Texas Republicans Finalize Major Bill of Voting Limits
The bill, which would make already stringent voting rules in Texas even tougher, is likely to pass both chambers of the Legislature. Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to sign it.,
Texas lawmakers on Saturday finished drafting a bill that would impose a raft of new voting restrictions, setting up the likely passage of what would be among the most far-reaching laws in Republicans’ nationwide drive to overhaul elections systems and limit voting.
The bill would tighten what are already some of the country’s strictest voting laws, and it would specifically target balloting methods that were employed for the first time last year by Harris County, home to Houston.
In addition to banning drive-through voting and 24-hour voting, which were used by nearly 140,000 voters in Harris County during the 2020 election, the bill would prohibit election officials from sending absentee ballots to all voters, regardless of whether they had requested them; ban using tents, garages, mobile units or any temporary structure as a polling location; further limit who could vote absentee; and add new identification requirements for voting by mail.
Partisan poll watchers would also have more access and autonomy under the bill’s provisions, and election officials could be more harshly punished if they make mistakes or otherwise run afoul of election codes and laws.
The bill, which was hashed out in a closed-door panel of lawmakers, will now head to both chambers of the Republican-led Legislature for a final up-or-down vote, with no opportunity for either party to try to amend the legislation. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who has said that an election overhaul is a priority, is widely expected to sign the bill. Because the bill must be publicly viewable for 24 hours before a vote is held, the Legislature will not be able to pass it before Sunday.
Texas is one of several Republican-led states — including Iowa, Georgia and Florida — that have moved since the 2020 presidential contest to pass new laws governing elections and restricting voting. The impetus is both Republicans’ desire to appease their base, much of which continues to believe former President Donald J. Trump’s lies about a stolen election, and the party’s worries about a changing electorate that could threaten the G.O.P.’s longtime grip on power in places like Texas, the second-biggest state in the country.
Republican state lawmakers have often cited voters’ worries about election fraud — fears stoked by Mr. Trump, other Republicans and the conservative media — to justify new voting restrictions, despite the fact that there has been no evidence of widespread fraud in recent American elections.
And in their election push, Republicans have powered past the objections of Democrats, voting rights groups and major corporations. Companies like American Airlines, Dell Technologies and Microsoft spoke out against the Texas legislation soon after it was introduced, but the pressure has been largely ineffective so far.
A public version of the bill had not been posted online as of 2:20 p.m. Eastern time, but The New York Times obtained a copy of it and confirmed with Republican officials that it was the final version.
The final 67-page bill, known as S.B. 7, proved to be an amalgamation of two omnibus voting bills that had worked their way through the state’s Legislature. It included many of the provisions originally introduced by Republicans, but lawmakers dropped some of the most stringent ones, like a regulation on the allocation of voting machines that would have led to the closure of polling places in communities of color and a measure that would have permitted partisan poll watchers to record the voting process on video.
Still, Democrats and voting rights groups were quick to condemn the bill.
“S.B. 7 is a ruthless piece of legislation,” said Sarah Labowitz, the policy and advocacy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “It targets voters of color and voters with disabilities, in a state that’s already the most difficult place to vote in the country.”
But Republicans celebrated the bill. State Representative Briscoe Cain and State Senator Bryan Hughes, its sponsors, praised the bill as “the product of years of hard work.”
“We are honored to see these efforts result in a bill that provides security and accessibility,” the legislators said in a statement on Friday announcing an agreement on the bill. “Even as the national media minimizes the importance of election integrity, the Texas Legislature has not bent to headlines or corporate virtue signaling.”
The bill took its final form after a contentious monthslong debate that included a session that lasted until 4:30 a.m.; back-room negotiations; procedural errors by legislators; and extended, passionate debate by Democrats, who have tried to stall the bill’s passage through political and legislative maneuvers.
On Friday evening, after Mr. Cain and Mr. Hughes said lawmakers had reached an agreement, Democrats on the committee that worked on the final bill cried foul, saying they had not seen the finished version.
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 Texas’ in-person voter registration deadline 30 days before Election Day, a drastic reduction of polling stations in some parts of the state, strict voter identification laws, a limited and onerous absentee voting process, and a lack of early voting options.
In the preamble to the new bill, the authors appear to pre-emptively defend the legislation from criticism by Democrats and voting rights groups, stating that “reforms to the election laws of this state made by this Act are not intended to impair the right of free suffrage guaranteed to the people of Texas by the United States and Texas Constitutions, but are enacted solely to prevent fraud in the electoral process and ensure that all legally cast ballots are counted.”
In March, Keith Ingram, the director of elections in the Texas secretary of state’s office, testified that last year’s election in the state had been “smooth and secure.” He added, “Texans can be justifiably proud of the hard work and creativity shown by local county elections officials.”
