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Politics

Sweeping Texas Voting Bill Dies After House Democrats Walk Out Of Final Vote

Texas Capitol
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
People hold signs in opposition to GOP voting legislation, outside the state Capitol on April 21.

Without enough Texas House members present for a final vote, a GOP-backed election bill failed to pass before a deadline Sunday night.

If signed into law, Senate Bill 7 would have added new restrictions to the state’s already limited vote-by-mail program and changed the standard of who is eligible for a mail-in ballot under the disability category. It would ban 24-hour voting centers, drive-thru voting and voting before 1 p.m. on Sundays.

Republicans said the bill was an effort to prevent voter fraud, though they offered no evidence of a widespread problem. Civil rights groups said the restrictions would disproportionately affect voters of color.

About an hour before a final deadline, House Democrats walked out of the chamber. That left leadership without a quorum, so they were unable to pass any legislation from that point on.

Gov. Greg Abbott called the move "deeply disappointing and concerning for Texans" and said he would be directing lawmakers to take up this issue again during a special legislative session.

"Ensuring the integrity of our elections and reforming a broken bail system remain emergencies in Texas," he said, referring to another priority bill that did not get a vote.

Throughout the night, Democrats claimed new provisions in SB 7 were written behind closed doors and that the bill was being rushed to passage without public input on key measures.

“The voices of Texans were not heard in this debate,” said state Rep. John Bucy, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Austin, Cedar Park and Leander.

The final version of SB 7 went through significant changes ahead of the final steps of approval in the House and Senate. Democrats said those changes were made by Republicans during private committee negotiations.

State Rep. Travis Clardy, a Republican from Nacogdoches who spoke on behalf of the bill, said members “worked hard to come up with language that would resolve substantive differences” between the Texas House and Senate versions of the bill.

"This bill makes it easier for Texas to vote,” he said, “but for those determined to break the law, make it harder to cheat.”

The bill — which was opposed by various corporations, as well as voting rights groups — required disabled voters to identify what kind of condition they have in order to vote by mail. It also required Texans to add identification information to their mail-in ballots.

State Rep. Chris Turner, a Democrat from Grand Prairie, called changes to the vote-by-mail process “another intimidation tactic.”

The legislation also took aim at efforts to make voting safer during the pandemic — particularly those made by election officials in Houston. SB 7 outlawed 24-hour voting centers and drive-thru voting, which were disproportionately used by voters of color during the 2020 election. The bill also banned voting before 1 p.m. on Sundays, which voting rights groups warn would affect “Souls to the Polls” campaigns led by Black churches.

James Slattery, a senior staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, told KUT the final version of the bill would have made voting harder in a state that is already the hardest to vote in.

“But it will also make voting scarier,” he said, “because there are a number of new crimes being created in this law that target both voters and election officials with serious felony offenses.”

SB 7 created state jail felonies for election officials who hand out vote-by-mail applications to people who haven't requested one. It also allowed partisan poll watchers to sue election workers and local governments if they are prevented from doing their “duties” as poll watchers.

One of the last-minute changes to the bill, which were not heard or debated in either chamber, included a provision that allows election judges to overturn an election if they suspect there is voter fraud without investigating ballots in question and proving this alleged voter fraud.

Rep. Bucy said this meant election workers would no longer have to prove voter fraud to throw out an election result.

“We all have political enemies,” he said. “They could use this to overthrow the voice of the people, to overthrow the voice of Texans.”

State Rep. Julie Johnson, a Democrat from Farmers Branch, said lawmakers were skirting their own rules in an effort to make it harder for Texans to vote.

“Make no mistake, the State of Texas will go to court again for this bill,” Johnson said. “We will waste millions of taxpayer dollars again defending this awful piece of legislation that seeks to disenfranchise so many Texas voters.”

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