Texas Democrats late Sunday headed off passage — at least for now — of one of the most restrictive voting bills in the country, a 67-page measure with a slew of provisions that would have made it harder to cast ballots by mail, given new access to partisan poll watchers and imposed stiff new civil and criminal penalties on election administrators, voters and those who seek to assist them.

While Senate Bill 7 would have had wide-ranging effects on voters across the state, it included specific language that critics say would disproportionately affect people of color — particularly those who live in under-resourced and urban communities.

House Democrats blocked the bill by walking out of their chamber Sunday night, but Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has said he plans to add the bill to a special session he plans to call later this year.

Republican backers of the measure have denied that it is aimed at disenfranchising voters of color. During debate in the House earlier this month, state Rep. Briscoe Cain dubbed it a voting “enhancement” bill, insisting that it was designed to protect “all voters.”

The legislation was pushed through in the final hours of the Texas legislative session by Republicans who argued it is necessary to reassure voters their elections are secure, a response to former president Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 White House race was corrupted by fraud.

But by all accounts, the 2020 election ran smoothly — and no evidence has emerged of fraud or other irregularities in sizable enough quantities to alter an outcome in Texas or other states.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • The bill targeted voting methods that Black and Latino voters in Houston used widely in the pandemic.
  • The bill would have barred Sunday morning get-out-the-vote programs used to mobilize Black churchgoers.
  • The measure drew comparison to Jim Crow laws.
  • Would Senate Bill 7 have been unconstitutional?

The bill targeted voting methods that Black and Latino voters in Houston used widely in the pandemic.

Senate Bill 7 outlawed two kinds of early voting methods established last year in Harris County, home of Houston, to give voters more opportunities to vote safely and crowd-free during the pandemic: drive-up voting and 24-hour voting.

Chris Hollins, the former Harris County clerk who oversaw those programs last year, said that 130,000 voters took advantage of drive-through voting, and an additional 10,000 voters cast ballots during the 24-hour voting marathon the county offered in the final week before Election Day.

An analysis of the Harris County vote showed that voters of color made up more than half of those who used drive-through early voting and the 24-hour early-voting window, Hollins said. That was a higher share than in early voting overall, when Black and Latino voters accounted for just 38 percent of all voters, he said.

The bill would have barred Sunday morning get-out-the-vote programs used to mobilize Black churchgoers.

Similarly, the bill’s provision barring early voting before 1 p.m. on Sundays would have had a disproportionate impact on the long-standing get-out-the-vote effort known as “souls to the polls,” which aims at encouraging Black churchgoers to cast their ballots right after services.

“Why in the world would you pick Sunday morning to outlaw voting in Texas, but for the fact that they know that a lot of Black parishioners historically have chosen that time to organize and go to the polls?” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) said Sunday.

Another key provision in Senate Bill 7 could have further hobbled such community voter mobilization programs: It would have required that anyone who drives more than two non-relatives to the polls who require assistance to submit a signed form stating the reason for the assistance. That means volunteer van drivers who provide transportation for churchgoing voters would have had to jump through the added hoop of submitting a signed document.

Community leaders noted that some voters do not have many options when it comes to getting to the polls — or any transportation.

As senators debated for more than seven hours on the bill, which ended with a vote before dawn Sunday, Democratic state Sen. Borris Miles of Houston gave an impassioned speech about how many Black voters in his district without ready access to transportation cast ballots: They get rides from other people.

“You really have no idea and no realistic vision about how things work in my neighborhood and neighborhoods like mine,” Miles told the measure’s chief patron, state Sen. Bryan Hughes (R), during the overnight debate.

Hughes responded that the provision, like the entire bill, would apply equally to all Texans.

The measure drew comparison to Jim Crow laws.

Critics have called voting laws in Georgia, Florida and now Texas ’Jim Crow 2.0′ — a reference to racially discriminatory laws and practices during the 20th century in the American South that proscribed, among other things, where Black Americans could live, eat, work, go to school and ride on a bus or train.

Cliff Albright, a co-founder of the group Black Voters Matter, said the comparison to Jim Crow is even more apt in the case of Senate Bill 7 because the language Republican lawmakers have used to justify it is eerily similar to how Southern racists blocked Black neighbors from voting for decades.

Then, as now, those in power denied racist intent, he noted. Then, as now, they claimed they wanted to protect the “integrity” of elections. Then, as now, they imposed restrictions that they claimed would apply to all voters but that in practice applied overwhelmingly to people of color.

Albright noted that an early version of the voting bill included the phrase “purity of the ballot box,” language that is in the Texas Constitution. Similar references to the word “purity” were used in the South to justify the disenfranchisement of Black voters. “They literally used Jim Crow language explicitly in the bill,” Albright said.

Cain, the lead House proponent, said he was unaware of that legacy and agreed to remove the language after Democrats criticized it during debate. He said he “wasn’t aware of any kind of malicious intent in the use of that term.”

Would Senate Bill 7 have been unconstitutional?

That would have been up to the courts, which were expected to see immediate legal challenges filed by civil rights groups and Democrats.

Voting laws are typically challenged under the Constitution’s First and 14th amendments under a legal test known as the Anderson-Burdick doctrine, which requires the state’s interest in making voting more secure to outweigh the burden a new law places on voters. In the case of Senate Bill 7, lawmakers claimed the intent of making elections more secure, but provided no evidence that last year’s elections were not secure, said Marc Elias, a prominent election lawyer for Democrats.

Voting challenges also regularly invoke the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits laws that intend to discriminate, or result in discrimination, against minorities. Elias said the lack of evidence for the stated purpose of Senate Bill 7, coupled with the disproportionate effect on minorities of some of the law’s provisions would have qualified it for these types of claims.

The bill’s restrictions of early voting, mail voting, drop boxes, voter assistance and voter transportation all would have qualified for such a challenge, Elias said.

Elias also said that the bill’s requirement that anyone transporting more than two non-relatives to the polls would have provided a good opportunity for a First Amendment claim under its provision guaranteeing freedom of assembly. And he said the measure also could have qualified for a challenge under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of the kinds of disabilities that would be subject to Senate Bill 7′s new restrictions on voter assistance.