Texas Voting Restriction Bill Faces Revisions in Conference Committee

Texas’ controversial election reform legislation is headed to a bicameral committee to resolve changes made by the state House after its passage by senators.

Residents in San Antonio wait in line at the Bexar County Elections Department last October. (Courthouse News photo/Erik De La Garza)

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — The Texas Senate on Monday moved a bill limiting voter access to a conference committee tasked with molding it into legislation both chambers of the Legislature agree upon.

Republican Senator Bryan Hughes on Monday refused to concur with the changes made to Senate Bill 7 in the Texas House, saying the chamber “made some significant changes to the bill” and “we are going to need to do some work in conference.” The committee will be comprised of five members of the state House and five members of the Senate.

SB 7 is Texas Republicans’ new voting restrictions bill that supporters say will “protect the integrity of the ballot box.” In its current state, SB 7 will prohibit election officials from sending applications to vote by mail to those who are eligible and expand the role of poll watchers.

Earlier iterations of the bill banned drive-thru voting and limited the hours of operation for polling locations. These provisions were scrapped in the House, but may find their way back into the bill as the differences get settled in the conference committee. 

Before its passage in the House, the bill was met with fierce debate between House Democrats and House Elections Committee Chair Briscoe Cain, a Republican representative and author of SB 7’s companion bill, House Bill 6.

Cain was asked by the vice chair of the committee, Democrat Representative Jessica Gonzalez of Dallas, “What are we trying to fix here that is not broken?”

“We don’t need to wait for bad things to happen to try to secure our elections,” he responded.

There were over 100 amendments proposed by House Democrats late Friday evening. Of the 18 amendments adopted, one struck the controversial “purity of the ballot box” language, which Democrat Representative Rafael Anchia of Dallas said related to terms historically used to disenfranchise Black voters. Cain said he was unaware of the term’s racially charged origins. 

Another amendment adopted Friday removed a requirement for people requesting assistance in help reading or filling out their ballot to disclose their reason for assistance. 

As SB 7 continues progressing through the Texas Legislature, states such as Georgia and Florida have passed similar voting laws in the face of public outcry. 

If it becomes law, SB 7 will almost certainly face legal challenges. In Harris County, Texas’ largest county, commissioners voted to sue the state if the bill is signed by Republican Governor Greg Abbott. 

At the federal level, the For the People Act put forth by Democrats aims to boost access to voting by creating national same-day voter registration and expanding early and mail voting. Originally passed in the U.S. House of Representatives by a party-line vote, the bill is now working its way through the evenly divided U.S. Senate.

If signed into law, the For the People Act would nullify much of the recent legislation passed by states putting restrictions on voting. But it faces an uphill battle, as the U.S. Senate is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote. Under current Senate rules, the bill would need 60 votes to overcome the filibuster.

Voting bills moving through the Texas Legislature have faced mounting public scorn from citizens, civil rights groups and private companies. High-profile Democrats like former Senate and presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, who is also the former mayor of San Antonio.

“Texas is already the hardest state to vote in in the entire country,” Castro said. “Now, lawmakers in Texas are trying to use Donald Trump’s Big Lie to push some of the most restrictive voter suppression bills we’ve ever seen.”

Speaking out against the bill, the Texas Civil Rights Project said on Twitter that “SB 7 would still further criminalize [Texas] elections, make it harder for local county election officers to do their jobs, and embolden poll watchers.”

The conference committee for SB 7 is not allowed to edit parts of the bill that the two chambers disagree upon. Once proposed changes have been made and a report of the changes has been drafted, three members of each chamber must approve the report before sending it to both chambers. If the committee report is acceptable to both chambers, the proposed changes will be adopted and the bill will go to the governor’s desk.

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