AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — The Texas House of Representatives passed an omnibus voting restrictions bill Thursday that was a priority for Governor Greg Abbott when he called for the current special session. Senate Bill 1 passed on a party line vote after hours of debate on it and 62 amendments.
The Texas Senate must now either approve of the version passed by the House to send the bill to the governor or disagree with the changes made and send it to a conference committee to work out the differences.
Since the regular session, voting restrictions legislation has been a highly controversial topic in the Lone Star State. It was this very legislation that served as the impetus for the governor to call a special session for the state Legislature to pass and for Democrats to flee the state in an effort to block it.
In its current form, Senate Bill 1 bans 24-hour voting and sets the hours of operation for polling locations to be between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. during the early voting period. In that 16-hour window, polling locations must be open for at least nine hours during early voting. Drive-through voting will also be banned under Senate Bill 1. Both 24-hour and drive-through voting were innovations in Harris County, home to Houston, that were used to increase voters' access to the polls while limiting exposure to Covid-19.
Republican lawmakers have criticized drive-through voting for presenting issues when it comes to voters' right to a secret ballot. Their concern stems from the alleged possibility that an individual may have someone in a vehicle with them, intimidating them to vote a certain way. Under the bill, curbside voting is still allowed for people who are unable to enter a polling location due to a disability.
Poll watchers will also see their rights at polling locations expanded under Senate Bill 1. Section 4 of the bill states that a poll watcher is entitled to see and hear election officials executing their duties. An issue many people raised during committee hearings was that poll watchers have been obstructed at polling locations and they are being shut out of the process by election officials. However, in some of Texas’ urban counties, elected officials say they have encountered unruly watchers that are there to intimidate voters. The bill would make refusing a poll watcher a Class A misdemeanor, which holds up to a $4,000 fine and up to one year in jail.
Additionally, Senate Bill 1 will create criminal penalties for election or elected officials for soliciting vote by mail applications to voters who did not request one and require people applying to vote by mail to provide their drivers license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number.
Republicans voted down numerous amendments proposed by Democrats that would have added provisions allowing for online voter registration, expanding voter ID requirements to encompass student IDs and allow for local officials to declare Election Day as a holiday.
Republican lawmakers have expressed that their goal is to standardize elections across the state of Texas and prevent voter fraud or ballot harvesters. Representative Andrew Murr, R- Kerrville, said during the debate, “the focus of this bill is forward-looking and you’ll notice that [references to fraud in the bill relate] to the likelihood of fraud.”
Democratic House members focused on how this legislation may have a disparate impact on communities of color and people with disabilities. A specific area of contention surrounds banning 24-hour and drive-through voting. During the 2020 election, the only time these options were available to voters, Harris County saw higher turnout among people of color through the use of these options. Democratic lawmakers have acknowledged their colleagues' concerns over the practice, but see perfecting drive-through and 24-hour voting more favorable than banning them in their entirety.