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Friday, July 09, 2021

Texas Republicans Reveal Bills of Far-Reaching Voting Restrictions In their second attempt to pass a sweeping elections overhaul, Republican lawmakers followed the broad outlines of the first, including a wide range of measures to limit voting access.

Texas Republicans Reveal Bills of Far-Reaching Voting Restrictions

“In their second attempt to pass a sweeping elections overhaul, Republican lawmakers followed the broad outlines of the first, including a wide range of measures to limit voting access.

Dade Phelan, the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives and a Republican, gaveled in the beginning of the Legislature’s special session in Austin on Thursday.
Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images

Republicans in the Texas Legislature on Thursday fully unveiled their plans to overhaul the state’s election apparatus, outlining a raft of proposed new restrictions on voting access that would be among the most far-reaching election laws passed this year.

The G.O.P. bills in the State Senate and State House, which will be debated in the coming days during the Legislature’s special session, largely resemble those from the Republicans’ initial attempt to pass a sweeping voting bill, which failed in the last legislative session after Democrats staged a late-night walkout.

Among many new changes and restrictions to the state’s electoral process, both bills would ban 24-hour voting and drive-through voting; prohibit election officials from proactively sending out absentee ballots to voters who have not requested them; add new voter identification requirements for voting by mail; limit third-party ballot collection; increase the criminal penalties for election workers who run afoul of regulations; limit what assistance can be provided to voters; and greatly expand the authority and autonomy of partisan poll watchers.

But the new bills do not include two of the most contentious provisions from the previous iteration. There is no longer a limitation on Sunday voting (it can now begin at 9 a.m.) and there is no provision making it easier to overturn an election.

New voting laws are at the top of a lengthy wish list of conservative legislative goals that Gov. Greg Abbott laid out in a proclamation on Wednesday establishing the special session.

In addition to voting, Mr. Abbott called for new bills to combat perceived “censorship” on social media platforms; ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools; further limit abortions; put in place new border security policies; and restrict transgender athletes from competing in school sports.

After seeking to accomplish all of that in 30 days, the Legislature will convene for another special session this fall to tackle redistricting, which will set up yet another acrimonious partisan fight.

The two Texas voting bills came on the same day that the White House announced a broader organizing effort to counter the Republican push to enact new state voting laws. In a speech at Howard University in Washington, Vice President Kamala Harris announced that the Democratic National Committee would be spending an additional $25 million on organizing and registration efforts.

“We have never really started this early before, but folks, it is never too early to defend your rights,” Ms. Harris said. “So with these new laws that have been passed or they’re trying to pass, we have to start now to finish strong.”

So far this year, Democrats have been unable to halt Republican state legislatures from passing new laws, and have failed to force through new federal voting legislation in Congress or successfully challenge any of the new G.O.P. laws in court.

The Texas bills are the first new pieces of voting legislation to be introduced by a state legislature since the Supreme Court’s decision last week to uphold voting restrictions in Arizona, a ruling that gave states greater latitude to enact voting limits.

Texas follows several other major battleground states controlled by Republicans that have passed substantial overhauls of their election laws and enacted new voting restrictions this year. Since January, at least 22 bills to make voting more difficult have been signed into law in 14 states.

After the unsuccessful attempt to pass the legislation during the spring session, Republican leaders in the Legislature have signaled an accelerated schedule for the voting bills in the special session. Both the House and the Senate have scheduled committee hearings for Saturday.

Though the special session of the Legislature will take place in a condensed 30-day period, the legislative process remains the same, with the bills needing to wind their way through each chamber in the hopes that one of the two can be agreed upon. If neither chamber can agree on a bill, then it is likely to go to a conference committee, where the final details of the legislation would be hashed out behind closed doors by a select panel of lawmakers.

In a possible attempt to appease some Democrats, the House bill includes two provisions that are liberal priorities: one for curing rejected absentee ballots and another that would make it no longer a crime to file a provisional ballot from a voter who was unknowingly ineligible to vote (known as the Crystal Mason provision, after a Texas voter who was sentenced to five years in prison for voting provisionally in 2016 when she was on supervised release for a federal conviction). The Senate version also includes a curing provision.

Nonetheless, the bills were swiftly denounced by Democrats, civil rights groups and voting rights advocates.

