Activists gather outside a Senate committee hearing on proposed election reforms at the Capitol on Saturday, July 10, 2021. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for the Texas Tribune

Hundreds of Texans line up to testify over GOP’s voting bill in the special legislative session

The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature is working rapidly in its second bid to pass new restrictions on voting, considering legislation in overlapping committee hearings that are expected to go late into the night.

Nearly 300 members of the public were signed up to testify on the legislation that makes up the GOP’s renewed effort to further tighten state voting rules. The House committee is expected to vote to advance its bill at the end of its hearing, putting the bill on a path to be voted on by the full chamber next week.

The legislation filed in each chamber is similar to the GOP priority voting bill from the spring regular legislative session that prompted Democrats’ to walk out and break quorum. That action effectively killed the bill, prompting Gov. Greg Abbott to call the special session that began Thursday. In Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3, Republicans have already dulled some of the edges of the legislation, dropping controversial provisions to restrict Sunday voting hours and to make it easier for judges to overturn elections.

The bills’ authors are still moving to ban drive-thru and 24-hour voting options, enhance access for partisan poll watchers and prohibit local election officials from proactively distributing applications to request mail-in ballots. Both bills also include language to further restrict the state’s voting-by-mail rules, including new ID requirements for absentee voters.

“You’ll notice that most of the security measures in Senate Bill 1 are not aimed at individual voters,” state Sen. Bryan Hughes, the Mineola Republican authoring the Senate legislation, said in presenting his bill. “By and large, individual voters are trying to vote. They’re trying to do the right thing. We want them to do that. The security measures in this bill, by and large, are directed at vote harvesters or folks who are trying to steal votes.”

Falling in line with the GOP’s nationwide response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread voting irregularities, Texas Republicans have pitched their voting bill as part of an effort to bolster the security of Texas elections — even though there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud and state officials described the 2020 election as “smooth and secure.”

But the proposals have been met with concerns from civil rights organizations and voting rights advocates who have argued that efforts geared toward improving security would instead complicate the voting process, particularly for marginalized voters. Significant portions of both bills focus on shutting down local expansion of voting options meant to make it easier to vote, like the drive-thru voting and overnight early voting hours used by Harris County in the 2020 general election. Local officials have said both initiatives proved particularly successful in reaching voters of color.

Upon questioning by Democrats, Keith Ingram — the top elections official for the Texas Secretary of State — told lawmakers he was not aware of evidence of fraud tied to voting that occurred overnight or as part of Harris County’s drive-thru efforts.

On Saturday, state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, questioned why the Legislature would prohibit options to increase voter access altogether instead of working to address the concerns Republicans may have about how they were implemented.

“Surely, we should be able to find ways to resolve those issues, especially if it’s a convenient model for people to be able to vote,” West said. “When we stand up and say, ‘We can’t fix it but we don’t even want to look at trying to fix it,’ I think it’s inconsistent with the intent of the bill.”

Hughes defended the ban by arguing it would not limit voter access because the state offers a long early voting period and that requiring voters to go into polling places to cast their ballots in person was “not a radical concept.”

As of nearly 7:30 p.m. Sunday, the House committee considering the legislation had not yet turned to public testimony.

The Senate committee, meanwhile, was still listening to the over 200 people who had signed up to testify on the legislation, including former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso. O’Rourke, who called the legislation “a solution in search of a problem,” told lawmakers there are more pressing matters facing the state and referenced a deadly winter storm earlier this year that has since prompted concerns about the reliability of the state’s electric grid.

“If you’re looking for something, more than 700 of our fellow Texans died because we couldn’t keep the power on in February,” he told the committee. “There are very real problems that require our attention and our focus, and [SB 1] just does not happen to be one of them.”

Debate over the election bills comes as Republicans at the Legislature push a number of other issues on Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session agenda — an 11-item priority list that appeals largely to conservative voters and includes legislation that did not pass when the Legislature convened earlier this year.

Democrats so far haven’t ruled out another quorum break to again block the election bill, with party members in both chambers saying all options remain on the table. Though House Republicans have changed some of their approach for the special session in an apparent effort to appease opponents, Democrats say the legislation is still flawed and insist they plan to fight the bill at every opportunity.

Senate Democrats have echoed those sentiments, though a number of them have rallied around a counter proposal to SB 61 filed by West. The legislation would allow for online and same-day voter registration and expand the early voting period, among other provisions.

West acknowledged during a Friday news conference that while the legislation likely won’t receive a hearing in the GOP-dominated Senate, he hopes Democrats and Republicans can “strike compromises to make certain that all people in the state of Texas are able to vote, that it’s transparent and that it’s secure.”

Disclosure: Texas Secretary of State 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.


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