Texas Democrats Stymie G.O.P. Voting Bill, for Now

Republicans hit a significant stumbling block in their push to enact some of the strictest voting laws in the nation. But they could yet pass the measures through a special session of the Legislature.,

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Democrats in the Texas Legislature staged a dramatic, late-night walkout on Sunday night, forcing the failure of a sweeping Republican overhaul of state election laws before a midnight deadline on Sunday. The move, which deprived the Legislature of the minimum number of lawmakers required for a vote, was a stunning setback for state Republicans who had made a new voting law one of their top priorities.

The effort is not entirely dead, however. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, indicated that he would call a special session of the Legislature, which could start as early as June 1, or Tuesday, to restart the process. The governor has said that he strongly supported an election bill, and he was widely expected to sign whatever measure Republicans passed.

“Election Integrity & Bail Reform were emergency items for this legislative session,” Mr. Abbott said on Twitter on Sunday night. “They will be added to the special session agenda.” He did not specify when the session would start.

While Republicans would still be favored to pass a bill in a special session, the unexpected turn of events on Sunday presents a new hurdle in their push to enact a far-reaching election law that would install some of the most rigid voting restrictions in the country and cement the state as one of the hardest in which to cast a ballot.

After a lengthy debate in the state House of Representatives in which Democrats raised numerous objections, staged lengthy question-and-answer sessions and leveraged procedural maneuvers, Democrats left the chamber en masse, leaving the House roughly 14 members short of the required 100-member quorum to continue business. Without the requisite number of legislators, Dade Phelan, the speaker of the state House, adjourned the session around 11 p.m. local time, effectively killing the bill for this legislative session.

Republicans’ inability to pass the measure on Sunday night was the first major stumble for the party in its monthslong drive to restrict voting across the nation, and an embarrassment for G.O.P. leaders in the Texas Legislature who at least momentarily fell short of a top legislative goal for both the governor and the Republican Party.

From the outset, the push to install new restrictions on voting in Texas has been upended by legislative missteps and tension among Republicans in the State Capitol, marked by multiple late-night voting sessions in both chambers. After two different versions of the bill were passed by the House and the Senate, legislators took the bill behind closed doors to hash out a final version in a panel known as a conference committee.

The final bill, known as S.B. 7, included new restrictions on absentee voting; granted broad new autonomy and authority to partisan poll watchers; escalated punishments for mistakes or offenses by election officials; and banned both drive-through voting and 24-hour voting, which were used for the first time during the 2020 election in Harris County, home to Houston and a growing number of the state’s Democratic voters.

ImageState Representative Briscoe Cain, left, was one of the Republican sponsors of the voting legislation.
State Representative Briscoe Cain, left, was one of the Republican sponsors of the voting legislation.Credit…Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman, via Associated Press

But the conference committee took more than a week to finalize the measures, reaching an agreement on Friday, releasing the details of the legislation on Saturday and leaving both chambers with less than 48 hours to pass the bill.

A legislative power play by Republicans in the Senate late Saturday led to an all-night session and hours of impassioned debate and objections from Democrats. Early Sunday, the Senate passed the bill largely along party lines.

During debate late Sunday, State Representative Travis Clardy, a Republican, acknowledged that advancing the bill through the conference committee had proved to be a lengthy process, but he defended the panel’s methods.

“A lot of this was done late, I don’t get to control the clock,” Mr. Clardy said. “But I can assure you that the members of the committee did their absolute best, dead-level best, to make sure we’ve provided information to all members, including representative rows. And then we did everything that we could to make sure this was transparent.”

While Republican legislators will have to start from scratch if Mr. Abbott calls a special session, it is possible that they could simply use the same language and provisions from S.B. 7.

The effort in Texas, a major state with a booming population, represents the apex of the national Republican push to install tall new barriers to voting after President Donald J. Trump’s loss last year to Joseph R. Biden Jr., with expansive restrictions already becoming law in Iowa, Georgia and Florida in 2021. Fueled by Mr. Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud in the election, Republicans have passed the bills almost entirely along partisan lines, brushing off the protestations of Democrats, civil rights groups, voting rights groups, major corporations and faith leaders.

