The Texas House approved a raft of new voting restrictions Friday, as majority Republicans seeking to hold on to power in a rapidly changing state finally overcame months of delays by Democrats who said the measure will raise new barriers to the ballot box for marginalized voters.
The House voted 80-41 to approve Senate Bill 1. It now moves back to the state Senate to iron out minor differences with the House’s version of the bill before heading to the desk of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, whose strong-arm tactics — including calling lawmakers into two special sessions this summer with instructions to approve “election integrity” measures after the Democratic boycott had stymied earlier versions — paved the way for the bill’s passage.
Opponents warned that the bill would make voting harder for people of color, who often back Democrats, as well as people with disabilities — in part by outlawing the all-night and drive-thru voting that Houston conducted during the 2020 election.
“Make no mistake: This is your bill. Your idea. And you would be responsible for the consequences,” Democratic state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, who recalled having to pay a poll tax to vote in Texas prior to 1966, said to her Republican colleagues. “If you think that you’re winning today by the things that you are putting in this bill, let me give you a prophetic statement: You will reap what you sow. And you know what? It won’t be years or decades from now. It’ll be sooner than you think.”
Friday’s vote caps off this summer’s showdown over voting rights, with Republicans in legislatures across the nation seeking to implement new restrictions in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s lies about widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
Texas Democrats are now in the same position as the party’s lawmakers in Georgia, Florida and other states that have similarly approved restrictive voting laws this year: dependent on the party’s national leaders to find a way past a Senate filibuster and enact nationwide voter protections.
Texas House Democrats had tried for months to halt the GOP’s bill. In the waning hours of Texas’ legislative session in May, House Democrats bolted from the Capitol in Austin to block the chamber from having the quorum necessary to do business — effectively running out the clock and blocking the bill’s passage.
Then, when Abbott called a 30-day special session to try again, those House Democrats fled to Washington, DC — outside the reach of Republican Speaker Dade Phelan’s order to have them arrested and compelled back into the House chamber to vote. The Democrats spent weeks in Washington organizing a pressure campaign to convince members of Congress to pass federal voting rights protections, which remain stalled on Capitol Hill.
The six-week exodus ended after Abbott called a second special session and some Democrats broke ranks and returned to Austin, clearing the path for Republicans to move the measure in the House.
Much of SB 1 targets the efforts of Harris County, the home of Houston, to make voting more accessible during the pandemic last year. The county opened drive-thru voting centers and allowed 24-hour early voting — both of which the bill would prohibit, because it creates a window of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. in which counties are allowed to conduct early voting.
It prohibits local elections officials from sending unsolicited applications to vote by mail, including to voters over the age of 65 who are automatically eligible to cast mail-in ballots.
It also places new rules around mail-in voting, increases protections for partisan poll watchers and sets new limits on those who help voters, including those with disabilities, to cast their ballots.
The Republican bill authors have repeatedly said the legislation is designed to make it “easier to vote, harder to cheat.” There is no evidence of widespread voting fraud in Texas.
“We want Texans to be confident in the system,” said Republican Rep. Andrew Murr, the bill’s House sponsor.
Opponents, including advocates for voting rights and for people with disabilities told a House committee this month that the bill would disproportionately place new burdens on marginalized groups — and that the options the measure limits or prohibits were popular with Black and brown voters, including shift workers who cast votes after hours, last year.
Democrats could not stop the bill in the Senate earlier this month, though state Sen. Carol Alvarado of Houston filibustered for 15 hours, without being able to take bathroom breaks or drink water.
“Do we want access to our electoral process to be more difficult for people with disabilities, or do we want to remove barriers for them?” Alvarado said on the Senate floor. “For communities of color, do we want to defend the tremendous progress that we’ve made in civil rights and equality or chip away at their voting rights one Senate bill at a time?”
In the House on Thursday, as lawmakers began 12 hours of debate on amendments, Phelan, the speaker, began the day by saying he “would appreciate members not using the term ‘racism’ this afternoon.”
That admonishment incensed some Democrats, who have argued that a measure that disproportionately affects people of color is inherently racist.
“Intentional discrimination against people of a certain race — is that racism?” said Democratic state Rep. Gina Hinojosa.
Republicans voted down dozens of Democratic amendments in the House throughout Thursday night, including proposals to allow same-day and automatic voter registration, allow students to use their college IDs to vote, create special voting conditions for people with Covid-19 and require racial impact studies on the changes to voting laws.
The January 6 insurrection, in which Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol in an effort to overturn the 2020 election results, also came up during the Texas House’s debate Thursday night.
Democratic Rep. Erin Zwiener proposed an amendment that would have added to poll watchers’ oath a pledge that they “have never participated in or encouraged an act of insurrection against this state or the federal government.”
Republican Rep. Kyle Biedermann, who was pictured in Washington on that day, accused Zwiener of overstating what had happened on January 6.
“You were not there. You don’t know what happened. All you do is listen to the liberal media,” Biedermann said.
Zwiener asked whether Biedermann believed what had happened on January 6 was an insurrection.
“Of course not,” he said.