“There’s no doubt this is going to be a voter suppression session,” said Sarah Labowitz, the policy and advocacy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

The defiant tone continued on the sun-baked steps of the Capitol, where roughly 20 of the 67 Democrats in the Texas House joined voting rights advocates at a rally organized by Black Voters Matter, the Texas Right to Vote Coalition, the Texas for All Coalition and allied groups.

The Battle Over Voting Rights

After former President Donald J. Trump returned in recent months to making false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, Republican lawmakers in many states have marched ahead to pass laws making it harder to vote and change how elections are run, frustrating Democrats and even some election officials in their own party.

    • A Key Topic: The rules and procedures of elections have become central issues in American politics. As of May 14, lawmakers had passed 22 new laws in 14 states to make the process of voting more difficult, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute.
    • The Basic Measures: The restrictions vary by state but can include limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, adding identification requirements for voters requesting absentee ballots, and doing away with local laws that allow automatic registration for absentee voting.
    • More Extreme Measures: Some measures go beyond altering how one votes, including tweaking Electoral College and judicial election rules, clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives, and outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections.
    • Pushback: This Republican effort has led Democrats in Congress to find a way to pass federal voting laws. A sweeping voting rights bill passed the House in March, but faces difficult obstacles in the Senate, including from Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia. Republicans have remained united against the proposal and even if the bill became law, it would most likely face steep legal challenges.
    • Florida: Measures here include limiting the use of drop boxes, adding more identification requirements for absentee ballots, requiring voters to request an absentee ballot for each election, limiting who could collect and drop off ballots, and further empowering partisan observers during the ballot-counting process.
    • Texas: Texas Democrats successfully blocked the state’s expansive voting bill, known as S.B. 7, in a late-night walkout and are starting a major statewide registration program focused on racially diverse communities. But Republicans in the state have pledged to return in a special session and pass a similar voting bill. S.B. 7 included new restrictions on absentee voting; granted broad new autonomy and authority to partisan poll watchers; escalated punishments for mistakes or offenses by election officials; and banned both drive-through voting and 24-hour voting.
    • Other States: Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill that would limit the distribution of mail ballots. The bill, which includes removing voters from the state’s Permanent Early Voting List if they do not cast a ballot at least once every two years, may be only the first in a series of voting restrictions to be enacted there. Georgia Republicans in March enacted far-reaching new voting laws that limit ballot drop-boxes and make the distribution of water within certain boundaries of a polling station a misdemeanor. And Iowa has imposed new limits, including reducing the period for early voting and in-person voting hours on Election Day.

LaTosha Brown, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter co-founder kicked off the rally by describing the state as a central battlefield in the national struggle for voting rights. “Texas, we’re coming y’all,” she declared.

Republicans and their allies defended the bills, known as S.B. 1 in the State Senate and H.B. 3 in the State House, saying that they were necessary to shore up election security and falsely arguing that they did not include any new restrictions.

“In Texas elections, we want to make sure it is easy to vote and hard to cheat,” State Senator Bryan Hughes, a Republican from East Texas who wrote the Senate version, said in a statement on Thursday. “Senate Bill 1 does just that by making sure Texans can cast their votes with confidence that they’ll be counted and the results will be reported accurately.”

Mr. Hughes added that “Texans do not back down from a fight or flee from responsibility.”

Other Republican-aligned groups attacked the Democratic criticisms.

“There is going to be a lot of hyperbole, a lot of rhetoric, the same type of stuff that we heard before, that the provisions of this piece of legislation are restrictive, are trying to make it harder to vote in Texas,” said Jason Snead, the director of the Honest Elections Project, a conservative voting group. “If you look at the actual bill text, you get a very different picture of what you’re seeing, and that the policies are far more mundane and mainstream.”

Mr. Snead noted that the bills add an extra hour of mandatory early voting during weekdays, stretching from eight hours to nine hours for counties that hold early in-person voting before the final week of an election cycle.

Democrats, however, may again try to either break quorum or find another legislative maneuver to block a Republican voting bill from passing.

“Every option is on the table,” State Representative Armando Walle, a Democrat from Houston, said at a news conference on Thursday morning.

He declined to give examples.

David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin, Texas.“

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