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Texas Republicans renew efforts to pass voting restrictions in special session

Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) holds a sign as he and other Democratic lawmakers participate in a rally on the steps of the Texas Capitol to support voting rights on Thursday.
Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) holds a sign as he and other Democratic lawmakers participate in a rally on the steps of the Texas Capitol to support voting rights on Thursday. (Eric Gay/AP)
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Republican lawmakers in Texas on Thursday launched their second effort this year to pass new voting restrictions after Democrats blocked them in May with a dramatic walkout at the state Capitol.

The legislature convened Thursday for a special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to enact a laundry list of conservative priorities, including a ban of transgender athletes on youth sports teams and beefed-up border security. But Abbott has made clear that “election integrity” is a top priority, and Republicans filed bills in the House and Senate that include many of the same voting provisions they sought to enact earlier in the year.

The new election proposals include a number of restrictions championed by former president Donald Trump. The measures would ban several election programs implemented last year to help people vote during the coronavirus pandemic, including drive-through voting and 24-hour and late-night voting. Voting rights advocates noted that voters of color used these programs disproportionately, meaning they could disproportionately feel the impact of the restrictions.

Senate Democrats have two options right now to strengthen voting rights: Passing the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, neither is easy. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post)

Both the House and Senate bills, which are likely to change as they make their way through the legislative process, omitted a particularly controversial provision considered by lawmakers in May that would have prohibited early voting before 1 p.m. on Sundays. Democrats and civil rights activists decried the measure as a direct assault on “Souls to the Polls,” the get-out-the-vote program that encourages Black voters to vote early on Sundays after church services.

Critics said that together, House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1 would put in place numerous other hurdles. They would create criminal penalties for election officials for such banned practices as soliciting mail-ballot applications, sending out unsolicited applications or pre-filling applications. They also would empower partisan poll watchers, which critics said would lead to voter intimidation. And the measures would impose strict signature-matching requirements that could lead to valid voters’ ballots being rejected.

“It’s based on a lie that there was rampant fraud in our elections, and on the ‘big lie’ that Donald Trump actually won the last election,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, the leader of the Texas House Democrats, who urged them to walk out of the chamber on May 30 to deny Republicans the quorum they needed to take action on the election bill. “That’s what this is all about — so they can curry favor with Donald Trump and his supporters. That’s exactly what’s going on here.”

Texas Democrats block restrictive voting bill by walking off the floor to deny GOP-majority House a quorum

Sen. Bryan Hughes, the sponsor of the new Senate bill, and Rep. Andrew Murr, author of the House proposal, did not immediately respond to requests for interviews. Hughes said in a statement that “the steps taken in SB1 are common sense integrity provisions for our election process, from voter registration to the counting of ballots.”

An Abbott spokesperson also did not respond to a request for comment. In his call for a special session this week, Abbott said a top priority would be “legislation strengthening the integrity of elections in Texas.”

The opening of the special session in Austin came as the Conservative Political Action Conference convened a few hours north in Dallas, where Trump was scheduled to speak on Sunday. The urgency among Texas Republicans to try again to enact one of the most far-reaching election laws in the country reflects the former president’s continuing popularity within the GOP — and the enduring power of his false claim that his defeat in the 2020 election was tainted by fraud. The conservative gathering is likely to amplify those claims, with sessions titled “Detecting Threats to Election Integrity: How to Collect Evidence of Fraud,” and “Spare the Fraud, Spoil the Child: The Future of American Elections.”

Texas Democrats promised to do whatever it takes to thwart the voting legislation again, raising the prospect of another walkout — or the possibility that Republican leaders could invoke their rarely used power to lock lawmakers inside the Capitol to conduct business.

“We’re going to use every parliamentary means available to us to stop these bills,” said Rep. Armando Walle (D).

The Texas Constitution requires two-thirds of members to be present to take action on legislation, which means Democrats have the power to block legislation by not showing up. But the two chambers’ rules allow for leaders to compel attendance by locking the doors or asking law enforcement or state courts to compel their return.

Those possibilities portend a dramatic few days in Austin, where lawmakers are expected to take up the measures in committees over the weekend, with floor votes possible early next week. Under state law, legislators have up to 30 days to conduct business during the special session, meaning it could extend as late as Aug. 7.

In addition to the substance of the bills, critics lashed out at Republicans for the fast pace at which they are trying to enact the legislation, which is likely to give the public even less opportunity to raise concerns or read the bill texts than in May.

“As we saw in the regular session, they are moving these bills through with very little chance for review, scrutiny or public input,” said Sarah Labowitz of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “And that undermines democracy.”

GOP lawmakers have argued the bills are necessary to shore up voter trust, even though they have struggled to justify the need for stricter rules in the state, where officials said the 2020 election was secure.

The proposed voting hurdles came after the state logged record turnout in the 2020 election, including huge surges in early voting in cities including heavily Democratic Austin and Houston.

Hughes, a sponsor of one of the earlier measures during the legislature’s regular session, said at the time that his proposal was “a strong bill that gives accessibility & security to Texas elections.”

Democrats accused Republicans of trying to erect barriers for voters in Harris County, home of Houston and a growing Democratic stronghold with a large minority population. They also called the measures “Jim Crow 2.0” because the rhetoric of Republicans, they said, mirrors the language used during the Jim Crow era to bar Black Americans from voting without explicitly stating that as the goal.

The current Senate bill includes a provision proposed in an earlier measure prohibiting local election officials from altering election procedures without express legislative permission — a direct hit against Harris County, where election officials implemented various expansions last year to help voters cast ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

GOP lawmakers in dozens of states are pushing new voting measures in the name of election security, under intense pressure from supporters who echo Trump’s false claims of rampant fraud. States including Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Montana have passed measures that curtail voting access, imposing new restrictions on mail voting, the use of drop boxes and the ability to offer voters food or water while they wait in long lines.

Here’s where GOP lawmakers have passed new voting restrictions around the country

Voting rights advocates argue that the legislation is aimed at curbing the access of certain voters.

“No, it’s not a poll tax or a literacy test,” Texas Rep. Ron Reynolds (D) said at a rally Thursday in opposition to the legislation. “It’s not how many bubbles in a bar of soap, but it is voter suppression. You can’t tell me that there’s a reason why we’re eliminating 24-hour voting, why we’re eliminating mobile voting, why we’re putting criminal penalties for helping people to vote.”