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Texas Lawmakers Are Back For A Special Session. Here's What You Should Know.

The Texas Capitol.
Evan L'Roy
The Texas Tribune
The Texas Capitol on Feb. 1. Lawmakers are set to return to the Capitol on Thursday as the special session kicks off.

Texas lawmakers are back in Austin Thursday for the beginning of a special legislative session, where legislators are set to revive a controversial elections bill that would impose new restrictions on voting.

Over the last few days, we've solicited readers' questions about the special session and the voting legislation that Republican lawmakers are expected to bring back up. These are the answers to those questions. Some of these answers come from a live discussion Texas Tribune reporter Alexa Ura conducted on Reddit.

What is the special session and why is it happening in Texas?

In the Legislature, a special session is when lawmakers convene outside the regular session usually to complete unfinished tasks for the year, or address special topics and emergencies. In Texas, special sessions are only to be called by the governor.

Gov. Greg Abbott called a special session of the Texas Legislature, which started July 8 and is set to last up to 30 days, to address bills that died at the end of the regular legislative session like the election and bail bills. This comes after the regular 87th legislative session, which ended on May 31.

How long will the special session last?

We don’t know. Special sessions can last up to a maximum of 30 days, but there is no minimum. There is also no limit to the number of special sessions a governor can call in between regular legislative sessions.

The special session that started July 8 is one of at least two expected this year, with a later one coming in the fall on redistricting and the spending of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

What is on the agenda?

There are 11 items on the agenda that lawmakers can discuss. They include:

  • Bail overhaul
  • Elections
  • Border security
  • Social media censorship
  • Legislative branch funding
  • Family violence prevention
  • Limiting access to school sports teams for transgender students
  • Abortion-inducing drugs
  • An additional payment for retired Texas teachers
  • Critical race theory
  • Other budgetary issues

See the full list from the governor's office here.

What about the power grid? Will anything else come up during this special session?

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda for the first special session does not include anything about the state’s electric grid, which was exposed as deeply vulnerable during February’s winter storm that left millions without power.

But Abbott can still decide to expand the agenda and include the power grid as a topic for lawmakers to tackle.

Will lawmakers consider redistricting in the special session that starts July 8?

Redistricting has not been listed on the agenda for this month’s special session. However, it is expected to be addressed during a later session this fall.

Would the voting legislation from the regular session have significant effects on people's ability to vote? What does the legislation actually do?

Many readers asked about what the bill does, who it affects, and how likely it is to become law.

The final version of the bill from the regular session that ended in May would have created new limitations for early voting and further tightened voting by mail rules in a state where that voting option is already fairly limited. Republican lawmakers have said they will change some of the most controversial aspects of the bill, like provisions that would have limited early voting hours on Sundays and made it easier to overturn an election. But Democrats are worried conservatives will push even harder during the special session, where they might have more time.

“The risk that comes with some of the proposed restrictions is how they might compound the hurdles marginalized people already face in making themselves heard at the ballot box,” Tribune reporter Alexa Ura said in her Reddit discussion.

In its opening proposal for the special session, the House appeared to already have expanded the restrictions it passed during the regular session. House Bill 3 embraces several of the Senate’s earlier restrictions, including two targeting Harris County’s voting initiatives, and a new ID requirement for mail-in voting.

Could some of the voting restrictions disenfranchise Republican voters?

There are questions about what kind of impact Republicans' restrictions may have on their own voters. Tribune reporter Alexa Ura said in her Reddit discussion said the clearest example of this is mail-in voting, which is a method of voting that was traditionally used by more conservative voters. Ura noted that more Democratic voters took the opportunity to vote by absentee ballot in 2020, but it is not clear if that trend will continue in elections after the pandemic.

Could Texas Democrats break quorum by walking out again to stop the elections bill from passing?

The Democrats' staged walkout during the regular session prompted a flood of national attention. They could do this again during the special session, and Democratic members have been clear this option is on the table.

But a quorum break only goes so far, Tribune reporter Alexa Ura said in her Reddit discussion. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott can always just continue calling special sessions.

How popular are proposed voting restrictions among Republican voters in Texas?

While the Tribune does not have polling on the voting restrictions considered during the regular legislative session, recent polling showed that a large majority of Republican registered voters want voting rules to be more strict. Overall, 35% of registered voters last month said they would make voting rules more strict, while 29% would leave them as is and 26% would loosen them.

But, Tribune reporter Alexa Ura noted in the Reddit AMA, "only a small slice of the state's registered voters believe ineligible voters frequently cast ballots in Texas elections."

"Even among Republicans, a minority of voters — 31% — believe ineligible votes are frequently cast," Ura said. "In Texas, and nationally, GOP efforts to enact new voting restrictions have been largely built on claims that elections must be safeguarded from fraudulent votes, even though there is no evidence of widespread fraud."

From The Texas Tribune.

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