The bill — which would impose criminal penalties on election officials who send unsolicited mail-ballot applications and grant new powers to partisan poll watchers — passed 78 to 64 Friday afternoon in a final read, following a similar vote early Friday after hours of contentious debate.
The state Senate already passed a version of the bill and the two chambers now need to agree on final legislation that will go to the desk of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who on Thursday tweeted support for what he called “election integrity.”
The vote came a day after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a bill that imposed new hurdles to voting by mail and added new restrictions on ballot drop boxes in that state. Other GOP-led states including Georgia, Montana and Iowa have also implemented tighter rules around elections, and states such as Arizona, Michigan and Ohio are considering their own limits.
One after another, Texas Democratic lawmakers stood up to plead with their colleagues not to vote for the measure Friday, saying Republicans were fanning former president Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was tainted by fraud. Opponents of the bill noted that the state saw a minuscule number of voter fraud cases last year.
“You’re more likely to get struck by lightning, far more likely … than you are to find any case of serious voter fraud in Texas," said state Rep. Jon Rosenthal (D).
They also argued that the new rules could lead to voter intimidation and disproportionately curb the participation of minority voters, saying they would fight the measure in the courts if it becomes law.
“You have your vote, you have your majority,” state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D) said Friday. “But guess what? I look forward to seeing you in federal court.”
“Please do not delete any emails,” he added, declaring, “history’s on our side.”
Rep. Briscoe Cain (R), a main sponsor of the legislation, said it was not crafted in response to the 2020 election but as an effort to protect voters, arguing that the bill would not “punish people for making honest mistakes.”
Late Thursday night and into Friday morning, Democrats succeeded in passing amendments that softened some criminal penalties and would allow voters to fix errors after submitting absentee ballots, according to the Voting Rights Lab, a nonpartisan voting rights group.
But the final version would still severely curtail voting access, advocates said.
“Under cover of darkness, the Texas House just passed one of the worst anti-voting bills in the country,” Sarah Labowitz, policy and advocacy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said in a statement, adding that the bill “will target voters of color, voters with disabilities and the civil servants who run our elections.”
The final version of the bill that passed the House would subject caregivers and family members to potential criminal charges if they make paperwork errors while trying to help voters, according to the Voting Rights Lab. Community groups that help voters cast ballots could face felony charges — a measure that would harm the elderly, non-English speakers and those with disabilities who may need assistance, the group said.
In addition, election officials could face criminal charges for sending unsolicited mail-ballot applications to voters or for kicking out partisan poll watchers who become disruptive.
The bill takes aim at practices embraced last year by the largely Democratic Harris County, which sought to expand access to voting by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Texas Supreme Court halted the county’s efforts to send applications to all of the county’s voters. Harris County, which includes Houston, is home to almost 5 million people and has large Black and Latino populations.
“It is old Jim Crow dressed up in what our colleagues are calling election integrity,” state Rep. Jessica González (D) said during the debate Thursday.
One Republican lawmaker — Rep. Lyle Larson, a Republican from San Antonio who has argued that the GOP should seek to make voting easier — said the party was making a mistake by pursuing the legislation.
“Zero explanations on a number of amendments other than it is acceptable to the author at 2:52 am,” Larson tweeted. “Anyone that votes for this bill without reading and understanding the unintended consequences will have a tough time explaining why they voted for it.”
Further restrictions included in a version previously passed by the Senate — which sought to limit early-voting hours, among other changes — could return in the final legislation as lawmakers work to reconcile a final bill.
The debate in the House lasted through the night, with Democrats grilling their Republican colleagues about why the bill was needed after the state’s top election officials found no evidence of major fraud that would have changed election results.
“If it’s not broken, what are we trying to fix?” González asked Cain.
“We don’t need to wait for bad things to happen to try to secure our elections,” Cain replied.
Asked whether he or the attorney general’s office had analyzed how the proposed changes could affect minority voters, Cain said that he had not checked.
Cain maintained Thursday night that he did not support a voting “suppression” bill but rather a voting “enhancement” bill, insisting that the measure was designed to protect “all voters.”
But Rep. Chris Turner (D) emphasized that the Texas attorney general’s office found only 16 instances of fraud in the last election among more than 11 million votes, despite dedicating significant staff time to looking for irregularities.
“Is this bill simply a part and continuation of the ‘big lie’ perpetrated by Donald Trump?” Turner asked.
“This bill is not about 2020. … This bill is not a response to 2020,” Cain said.
Another Democrat pushed back on specific language within the bill that referred to the “purity” of the ballot box, which Rep. Rafael Anchía (D) said had its roots in Jim Crow-era voting restrictions.
“Are you aware that references to, quote, purity at the ballot box used throughout this country’s history, there’s been a justification for states to disenfranchise groups they deem unfit to vote or somehow lacking?” Anchía said.
Cain said he was not aware of that history, calling it “troubling.”
Texas state Rep. Ron Reynolds (D) said Friday that the new policies could cost the state billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs. Corporations have expressed opposition to rolling back voting rights.
“I know if you’re an American, you believe that voting is one of the most precious and fundamental rights that we have. … It is the bedrock of our democracy,” said Reynolds. “And here we are in 2021 trying to turn back the clock.”
Amy Gardner contributed to this report.