Texas Voting Restrictions Clear Key Legislative Hurdle

Despite strong opposition from Democrats and business leaders, Texas Republicans passed a controversial voting reform bill after an all-night legislative session.

State Rep. Sheryl Cole, D- Austin, greets protesters as she enters the Texas House Chamber at the Capitol in Austin on Thursday. (Jay Janner /Austin American-Statesman via AP)

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Around 3 a.m. Friday morning, the Texas House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 7 on an 81-64, party-line vote that followed hours of debate and over a dozen amendments being added to the controversial election bill. 

SB 7 is a voting reform measure that follows the trend of other red states like Georgia and Florida, which have enacted laws limiting voter access. 

Texas’ bill limits the hours for polling locations, bans drive-thru voting, makes it a crime for election officials to mail voter applications and expands the role of poll watchers. Republicans say it is an effort to make elections more secure, but Democrats, civil rights advocates and a growing number of corporate critics say the bill is nothing more than voter suppression.

Beginning as House Bill 6, the measure was introduced back in March but stalled in the Texas House after facing procedural obstacles. SB 7, filed a day before HB 6, moved more quickly and passed the Texas Senate in an overnight vote on April 1. While both bills were in committee, they faced overwhelming opposition in public testimony. Once in the House, SB 7 adopted the language in HB 6, becoming the intended House bill with many of the legislative hurdles cleared.  

SB 7 will need to again be approved the Senate after a second House vote early Friday afternoon. It would then move to a conference committee, where members of both chambers finalize the bill’s language before it goes to Governor Greg Abbott’s desk.

Republican Representative Briscoe Cain, chair of the House Elections Committee and author of HB 6, brought SB 7 the floor of the House for a full vote on Thursday. Immediately, House Democrats began questioning Cain on the origins of the bill. 

When asked to point to instances of voter fraud in the 2020 election, Cain responded, “You can’t find what you don’t look for.”

“We don’t need to wait for bad things to happen for us to try and protect and secure these elections,” he said, encouraging his colleagues to vote in favor of the bill. 

Democrat Representative Chris Turner asked whether SB 7 was a response to last year’s election, in which Republicans lost control of the White House and U.S. Senate. Cain said it was not, despite the bill addressing specific innovations places like Harris County used to make voting easier and safer during election. Keith Ingram, director of elections at the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, described the 2020 election in Texas as “smooth and secure” in recent testimony before the House Elections Committee

Cain – who traveled to Pennsylvania last November to help former President Donald Trump investigate baseless allegations of voter fraud – claims legislation is primarily focused on clarifying existing election code and bolstering security, saying “the overarching goal of this bill is to instill trust in our system.” 

Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Houston, center, stands with co-sponsors as he answers questions and speaks in favor of an election bill at the Texas Capitol on Thursday. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

During House debate over the bill, Democrat Representative Rafael Anchía raised concern over the bill’s use of the term “preserve the purity of the ballot box”. Anchía drew upon the history of the use of the term to disenfranchise and prevent voters of color from casting their vote. Cain said that he was inspired to use the term from the state constitution and said he did not know about the term’s racially charged origins. 

Joshua Blank, director of research for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said in an interview that the restrictive voting legislation is “rolling back the freedom that counties enjoyed during the pandemic to make it easier for people to vote.” 

Blank says lawmakers have set their sights on limiting counties such as Harris, home to Houston, which introduced drive-thru voting to curb exposure to Covid-19 last year. Nearly 127,000 voters utilized drive-thru voting in the 2020 election. 

“There is a case to be made that having uniform voting laws across the state, that don’t depend on the county you live in, could be a reasonable goal. But the reality is that the consequence of that is it will disproportionately impact counties differently depending on how populous they are,” said Blank. 

Essentially, Blank said, SB 7 is the state GOP leadership’s “reaction to a lot of the temporary policies that Harris County put in place during the pandemic to make voting safer and easier.”

Brandon Rottinghaus, political science professor at the University of Houston and co-host of the “Party Politics” podcast that focuses on state and national politics, described SB 7 as “fairly radical” and more restrictive in comparison to other state’s voting bills. 

He said the bill threatens the ability of counties to adapt and make voting easier for their citizens, adding that it will affect “big urban counties.” Rottinghaus also said it could backfire on Republicans.

“Not just politically, but also in practice, if you restrain the ability for people to vote easily then it might hurt [Republicans] in places that you might be getting votes in the future,” he said.  

The AARP said as much in written testimony over SB 7. The senior advocacy group alleged that the bill would lead to a “disproportionate and unnecessary risk of disenfranchising older voters in Texas.” 

Blank noted “there has been a rhetorical shift” to Republican lawmakers fighting “voter fraud” and advocating for “election integrity.”

“On the other hand, if the target is integrity, number one, it’s hard to be on the other side arguing against increased integrity, and number two, there’s no maximum amount of integrity that our elections could ever achieve,” said Blank.   

On the steps of the state Capitol on Thursday morning, Texas Democrats voiced their discontent with the legislation. State Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said the bills are an “attempt by the Republican Party to change the rules to let them continue to control the state when they see all across the state that democrats are beginning to win.”

In addition to controversial new voting laws in Georgia and Florida, lawmakers in Arizona and Michigan have also followed the trend with bills in both legislatures seeking to tighten voter ID rules. Outcry against these voting restrictions has been far reaching and at all levels of business and government in America. 

President Joe Biden called Georgia’s new laws “un-American” and likened it to “Jim Crow in the 21 century”. CEO’s of Georgia-based companies like Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines spoke out against the legislation, calling it “unacceptable”. Major League Baseball, based in New York, even pulled it’s 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta in protest of the new voting.

Similarly, in response to Texas lawmaker’s efforts to reform voting, Texas-based companies Dell Technologies and American Airlines voiced their opposition to SB 7 and HB 6.

“To make American’s stance clear: We are strongly opposed to this bill and others like it,” the airline said in a statement. Dell CEO Michael Dell said on Twitter, “Governments should ensure citizens have their voices heard. HB6 does the opposite, and we are opposed to it.”

Also speaking out against the Texas voting restrictions, Fair Elections Texas, a coalition of business and civic leaders, wrote a letter calling upon Texas officials to  “make democracy more accessible and oppose any changes that would restrict eligible voters’ access to the ballot.” The letter was signed by companies such as Levi Strauss & Co., Microsoft, Patagonia, Etsy, and HP as well as Texas organizations supporting LGBTQ+ and minority groups.

A 2020 study from Northern Illinois University said Texas was the hardest place to vote in America, with Georgia coming in second. The study found that states where it is easier for people to vote allow residents to register on Election Day and online or be automatically registered when eligible. They also have looser voter ID rules and allow mail-in ballots.

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