Voters cast their ballots at Audelia Road Branch Library on the first day of early voting in Dallas on Oct. 13, 2020. Credit: Montinique Monroe for The Texas Tribune
Though delayed in their quest, Texas Republicans are close to passing sweeping legislation to further restrict the state’s voting process and narrow local control of elections.
The Republican majorities in the House and Senate are expected to soon sign off on the final version of Senate Bill 1 and send it to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature. They are setting new rules for voting by mail, boosting the role of partisan poll watchers and rolling back local initiatives meant to make it easier to vote — specifically those championed by Harris County that were disproportionately used by voters of color — while expanding access in more conservative, rural areas.
Compared to the spring’s regular legislative session, Republicans in both chambers have been more closely aligned in their approaches to the priority legislation, using as a blueprint the massive voting bill, then known as Senate Bill 7, that Democrats doomed in May when they staged an 11th-hour walkout to break quorum.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the most significant portions of the wide-ranging legislation expected to become law. It will go into effect three months after the special legislative session, kicking in before the 2022 primary elections.
The bill outlaws drive-thru voting, which several counties used in 2020 to allow voters to cast ballots from their car.
While other counties employed the voting method — and Harris County first tested it in a summer 2020 primary runoff election with little controversy — Harris County’s use of 10 drive-thru polling places for the November general election came under Republican scrutiny.
The county’s drive-thru polling places were mostly set up under large tents. Voters remained in their cars and showed a photo ID and verified their registration before filling out their ballots on portable voting machines. At the Toyota Center — home of the Houston Rockets — drive-thru voting was located in a garage. The option proved popular, with 1 in 10 in-person early voters in the county casting their ballots at drive-thru locations.
SB 1 restricts early voting to a newly established window of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., which would outlaw the 24 hours of uninterrupted voting Harris County offered at a few polling places for one day during the 2020 election.
The legislation also requires more counties to provide at least 12 hours of early voting each weekday of the second week of early voting in state elections. That’s currently required of counties with a population of 100,000 or more. SB 1 will lower that population threshold to 55,000, expanding hours in smaller, mostly Republican counties. The bill also adds an extra hour of required early voting hours for local elections, moving it from eight hours to nine.
As expected, the House and Senate both retreated from a controversial proposal to restrict the start time for Sunday early voting hours, which was derided as an attack on “souls to the polls” efforts focused on Black churchgoers. Instead, the Legislature will apply a new 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. window of voting and add an extra hour of required Sunday voting hours, increasing it from five hours to six.
It will become a state jail felony for local election officials to send unsolicited applications to request a mail-in ballot. That same punishment applies to officials who approve the use of public funds “to facilitate” the unsolicited distribution of applications by third-parties, which would keep counties from providing applications to local groups helping get out the vote. Political parties would still be able to send out unsolicited applications on their own dime.
The proposal is a direct response to Harris County’s attempt to proactively send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters last year with specific instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. The Texas Supreme Court ultimately blocked that effort, but other Texas counties sent applications to voters 65 and older without much scrutiny. Though those voters automatically qualify to vote by mail, mailing unrequested applications to them in the future would also be a crime.
The legislation further tightens rules for voting by mail by setting new ID requirements. Under SB 1, voters must provide their driver’s license number or, if they don’t have one, the last four digits of their Social Security number on applications for those ballots. They must also provide those numbers on the envelope used to return their completed ballot.
Those numbers must match the information contained in the individual’s voter record. The state currently uses a signature matching process to verify completed ballots.
Texas generally has strict rules outlining who can receive a paper ballot that can be filled out at home and returned in the mail or dropped off in person on Election Day. The option is limited to voters who are 65 and older, will be out of the county during the election, are confined in jail but otherwise still eligible or cite a disability or illness that keeps them from voting in person without needing help or without the risk of injuring their health.
Building on Democratic proposals, the bill creates a new process allowing voters to correct their mail-in ballots if they are at risk of being rejected for a technical error. Voters could make those corrections online through a new online ballot tracker that was previously approved by the Legislature. The legislation will also allow voters who make errors on the mail-in ballot application itself to make corrections.
The legislation includes language to strengthen the autonomy of partisan poll watchers at polling places by granting them “free movement” within a polling place, except for being present at a voting station when a voter is filling out their ballot. SB 1 would also make it a criminal offense to obstruct their view or distance the watcher “in a manner that would make observation not reasonably effective.”
Currently, poll watchers are entitled to sit or stand “conveniently near” election workers, and it is a criminal offense to prevent them from observing.
In changes pushed by Democrats, SB 1 requires training for poll watchers and allows for them to be removed from a polling place without warning if they violate the state Penal Code. A previous version of the bill only allowed them to be kicked out for violating the law or the election code after receiving one warning.
SB 1 sets up new monthly reviews of the state’s voter rolls to identify noncitizens — harkening back to the state’s botched 2019 voter rolls review. The bill will require the Texas secretary of state’s office to compare the massive statewide voter registration list with data from the Department of Public Safety to pinpoint individuals who told the department they were not citizens while obtaining or renewing their driver’s license or ID card after registering to vote.
The state’s 2019 review landed it in federal court over concerns it targeted naturalized citizens who were classified as “possible non-U.S citizens” and set up to receive notices from their local voter registrar demanding they prove their citizenship to keep their registrations safe.
The language in SB 1, which was revised from previous iterations, should match the legal settlement the state ultimately entered into to end that effort and settle three federal lawsuits by agreeing to rework their methodology. The state never restarted that work after that debacle but would be required to under SB 1.
The bill would establish new requirements — and possible criminal penalties — for those who assist voters who need help filling out their ballots, including voters with disabilities. The person assisting must fill out new paperwork disclosing their relationship to the voter. Assistants must also recite an expanded oath, now under the penalty of perjury, stating they did not “pressure or coerce” the voter into choosing them for assistance.
Lawmakers reworked the oath so that their assistance no longer explicitly includes answering the voter’s questions. Instead, they must pledge to limit their 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.”
Disclosure: The 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.