Texas Voting Bill Nears Passage as Republicans Advance It
The bill, expected to pass the Legislature on Sunday night, represents the apex of a monthslong Republican effort to install tall new barriers to casting a ballot nationwide.,
The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature marched on Sunday toward a sweeping overhaul of the state’s election laws that would rubber-stamp some of the most rigid voting restrictions in the country, cement the state as one of the hardest in which to cast a ballot, and ramp up pressure on national Democrats as their federal bills aimed at protecting voting rights falter in Congress.
The state’s House of Representatives was set to debate the bill into Sunday evening and was expected to pass it before midnight, less than 24 hours after Republicans in the State Senate rushed the legislation to the floor in a legislative power play spearheaded by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. After hours of impassioned debate and objections from Democrats, the Senate passed the bill around 6 a.m. on Sunday. If it clears the House as well, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, is expected to sign it into law.
The bill includes new restrictions on absentee voting; grants broad new autonomy and authority to partisan poll watchers; escalates punishments for mistakes or offenses by election officials; and bans 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.
The bill 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.
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.
Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, has set a late June deadline to force a debate on the For the People Act. That leaves Democrats less than a month to try to win over holdouts like Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who is opposed to what he calls an overly broad and partisan measure, and to persuade them that it is worth abolishing the Senate filibuster to pass the measure along party lines. Mr. Manchin is facing a chorus of calls from all corners of his party — from Mr. Schumer to the progressive wing — to change his stance, but has shown little sign of budging.
Voting rights groups, civil rights groups and Democrats have pledged a monthlong blitz of advocacy, organizing and lobbying members of Congress to take whatever steps necessary to pass federal voting legislation.
“I hope after this good fight is fought in Texas, that we direct all of our energy and all of our focus on our friends in Washington, D.C., who, like they did in 1965, can save American democracy and keep it from reverting into Jim Crow 2.0,” Beto O’Rourke, a former Democratic presidential candidate, said at a news conference on Sunday.
The bill in Texas is unlikely to be the final G.O.P. voting legislation passed this year. 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.
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 a provision added late in the process, the Texas bill makes 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.
By banning drive-through voting, 24-hour voting and the use of tents or temporary structures as polling locations, the Legislature is targeting cities and suburban areas where Democrats did well in November; roughly 140,000 residents of Harris County used one of those methods in the 2020 election. The bill also bars election officials from mailing out absentee ballot applications to voters who have not specifically requested them, and says that any voter with “an illness, injury or disability that does not prevent the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day” may not cast a ballot by mail.
The bill also creates new regulations for the maintenance of voter rolls, which could lead to bigger and more frequent purges of voters from the lists. And it would give partisan poll watchers extensive access to voting sites, stating that they must able to “sit or stand [conveniently] near enough to see and hear the election officers.”
As with bills passed in other states, voting rights groups say the new provisions in Texas 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 have defended the bill, falsely arguing that it contains no restrictions on voting and saying that it is part of a yearslong effort to strengthen election security in the state. Even so, they have 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.”
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.
“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.”
Mr. Hughes pointed to a case in which a Democratic county commissioner in his district was indicted in October on charges of fraudulently soliciting mail votes.
“When the problems occur in the elections in Texas, we try to address them,” Mr. Hughes said. “How much fraud is OK? It’s never acceptable to have fraudulent elections.”
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.
In a sign that Republicans were moving beyond their once-cozy relationship with the business community, G.O.P. lawmakers in Texas defied the objections of major corporations, including direct pleas from businesses based in the state like American Airlines and Dell Technologies, as well as a separate effort by a coalition of dozens of companies including Microsoft, Patagonia, Salesforce and Sodexo.
The state’s voting bill, which was hashed out in a closed-door panel of lawmakers over the past week as the spring legislative session neared its conclusion on Monday, arrived unexpectedly on the State Senate floor late Saturday as Mr. Patrick and other Republicans suspended rules that require a bill to be public for 24 hours before a final vote. That set off hours of debate before the Senate passed the bill early Sunday by an 18-to-13 vote.
Democrats denounced the dark-of-night legislative maneuver on a measure that State Senator Borris L. Miles, a Democrat from Houston, said people in his largely Black and Latino district called “Jim Crow 2.0.”
“They do ask me, every time I’m in the neighborhood, Is this 2021 or is this 1961?” Mr. Miles said on the Senate floor. “And why are we allowing people to roll back the hands of time?”
State Senator Royce West, a Democrat from Dallas, raised concerns that a provision banning voting before 1 p.m. on Sundays would limit “souls to the polls” organizing efforts that are popular with Black churches. Mr. Hughes said that clause was intended to allow poll workers to go to church.
Mr. West noted that a separate bill passed by the Legislature would allow the sale of beer and wine starting at 10 a.m., two hours earlier than current law permits.
“We’re going to be able to buy beer at 10 o’clock in the morning, but we can’t vote until 1 o’clock,” he said.
Austin Ramzy and Anna Schaverien contributed reporting.