Texas GOP’s voting restrictions bill could be rewritten behind closed doors after key House vote

Texas GOP’s voting restrictions bill could be rewritten behind closed doors after key House vote
Texas GOP’s voting restrictions bill could be rewritten behind closed doors after key House vote

The Texas House of Representatives on Jan. 13, 2021.

The Texas House of Representatives on Jan. 13.

Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

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As opposition to Texas Republicans’ proposed voting restrictions continues to intensify, state lawmakers’ deliberations over the GOP priority legislation could soon go behind closed doors.

The House early Friday voted 81-64 to advance a pared down version of Senate Bill 7, leaving out various far-reaching voting restrictions that have prompted widespread outcry from voting rights advocates, advocates for people with disabilities, and local officials in the state’s biggest counties. The legislation still contains some provisions opposed by those groups — including a prohibition on counties sending unsolicited applications to vote by mail.

Facing more than 130 proposed amendments from Democrats late Thursday — and a procedural challenge that could have delayed the entire bill’s consideration — lawmakers huddled off the chamber’s floor throughout the night to cut a deal and rework SB 7 through a flurry of amendments passed without objection from either party.

But the final contours of the bill remain uncertain.

The bill will need a second House vote, expected later Friday, before it can head back to the Senate. It will then likely go to a conference committee made up of members of both chambers who will be able to pull from both iterations of the legislation in crafting the final version largely outside public view.

SB 7 has emerged as the main legislative vehicle for changing the state’s voting rules, though the versions passed in each chamber differ significantly.

As passed in the Senate, the legislation restricted early voting rules and schedules to do away with extended hours and ban drive-thru voting. It also required large counties to redistribute polling places under a formula that could move sites away from areas with more Hispanic and Black residents.

Those and other provisions fell off when it was reconstituted in the House Elections Committee, with little notice and without a public hearing, to match the House’s priorities contained in House Bill 6.

Republicans amended the bill in the early hours of Friday to nix a provision that would’ve required people assisting voters to disclose the reason a voter might need help — even if for medical reasons. That measure raised concerns among advocates for people with disabilities that it could violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Lawmakers also amended the bill to slim down provisions that broadly enhanced protections for partisan poll watchers and provisions that boosted penalties for voting related offenses.

In keeping the ban on distributing applications for mail-in ballots, the House upheld its response to Harris County’s attempt to proactively send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters last year with instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. Other Texas counties sent unsolicited applications to voters 65 and older without much scrutiny. Those voters automatically qualify to vote by mail, but sending them unsolicited applications would also be blocked under the bill.

Under the deal House members cut to keep the bill on the floor, Democrats were able to tack on several amendments to the legislation. Most notably, they added language to the legislation in response to the controversial illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election. Mason was on supervised release for a federal conviction at the time and said she didn’t know that made her ineligible to vote. SB 7 was amended early Friday to require judges to inform someone if a conviction will prohibit them from voting and require that people know why they are ineligible for an attempt to vote to count as a crime.

House Republicans’ procedural strategy to rewrite the bill in committee helped it move quickly through the chamber. Despite that revision and the amendments added during the floor debate, the House could ultimately embrace some of the more restrictive provisions in the original Senate legislation — and drop the language added by Democrats — when the bill goes through a conference committee.

With Republicans in full control of state government, the legislation is at the forefront of their broader efforts to further restrict voting after the state saw the highest turnout in decades in 2020. In Texas and nationally, those efforts have been largely rooted in baseless claims of widespread voter fraud for which there is virtually no evidence. In backing the measure earlier this year, Gov. Greg Abbott — who deemed “election integrity” a legislative priority — conceded he was unaware of instances of fraud that had upended an election in 2020. And one of the state’s top election officials told House lawmakers at a previous committee hearing that “Texas had an election that was smooth and secure.”

Without the votes to block the bill, House Democrats seized on that lack of evidence for widespread fraud in questioning state Rep. Briscoe Cain, the Deer Park Republican who is shepherding the bill through the House.

“What are we trying to fix here that is not broken?” state Rep. Jessica González, a Dallas Democrat, asked.

“We don’t need to wait for bad things to happen to try to secure our elections,” Cain responded, arguing that the legislation was not a response to the 2020 election. A Trump supporter, Cain helped the former president’s campaign as it worked to overturn the results of the election in Pennsylvania.

Cain, who struggled at times early in the debate to defend the measure, described it as one of “voter enhancement” and not voter suppression as Democrats raised in their questions. Throughout the 2021 legislative session, Republicans have attempted to label their legislation as race-neutral measures not meant to discriminate, in part because they argue the voter rolls are “color blind,” meaning voters don’t list their race or ethnicity when they register.

But both the original SB 7 and the original provisions of HB 6 were opposed by civil rights groups who raised the prospect that the legislation violates federal safeguards for voters of color. Republicans’ efforts to further restrict voting in the state come as their presidential margins of victory continue to thin and Democrats drive up their votes in diverse urban centers and growing suburban communities.

Early in the debate over the legislation, Democrats questioned whether Cain had considered the disparate impact it could have on voters of color and whether he consulted with groups with a long history of fighting state voting laws later found to be discriminatory like the NAACP and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, who oppose the bill.

Dallas Democrat Rafael Anchía zeroed in on a section of the bill laying out its purported purpose as one that would “preserve the purity of the ballot box,” which Cain explained he had pulled from the state Constitution.

“You may have missed it then — and this would’ve been very obvious I think to anyone who looked at that language — that provision was drafted specifically to disenfranchise Black people, Black voters in fact, following the Civil War,” Anchia said.

“Did you realize that purity of the ballot box language in the Texas Constitution gave rise to all white primaries,” Anchía continued. “And did you know that this purity of the ballot box justification was used during the Jim Crow era to prevent Black people from voting.”

The bill was ultimately amended to remove that language.

Texas GOP’s voting restrictions bill could be rewritten behind closed doors after key House vote
Source: Texas Tribune