An earlier version of this article said the Texas House had passed elections bill S.B. 1 on Thursday night. Thursday night’s vote moved the bill forward to a final vote on Friday. The article has been corrected and updated.
The House’s passage of the measure is a victory for Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and the latest example of Republican state legislators adopting voting restrictions in the wake of the 2020 election. Proponents of the bills argue that voting rules should be tightened to prevent voter fraud, echoing baseless claims by former president Donald Trump and his supporters that the last election was tainted by irregularities.
Democrats and advocates for voting rights argue that proposals such as S.B. 1 use the false specter of voter fraud to create hurdles that undermine the right to vote, particularly for voters of color. The Texas bill restricts methods of voting, tightens the rules around mail ballots, empowers partisan poll-watchers, and creates new rules and penalties for mistakes by election officials and people helping others vote.
Democratic leaders slammed the legislation and argued that their weeks of quorum-breaking had helped push federal legislators to action.
“This bill was never about election security or voter integrity. It was always about using the Big Lie to justify restricting access to the ballot box,” Texas House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner said in a statement, referring to the Trump-fueled claims of widespread voter fraud. “From the very beginning of this fight, we knew we wouldn’t be able to hold off this bill forever. That’s why federal voter protection legislation is essential.”
Abbott had earlier celebrated the bill advancing through the House, tweeting that “this legislation will make our elections process fair & uniform.”
The state Senate will now need to confer on the House version. If senators agree to the House’s amendments, the bill will go to Abbott to be signed into law.
Democrats argued passionately against the bill on Friday and on Thursday night, as a number of amendments to the measure were debated.
Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D) spoke Friday on the House floor about watching her grandmother save pennies and nickels from her $2-a-week paycheck so she could pay the poll tax to vote. Thompson said her first-grade classmate Alma Allen helped pass legislation that eliminated the poll tax in Texas in 1966.
“Make no mistake. This is your bill, your idea, and you will be responsible for the consequences,” Thompson said. “You will reap what you sow. And you know what? It won’t be years or decades from now. It will be sooner than you think.”
Rep. Andrew Murr (R) has defended his bill, arguing that it “contains language by both Republicans and Democrats” and “demonstrates that all viewpoints have been and are being considered, regardless of party affiliation.”
The legislation aims to make elections “uniform and consistent throughout this state to reduce the likelihood of fraud … protect the secrecy of the ballot, promote voter access and ensure that all legally cast ballots are counted,” he said during Monday’s hearing.
Republicans have rushed to pass the bill since last week, when a handful of returning Democrats allowed them to reestablish a quorum in the House. Democrats had stalled the bill’s progress with multiple walkouts starting in May.
The party’s July quorum break involved nearly 60 members leaving Texas for D.C., where they spent weeks advocating for federal voting rights protections on Capitol Hill. Some of those legislators returned to the state this month, hiding from law enforcement to avoid Republican-ordered arrests to compel their return to the Texas Capitol.
The protest prompted Abbott to call a second special session that can last through Sept. 5.
As the House debated amendments to the bill late into Thursday night, several Democrats stayed away from the House floor. For those who returned, tensions with Republicans ran high.
Early in the day, Speaker Dade Phelan (R) asked members not to use the word “racism” in their remarks, prompting anger among Democrats.
During debate, Rep. Gina Hinojosa asked a fellow Democrat, Rep. Rafael Anchía: “When you speak about the disproportionate impact of this legislation and prior acts of this body … are you talking about a disproportionate impact on people of color?”
Anchía responded that courts have repeatedly pointed out intentional discrimination against African Americans, Latinos and other people of color in the context of election policy.
“Intentional discrimination against people of a certain race — is that racism?” Hinojosa asked.
Phelan cut in. “We can talk about racial impacts of this legislation without accusing members of this body of being racist,” he said, drawing outbursts from Republicans that he quieted, calling them “inappropriate.”
Advocates for voting rights slammed Phelan for trying to censor language in the debate.
“Speaker Phelan may not want to acknowledge that SB1 is rooted in a long, racist tradition of voter suppression in Texas,” Sarah Labowitz, policy and advocacy director with the American Civil Liberty Union of Texas, said in a statement. “But the racist impacts of the bill speak for themselves: limiting the way Texas’ most diverse counties conduct elections, opening up voters to intimidation by partisan poll watchers, and erecting unnecessary barriers to vote for communities that have long been targeted by voter suppression.”
The Texas Senate passed its version of the bill along party lines Aug. 12 following a 15-hour filibuster by state Sen. Carol Alvarado (D).
Viebeck reported from Washington.