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Texas Democrats to Flee State to Block GOP Voting Bills

Democratic lawmakers are planning to leave the Lone Star State after Republicans moved quickly to get their so-called election integrity bills out of committee and onto the floor of the Texas House and Senate.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — In the opening days of a special summer session, Republicans in the Texas Legislature wasted no time advancing new voting restrictions that were blocked by Democrats in the spring. On Monday, Democrats responded by making plans to leave the state and head to the nation’s capital in an effort to stop the election bills.

News of the plan broke five days into the special session called by the GOP Governor Greg Abbott. Democrats in the state House of Representatives seek to again break quorum and grind the legislative process to a halt.

Under the Texas Constitution, two-thirds of lawmakers must be present to pass legislation in either chamber.

The planned getaway marks the second recent trip to Washington for Democrats in the Texas House, after they were invited to speak with federal lawmakers and advocate for the passage of voting rights legislation last month. The move harkens back to actions taken in 2003 by Texas Democrats who fled the state to block redistricting efforts.  

After being introduced and sent to committees Thursday on the first day of the special session, Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 faced lengthy hearings over the weekend that included public comments from hundreds of Texans, many of whom showed up to oppose the legislation.

After nearly 24 hours of testimony, both bills made it out of their respective committees and appeared to be headed for a full vote in the Texas House and Senate. But House Democrats announced Monday their intentions to leave Austin for Washington, with no indication as to when they would return.

The bills carry many of the same provisions from Senate Bill 7, the controversial voting bill that was killed when Democratic lawmakers broke quorum and walked off the floor in the waning hours of the regular legislative session.

Election integrity has been a core mission for Governor Greg Abbott and GOP leadership in the Texas Legislature. Under Abbott's orders, Republicans have hit the ground running to finish the mission they began at the start of the year. If the legislation passes, Texas would join states like Georgia and Florida who passed similar voting restrictions earlier this year despite pushback from the public.

Republican Senator Brian Hughes said during the first public hearing on SB 1 that claims about lawmakers trying to suppress the vote and Texas being the hardest state in which to vote are “baseless.”

“We heard sworn testimony about how people have had their votes stolen by vote harvesters, by claiming to help the voter and misleading them, stealing their votes, and that is what this bill is about,” Hughes said in a video posted to Twitter Sunday afternoon. 

Members of the public were allowed to voice their position on SB 1 and HB 3 during public hearings on Saturday. Texas civil rights groups, disability rights groups and high-profile activists spoke against SB 1 and asserted their belief that the bill would disenfranchise many Texans of their right to vote.

Former Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke of El Paso blasted the Republicans who support the bill in testimony before the Senate State Affairs Committee.

"You are now proposing a set of restrictions in this elections bill that is going to make it that much harder for millions more of our fellow Texans to cast a ballot and participate in what we all know to be the world's greatest democracy," O'Rourke said.

In their current form, the bills would ban drive-thru and 24-hour voting, an innovation created by Harris County, home to Houston, to increase turnout and prevent the spread of Covid-19. Drive-thru voting was a popular option for elderly and disabled voters, while 24-hour voting was utilized by many voters of color and those who would have had trouble going to vote due to work hours. 

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The Texas State Capitol in Austin. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Republicans claim these voting methods lack safety and security, pointing to clerical issues that arose from drive-thru voting and the struggle to get poll watchers to a 24-hour voting location. But Democrats say that instead of banning these practices, they should be improved through legislation because they increased turnout.

The bills also include changes to the hours of operation for polling locations. In the Senate version, a voting location can open no earlier than 6 a.m. and no later than 9 p.m. The House bill sets the closing time at no later than 10 p.m. If both bills pass, their differences will be reconciled through a conference committee process.

Neither of the bills restricts the hours of Sunday voting, which is popular for efforts like "souls to the polls,” a movement that helps get Black voters to voting locations after church. The final version of SB 7, the bill killed by Democrats at the end of May, would have limited early voting hours on Sunday to 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Many Democratic lawmakers and voting rights activists asserted that this would lead to longer lines for voters of color who participate in the program, further disenfranchising their right to vote.

Just as in SB 7, the new bills prohibit election officials from soliciting vote-by-mail applications to people who did not request them. This provision is another measure to counter actions Harris County took to expand voting by mail during the fall peak of the pandemic.

Another provision carried over from SB 7 would expand the role of poll watchers, preventing any election official from removing them unless they caused a disturbance. If a poll watcher is refused entry to a voting location, the person who denied them access faces a Class B Misdemeanor which includes up to a $2,000 fine and the possibility of 180 days in jail. Critics argue the change may lead to voter intimidation and create a hostile environment at polling locations.  

A measure that sets new ID requirements for vote-by-mail applications is included in both the House and Senate bills. The provision was added to SB 7 after the bill emerged from a conference committee. People applying to vote by mail must provide their driver license number in their application, or their Social Security number if they don't have a driver's license. If neither option is available, an applicant must explain why.

In addition to voter ID requirements for mail-in ballot applications, the Senate bill would require the Texas secretary of state's office to conduct monthly voter roll checks to flag and remove noneligible voters by comparing voter registration forms to Department of Public Safety data to catch people who registered to vote but identified as a noncitizen in DPS documentation.  

Democrats say that in addition to negatively impacting voters of color and disabled voters who do not drive, voter ID laws also turn voters away who do not wish to share sensitive information like their Social Security number.

Despite holding very little sway in both chambers, Democrats have charted a different direction by introducing voting reform legislation of their own. In both the House and Senate, numerous bills have been introduced that would allow Texans to register to vote electronically, allow a student ID to be a valid form of identification when voting, expand the hours of voting and limit the role of poll watchers.

On the second day of the special session Friday, Democrats filed Senate Bill 61, an omnibus voting bill that they say includes a comprehensive modernization of the Texas electoral process. The legislation would expand the ability of Texans to vote by mail, allow people to register to vote online or when they obtain a driver's license, expand the early voting period and require training for people who wish to serve as poll watchers.

Senator Carol Alvarado, a Houston Democrat, put voting legislation in the historical context of Jim Crow segregation laws when introducing SB 61.

"Fast forward to 2021, once again we are seeing a surge in more people of color voting, more women voting, more youth voting and now we are seeing the sequel, Jim Crow 2.0," Alvarado said.

Senator Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, said SB 61 “is designed to make voting and the election process safer, more secure and more accessible.” 

Speaking to reporters, West acknowledged that it will be a struggle for Democrats to advance the bill, but said, “Let me assure you, we will do everything in our power to get a hearing on this bill."

Republicans hold a majority in both the House and Senate and their voting legislation was expected to pass until Democrats announced their plan to block it by leaving the state.

Follow Kirk McDaniel on Twitter

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