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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signs law creating new voting restrictions as opponents sue

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed a law tightening voting rules in the state after a months-long battle with Democratic lawmakers, who fled the state for weeks to deny Republicans a quorum in the House to advance the legislation. (Eric Gay/AP)
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AUSTIN — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Tuesday signed into law a bill that creates strict new voting rules in the state, ending a months-long effort by Democrats to stall the legislation by denying Republicans a quorum in the House.

But the law already faces at least five challenges in state and federal courts, with dozens of organizations and individuals suing Texas GOP leaders and local elections officials. Abbott said he did not think the legal challenges would derail the legislation.

“I feel extremely confident that when this law makes it through the litigation phase, it will be upheld in a court of law,” Abbott told reporters in Tyler, Tex., where he signed the bill. “No one who is eligible to vote will be denied the opportunity to vote. It does, however, make it harder for cheaters to cast an illegal ballot.”

The White House pledged Tuesday to continue battling new voting restrictions, which Republican leaders have passed in numerous states, often while citing former president Donald Trump’s false claims of mass electoral fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Sept. 7 signed into law a bill that implements strict new voting rules in the state. (Video: Reuters, Photo: LM Otero/AP/Reuters)

“So we would say to these advocates, ‘We stand with you.’ There’s more we’re going to keep working on together,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, referring to those seeking to block the Texas law. “The vice president’s going to be leading this effort. And we agree that voting should be a fundamental right to people.”

Texas lawmakers last week approved the bill, which imposes new criminal penalties for violating voting laws, bans 24-hour and drive-through voting and allows more access for partisan poll watchers. Abbott at the time argued that the legislation would “solidify trust and confidence in the outcome of our elections by making it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

GOP legislators in Texas give final approval to new voting restrictions, overcoming Democratic opposition

But opponents swiftly took to federal court, filing two separate complaints Friday seeking injunctions to stop Senate Bill 1 (S.B. 1) from going into effect.

One of those complaints, filed in San Antonio, lists 14 plaintiffs, including Texas Impact, a faith-based advocacy group. Executive Director Bee Moorhead said in a news release that the group was suing after having “prayed, protested, preached, and pushed, but at the end of the day, lawmakers have chosen a path that will lead to disenfranchisement.”

A second complaint was filed in Austin on Friday on behalf of five plaintiffs including the League of Women Voters of Texas, a nonpartisan group that encourages civic engagement, and REV UP Texas, which advocates for voters with disabilities.

“Litigation is always a last resort,” said Ryan Cox, a lawyer at the Texas Civil Rights Project who represents the Austin plaintiffs. “Only when the legislature ignores federal law, ignores all the facts given to them by the communities that the bill [affects] — only then do we consider litigation.”

Both lawsuits claim SB1 violates federal law and name Republican state leaders including Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Deputy Secretary of State Joe Esparza; Abbott and Paxton did not respond to messages from The Washington Post seeking comment, and Esparza declined to comment. The complaints also target local elections officials who are tasked with implementing the new legislation.

Within hours of Abbott signing the legislation on Tuesday, at least three more complaints were filed, two in federal court and one in state district court. The suits were brought by 35 plaintiffs including poll watchers, civil rights groups, disability rights groups, nonpartisan get-out-the-vote groups and one elections administrator.

The elections bill, a priority for Abbott and Republicans, was the cause of two quorum-breaking walkouts by Democrats, including an exodus to D.C., and a 15-hour filibuster during a showdown that lasted months. In Tyler on Tuesday, Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) and the bill’s sponsors argued that the new law addresses shortfalls in the state’s election security.

“We want to see more people vote,” Patrick said. “We want to see them vote fairly, and we don’t want the cheaters to undermine our elections.”

Texas Democrats on Tuesday pleaded with Congress to act on voting rights before early December, when S.B. 1 is to take effect.

Democratic Texas legislators spent most of July in D.C. trying to persuade Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation. (Video: Rhonda Colvin, Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post)

“With the deliberate barriers to voting created by this legislation and redistricting just around the corner, we need the U.S. Senate to act immediately on the John Lewis Voting Rights Act,” Texas House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner said in a statement. “Our democracy depends on it.”

Now, the legislation faces challenges in court. The two lawsuits filed last week will be heard by federal judges who ruled to expand voting access during the pandemic, although their actions were later blocked on appeals. In Austin, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, blocked an order from Abbott last fall that limited the number of ballot drop-off sites to one per county. U.S. District Judge Fred Biery, who is based in San Antonio and was appointed by President Bill Clinton, ruled in the spring of 2020 that all Texas voters could apply to vote by mail.

In the case Pitman is set to hear, the plaintiffs argue that voter turnout efforts — such as the League of Women Voters’ door-knocking campaigns and REV UP Texas’s assistance for voters with disabilities — could be deemed criminal under the new law, although they are protected under the First Amendment and the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The complaint argues that S.B. 1 put in place “a litany of needless hurdles to voting and couples those hurdles with ill-defined criminal and civil penalties.”

In the San Antonio case, the plaintiffs — including a judge, a poll worker and civil rights organizations — claim that the legislation places them in the crosshairs, putting Texans trying to protect free and fair elections at legal risk.