But the party’s setback in Texas is unlikely to calm Democratic pressure in Washington to pass new federal voting laws. President Biden and key Democrats in Congress are confronting rising calls from their party to do whatever is needed — including abolishing the Senate filibuster, which moderate senators have resisted — to push through a major voting rights and elections overhaul that would counteract the wave of Republican laws.

After the Texas bill became public on Saturday, Mr. Biden denounced it, along with similar measures in Georgia and Florida, as “an assault on democracy,” blasting the moves in a statement as “disproportionately targeting Black and Brown Americans.”

He urged Congress to pass Democrats’ voting bills, the most ambitious of which, the For the People Act, would expand access to the ballot, reduce the role of money in politics, strengthen enforcement of existing election laws and limit gerrymandering. Another measure, the narrower John Lewis Voting Rights Act, would restore crucial parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, including the requirement that some states receive federal approval before changing their election laws.

Aside from Texas, multiple states, including Arizona, Ohio and Michigan, have legislatures that are still in session and that may move forward on new voting laws. Republicans in Michigan have pledged to work around a likely veto from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, by collecting signatures from citizens and seeking to pass new restrictions through a ballot initiative.

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Texas residents headed to the polls on the final day of early voting in Dallas in October 2020.Credit…Nitashia Johnson for The New York Times

Republican lawmakers in battleground states have been backed in their effort by a party base and conservative media that have largely embraced the election falsehoods spread by Mr. Trump and his allies. G.O.P. legislators have argued that the nation must improve its “election security” even though the results of the last election have been confirmed by multiple audits, lawsuits, court decisions, election officials and even Mr. Trump’s own attorney general as free, safe, fair and secure.

In debate late Sunday night, Democratic legislators seized on a provision added late in the process that would make it easier to overturn the results of an election in the state in some circumstances. Texas law previously required proof that illicit votes had resulted in a wrongful victory. The new measure says that the number of fraudulent votes would simply need to be equal to the winning vote differential; it would not matter for whom those votes had been cast.

“They can use this to overthrow the voice of the people, to overthrow the voice of Texas,” said State Representative John Bucy III, a Democrat from near Austin. “Do we want to throw out our ability to let the voices be heard through elections?”

As with bills passed in other states, voting rights groups said the new provisions in Texas, if passed, would be likely to disproportionately affect poorer people and those of color.

“They are intent on creating voting restrictions that reverse the trends that you’ve seen in Texas,” Gilberto Hinojosa, the chair of the Texas Democratic Party, said in an interview this month. “And they’re all geared around minorities in the sense that they are primarily affecting large urban areas that are where most of the people of color in this state live today.”

“What they’re trying to do is create a system that discourages people from actually going out to vote,” he said.

Republicans in the Legislature had defended the bill, falsely arguing that it contained no restrictions on voting and saying that it was part of a yearslong effort to strengthen election security in the state. Even so, they acknowledged that there was no widespread voting fraud last year in Texas, and the Republican secretary of state testified that the state’s election was “smooth and secure.”

“This isn’t about who won or who lost, it’s really to make the process better,” State Senator Bryan Hughes, one of the Republican sponsors of the bill, said in an interview this month. “We want to make the elections more accessible and more secure, make them smoother.”

Briscoe Cain, the sponsor of the bill in the House, said late Sunday that the bill was meant to ensure that “conduct of elections be uniform and consistent throughout the state, to reduce the likelihood of fraud and the conduct of elections, to protect the secrecy the ballot, promote voter access and ensure that all legally cast ballots are counted.”

Voting rights groups have long pointed to Texas as one of the hardest states in the country for voters to cast ballots. One recent study by Northern Illinois University ranked Texas last in an index measuring the difficulty of voting. The report cited a host of factors, including a drastic reduction of polling stations in some parts of the state and strict voter identification laws.

David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin, Texas. Reporting was also contributed by Austin Ramzy and Anna Schaverien.

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