The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

State Sen. Bryan Hughes (R) discusses the GOP voting bill on Aug. 31 at the Texas Capitol in Austin. (Mikala Compton/Austin American-Statesman/AP)

AUSTIN — The Texas legislature on Tuesday passed the final version of a Republican bill that will implement strict new voting rules, sending it to the governor's desk after months of intense partisan battling over how elections should be conducted in the state.

The House approved the measure by a vote of 80 to 41, with one Republican joining Democrats in opposition. The Senate followed several hours later with a party-line 18-to-13 vote.

The votes were a win for Gov. Greg Abbott (R). He had called two special legislative sessions as part of a long-running effort to pass the elections measure, which will take effect in three months. After the Senate voted, Abbott said in a statement that he looks forward to signing the bill into law, adding that it “will solidify trust and confidence in the outcome of our elections by making it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

The legislation bans drive-through and 24-hour voting, gives partisan poll watchers more access and adds new criminal penalties for those who break voting rules.

The passage of the divisive legislation was the latest sign of the impact of former president Donald Trump’s attacks on the integrity of the country’s voting systems, an assault that intensified after his loss in November 2020.

Since then, Republican legislators throughout the country have echoed his baseless claims that voter fraud is widespread. Texas will join at least 17 other states that have tightened their rules for casting ballots and running elections since Trump’s defeat.

Supporters of the Texas bill argued that it was necessary to restore voter confidence in the state’s elections — even though top state officials said there was no evidence of significant fraud that would have altered the results last year.

Opponents argued that the measure will create new hurdles in the voting process, particularly for disabled people and voters of color. Democrats had succeeded in blocking the legislation since late spring, staging two walkouts that kept Republicans from securing a quorum during three separate legislative sessions.

One by one, Democratic senators stood in the chamber Tuesday afternoon to voice their opposition to the measure, saying that the bill was a product of Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged.

“That lie has turned into a cancer in our politics — an existential threat to our democracy,” said state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt (D). “It inspired the insurrection on January 6th, and to all of my colleagues who plan to vote for this bill, know that doing so will further a narrative that is leading us toward authoritarianism, violence and the kind of insurrectionist actions that we saw in Washington, D.C.”

For their part, Republicans emphasized the need for election security, steering clear of mentions of the former president.

“All of these pieces put together will give us a secure system for everybody,” said state Sen. Bryan Hughes (R), the bill’s author. “It’s a big deal.”

Hughes added: “Anyone who tells you there’s no voter fraud in Texas is telling you a very big lie. We know what happens. The right to vote is too precious. It costs too much for us to leave it unprotected.”

After the vote, fellow Republicans gathered around Hughes and congratulated him.

Here’s how the new Texas voting bill would affect access to the polls

Republicans adjusted the legislation as they pushed for its passage over the summer, stripping out some initial provisions that drew sharp criticism — including a rule that would have banned early voting on Sunday mornings.

But advocates for voting rights have said the bill’s provisions will still make it harder to cast ballots in Texas, a state that already has strict voting rules and has historically seen low voter turnout.

The final version bans methods for casting ballots that were embraced in predominantly Democratic Harris County in 2020, including drive-through and 24-hour voting. It empowers partisan poll watchers by allowing them to be close enough to hear and see the actions of election officials, though it also requires them to receive a training program from the secretary of state.

The legislation also adds criminal penalties for people who break rules while helping others vote and for election officials who make unintended errors. And it stops local jurisdictions from taking their own steps to expand access to voting, including prohibiting them from sending unsolicited applications for mail ballots.

Texas Democrats said Tuesday’s action intensified the need for Congress to try to pass stalled federal legislation on voting rights before the state bill goes into effect.

“We knew we wouldn’t be able to hold off this day forever,” state Rep. Chris Turner (D), chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement. “Now that it has come, we need the U.S. Senate to act immediately to pass federal legislation to protect Texas voters from Republicans’ assault on our democracy.”

Texas House Democrats plan to take legal action as the elections bill becomes law, according to state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D).

“They may have had the votes today, but one thing is always true — we’re all equal in federal court,” said Martinez Fischer, who has still not returned to the House floor after participating in the quorum break weeks ago.

He added, “From the subversion to the voter intimidation tactics, this bill is rife with violating both constitutional and federal voting rights for voters in the state of Texas.”

Texas House Democrats fought the elections bill for months, including staging an exodus by dozens of legislators from Austin to Washington in mid-July that led GOP leaders to threaten the quorum-breakers with arrest. Several state Senate Democrats also left in solidarity, and one senator filibustered the bill for 15 hours.

Inside the secret plan for the Texas Democratic exodus: A phone tree, a scramble to pack and a politically perilous trip

Republicans managed to reestablish a quorum in the House in August and fast-tracked the bill when a handful of Democrats returned, citing the coronavirus pandemic and other policy issues they hoped to address.

The saga strained ties between the parties in the House, with Democrats accusing Republicans of racist policymaking and Republicans sending the sergeant-at-arms to try to arrest absent Democrats in their homes. Tensions erupted again during last week’s floor debate when Speaker Dade Phelan (R) sought to prevent Democrats from using the terms “racism” and “racist.”

On Tuesday, Democratic legislators offered their final arguments against the measure.

Eckhardt highlighted Republican efforts to block accusations of racism in the debate.

“When public policy will intentionally and disproportionately infringe on the rights of people of color, and when we have been repeatedly warned by experts that it will disproportionately disenfranchise people of color, what else are we to call it?” she said.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D) said she remains “befuddled about how some can see this bill as so good when some of us see it as so bad.”

“We could have collaborated effectively, we could have compromised, and we could have reached a consensus all of us could have supported,” she said. “Much to my dismay, we began with what Democratic senators considered a horrific bill, but after multiple renditions, many now see as merely horrible.”

Several Democrats objected to a contentious section related to people who register to vote or cast a ballot when they are not eligible to do so.

Under the bill, a county registrar has 72 hours to submit an affidavit with the details of the voter’s actions to the state attorney general, the secretary of state and the local prosecutor. Critics say this requirement could encourage the criminal prosecutions of people who vote without realizing they are ineligible, citing the case of Crystal Mason, who was sentenced to five years in prison for casting a provisional ballot that was never counted in the 2016 presidential election. Mason was on supervised release for a federal conviction and says she did not realize she was not eligible to vote.

State Rep. Briscoe Cain (R) sought to soften the language with an amendment that had bipartisan support, but it was stripped out during negotiations with the Senate. The final version of the bill does require courts to tell people who are convicted of a felony how the conviction affects their right to vote.

The Cain amendment “reinforces the core bedrock principle of criminal law — that only a person who acts with criminal intent should be subject to criminal punishment,” said state Sen. John Turner (D).

“I hope this body will continue working to correct the injustice by which an inherently benign — even a civic — act, the act of voting, becomes a basis for the deprivation of a person’s liberty,” he said.

Defending the removal of the amendment, Hughes said its language “would have made it more difficult and required even more proof to convict the crime” of illegal voting.

“A lot of folks said this language goes further than maybe you all intended for it to go, and that’s where the concern came from,” he added.

Viebeck reported from Washington.