AUSTIN — Defying a months-long Democratic protest, the Texas House on Thursday moved forward wide-ranging voting restrictions that opponents say will make casting ballots and administering elections harder in the state.
Elections bill SB1 passed 79-37 mostly along party lines after 12 hours of impassioned debate. Democrats — who broke quorum for weeks, fled Texas and faced the threat of arrest to stave off passage of the measure this summer — did not have the numbers to overcome the chamber’s Republican majority. The bill is set for final passage in the House on Friday.
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 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 voting-rights advocates argue that proposals such as SB1 use the false specter of voter fraud to create hurdles that undermine the right to vote and limit participation in elections, 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. The measure also outlaws drive-through and 24-hour voting, which were successfully implemented — and widely embraced — in Harris County last year as pandemic-era voting alternatives.
Democrats criticized the GOP for defeating many amendments the party proposed on Thursday.
“Texas is not a one-size-fits-all state,” said Rep. Toni Rose (D). “The fact that you all have already made a clear choice is just so disingenuous to me.”
Rep. Andrew Murr (R) has defended the 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 Monday.
Republicans have rushed to pass the bill since last week, when a handful of returning Democrats helped them reestablish a quorum in the House.
The vote was a defeat for Democrats, who 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 Washington, where they spent weeks advocating for federal-voting rights protections on Capitol Hill. Some of those lawmakers returned to Texas this month, hiding from law enforcement to avoid Republican-ordered arrests to compel their return to the state capitol.
The protest prompted Abbott to call a second special session that can last through Sept. 5.
Several Democrats stayed away from the House floor on Thursday. 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.
“When you speak about the disproportionate impact of this legislation and prior acts of this body — when you speak about the disproportionate impact, are you talking about a disproportionate impact on people of color?” Rep. Gina Hinojosa asked fellow Democratic Rep. Rafael Anchía.
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.”
Voting-rights advocates 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 ACLU 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.”
Lawmakers had discussed the bill with experts and other witnesses on Monday during a hearing — the sixth of its kind — that lasted eight hours. Five times as many people registered in opposition to the bill as did in favor, though the two sides spoke in equal numbers.
Susan Hays, a lawyer who defended Harris County in legal challenges over its use of 24-hour voting and drive-through voting in 2020, told the committee that the last time the state’s elections code was changed this significantly, a bipartisan group worked on the legislation for six years.
“This is an awfully big bill,” Hays said. “A democracy is a careful balance to be making this many changes … And elections are complicated things.”
In an interview, Hays called the legislation “a big bill of sour grapes,” noting that it targets practices that Republicans were unable to stop with lawsuits.
“When I read this bill, it’s everything they lost in litigation,” she said, adding: “Everything that Harris County did to work to make the elections more effective and safer, they’re trying to criminalize.”
Chuck DeVore, the policy director for the Election Protection Project at the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation, said in an interview that “no one has ever been prosecuted” for blocking a poll watcher. Previously, there might be one or two complaints of watchers being blocked during an election, but complaints to the Texas Secretary of State’s office increased last November, due at least in part to attempts to maintain social distancing.
“In most cases, the cases aren’t particularly prosecutable, because there are gray areas — it’s more of a perception thing,” DeVore said.
The Texas Senate passed its version of the bill along party lines on Aug. 12 following a 15-hour filibuster by Sen. Carol Alvarado (D).