And why are we allowing people to roll back the hands of time?”
After hours of debate, the Senate passed the bill just after 6 a.m. on Sunday by an 18-to-13 vote.
The Texas House, which did not move to suspend the 24-hour rule, is likely to vote on the bill later Sunday. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who has said that an election overhaul is a priority, is widely expected to sign the legislation.
Texas is one of several Republican-led states — including Iowa, Georgia and Florida — that have moved since the 2020 presidential contest to pass new laws governing elections and restricting voting. The impetus is both Republicans’ desire to appease their base, much of which continues to believe former President Donald J. Trump’s lies about a stolen election, and the party’s worries about a changing electorate that could threaten the G.O.P.’s longtime grip on power in places like Texas, the second-biggest state in the country.
In a statement on Saturday, President Biden called the proposed law, along with similar measures in Georgia and Florida, “an assault on democracy” that disproportionately targeted “Black and Brown Americans.” He called on lawmakers to address the issue by passing Democratic voting bills that are pending in Congress.
“It’s wrong and un-American,” Mr. Biden said. “In the 21st century, we should be making it easier, not harder, for every eligible voter to vote.”
Republican state lawmakers have often cited voters’ worries about election fraud — fears stoked by Mr. Trump, other Republicans and the conservative media — to justify new voting restrictions, despite the fact that there has been no evidence of widespread fraud in recent American elections.
And in their election push, Republicans have powered past the objections of Democrats, voting rights groups and major corporations. Companies like American Airlines, Dell Technologies and Microsoft spoke out against the Texas legislation soon after the bill was introduced, but the pressure has been largely ineffective so far.
The final 67-page bill, known as S.B. 7, proved to be an amalgamation of two omnibus voting bills that had worked their way through the state’s Legislature. It included many of the provisions originally introduced by Republicans, but lawmakers dropped some of the most stringent ones, like a regulation on the allocation of voting machines that would have led to the closure of polling places in communities of color and a measure that would have permitted partisan poll watchers to record the voting process on video.
Still, the bill includes a provision that could make overturning an election easier. Texas election law had stated that reversing the results of an election because of fraud accusations required proving that illicit votes had actually resulted in a wrongful victory. If the bill passes, the number of fraudulent votes required to do so would simply need to be equal to the winning vote differential; it would not matter for whom the fraudulent votes had been cast.
Democrats and voting rights groups were quick to condemn the bill.
“S.B. 7 is a ruthless piece of legislation,” said Sarah Labowitz, the policy and advocacy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “It targets voters of color and voters with disabilities, in a state that’s already the most difficult place to vote in the country.”
But Republicans celebrated the proposed law and bristled at the criticism from Mr. Biden and others.
“As the White House and national Democrats work together to minimize election integrity, the Texas Legislature continues to fight for accessible and secure elections,” State Senator Bryan Hughes, one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a statement. “In Texas, we do not bend to headlines, corporate virtue signaling, or suppression of election integrity, even if it comes from the president of the United States.”
The bill took its final form after a contentious, months long debate; back-room negotiations; procedural errors by legislators; and extended, passionate debate by Democrats, who have tried to stall the bill’s passage through political and legislative maneuvers.
Voting rights groups have long pointed to Texas as one of the hardest states in the country for voters to cast ballots. One recent study by Northern Illinois University ranked Texas last in an index measuring the difficulty of voting. The report cited a host of factors, including Texas’ in-person voter registration deadline 30 days before Election Day, a drastic reduction of polling stations in some parts of the state, strict voter identification laws, a limited and onerous absentee voting process, and a lack of early voting options.
In the preamble to the new bill, the authors appear to pre-emptively defend the legislation from criticism, stating that “reforms to the election laws of this state made by this Act are not intended to impair the right of free suffrage guaranteed to the people of Texas by the United States and Texas Constitutions, but are enacted solely to prevent fraud in the electoral process and ensure that all legally cast ballots are counted.”
In March, Keith Ingram, the director of elections in the Texas secretary of state’s office, testified that last year’s election in the state had been “smooth and secure.” He added, “Texans can be justifiably proud of the hard work and creativity shown by local county elections officials.”
A day before the Texas bill emerged, a new report pointed to the vast sweep of Republicans’ nationwide effort to restrict voting.
As of May 14, lawmakers had passed 22 new laws in 14 states to make the process of voting more difficult, according to the report by the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute.
In last year’s election, while Republicans won Texas easily — Mr. Trump carried the state by more than 630,000 votes and the party maintained control of both chambers of the Legislature — turnout soared in cities and densely populated suburbs, which are growing increasingly Democratic. In Harris County, one of the biggest counties in the country, turnout jumped by nearly 10 percent.
Republicans’ initial version of the bill put those densely populated counties squarely in the cross hairs, seeking to ban measures put in place during the 2020 election that helped turnout hit record numbers. The initial bill banned drive-through voting, a new method used by 127,000 voters in Harris County, as well as 24-hour voting, which was held for a single day in the county and was used by roughly 10,000 voters.
While those provisions were left out of an earlier version of the bill as it made its way through the Legislature, they were reinstated in the final version of the bill, though the bill does allow for early voting to begin as early as 6 a.m. and continue until as late as 9 p.m. on weekdays. It also maintains at least two weekend days of early voting.
More than any other state, Texas has also gone to great lengths to grant more autonomy and authority to partisan poll watchers. The observers have been a cornerstone of American voting for years, viewed as a watchdog for election officials, but their role has grown increasingly contentious, especially in Texas. Republican poll watchers have been egged on in particular by Mr. Trump, who implored them to go to major cities across the country and hunt for nonexistent voter fraud.
Across Texas during the 2020 election, there was an increase in anecdotal complaints of aggressive poll watchers, often on the Republican side, harassing both voters of color and election officials.
The new bill would make it a crime to refuse to admit the observers to voting sites or to block their ability to fully watch the process. It says poll watchers must be able to “sit or stand [conveniently] near enough to see and hear the election officers.”
It would also make it easier for partisan poll watchers to successfully pursue legal action if they argue that they were wrongfully refused or obstructed.
In addition, the bill would limit who can vote absentee by mail in Texas, which does not have universal, no-excuse absentee voting. The bill states that those with a disability may vote absentee, but a voter with “an illness, injury or disability that does not prevent the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day” may not do so.
Amid the new restrictions are multiple provisions that provide greater transparency into election administration. Counties must now provide video surveillance of ballot-counting facilities, and they must eventually make those videos available to the public. Discussions with voting equipment vendors must also be available to the public.
During the debate before Sunday’s vote, Senator Royce West, a Democrat from Dallas, raised concerns that a provision barring voting before 1 p.m. on Sundays would limit “souls to the polls” organizing efforts that are popular with Black churches. Senator Hughes said that clause was intended to allow poll workers to go to church.
Senator West noted that a separate bill passed by the Legislature will allow the sale of beer and wine starting at 10 a.m., two hours earlier than current law permits.
“We’re going to be able to buy beer at 10 o’clock in the morning, but we can’t vote until one o’clock,” Senator West said.