Nonetheless, the bill includes a provision that could make overturning an election easier. Previously, Texas election law had stated that reversing the results of an election because of fraud accusations required proving that illicit votes had actually resulted in a wrongful victory. If the bill passes, the number of fraudulent votes required to do so would simply need to be equal to the winning vote differential; it would not matter for whom the fraudulent votes had been cast.
A day before the Texas bill emerged, a new report pointed to the vast sweep of Republicans’ nationwide effort to restrict voting.
Amid months of false claims by former President Donald J. Trump that the 2020 election was stolen from him, Republican lawmakers in many states are marching ahead to pass laws making it harder to vote and changing how elections are run, frustrating Democrats and even some election officials in their own party.
- A Key Topic: The rules and procedures of elections have become a central issue in American politics. The Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal-leaning law and justice institute at New York University, counts 361 bills in 47 states that seek to tighten voting rules. At the same time, 843 bills have been introduced with provisions to improve access to voting.
- The Basic Measures: The restrictions vary by state but can include limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, adding identification requirements for voters requesting absentee ballots, and doing away with local laws that allow automatic registration for absentee voting.
- More Extreme Measures: Some measures go beyond altering how one votes, including tweaking Electoral College and judicial election rules, clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives, and outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections.
- Pushback: This Republican effort has led Democrats in Congress to find a way to pass federal voting laws. A sweeping voting rights bill passed the House in March, but faces difficult obstacles in the Senate. Republicans have remained united against the proposal and even if the bill became law, it would likely face steep legal challenges.
- Florida: Measures here include limiting the use of drop boxes, adding more identification requirements for absentee ballots, requiring voters to request an absentee ballot for each election, limiting who could collect and drop off ballots, and further empowering partisan observers during the ballot-counting process.
- Texas: The next big move could happen here, where Republicans in the legislature are brushing aside objections from corporate titans and moving on a vast election bill that would be among the most severe in the nation. It would impose new restrictions on early voting, ban drive-through voting, threaten election officials with harsher penalties and greatly empower partisan poll watchers.
- Other States: Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill that would limit the distribution of mail ballots. The bill, which includes removing voters from the state’s Permanent Early Voting List if they do not cast a ballot at least once every two years, may be only the first in a series of voting restrictions to be enacted there. Georgia Republicans in March enacted far-reaching new voting laws that limit ballot drop-boxes and make the distribution of water within certain boundaries of a polling station a misdemeanor. Iowa has also imposed new limits, including reducing the period for early voting and in-person voting hours on Election Day. And bills to restrict voting have been moving through the Republican-led Legislature in Michigan.
As of May 14, lawmakers had passed 22 new laws in 14 states to make the process of voting more difficult, according to the report by the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute.
In last year’s election, while Republicans won Texas easily — Mr. Trump carried the state by more than 630,000 votes and the party maintained control of both chambers of the Legislature — turnout soared in cities and densely populated suburbs, which are growing increasingly Democratic. In Harris County, one of the biggest counties in the country, turnout jumped by nearly 10 percent.
Republicans’ initial version of the bill put those densely populated counties squarely in the cross hairs, seeking to ban measures put in place during the 2020 election that helped turnout hit record numbers. The initial bill banned drive-through voting, a new method used by 127,000 voters in Harris County, as well as 24-hour voting, which was held for a single day in the county and was used by roughly 10,000 voters.
While those provisions were left out of an earlier version of the bill as it made its way through the Legislature, they were reinstated in the final version of the bill, though the bill does allow for early voting to begin as early as 6 a.m. and stay open as late as 9 p.m. on weekdays. It also maintains at least two weekend days of early voting.
More than any other state, Texas has also gone to great lengths to grant more autonomy and authority to partisan poll watchers. The observers have been a cornerstone of American voting for years, viewed as a watchdog for election officials, but their role has grown increasingly contentious, especially in Texas. Republican poll watchers have been egged on in particular by Mr. Trump, who implored them to go to major cities across the country and hunt for nonexistent voter fraud.
Across Texas during the 2020 election, there was an increase in anecdotal complaints of aggressive poll watchers, often on the Republican side, harassing both voters of color and election officials.
The new bill would make it a crime to refuse to admit the observers to voting sites or to block their ability to fully watch the process. It says poll watchers must be able to “sit or stand [conveniently] near enough to see and hear the election officers.”
It would also allow partisan poll watchers to seek relief through the courts if they argued that they were wrongfully refused or obstructed.
In addition, the bill would limit who can vote absentee by mail in Texas, which does not have universal no-excuse absentee voting. The bill states that those with a disability may vote absentee, but a voter with “an illness, injury or disability that does not prevent the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day” may not vote absentee.
Amid the new restrictions are multiple provisions that provide greater transparency into election administration. Counties must now provide video surveillance of ballot-counting facilities, and they must eventually make those videos available to the public. Discussions with voting equipment vendors must also be available to the public.