Texas house passes sweeping voting restrictions bill

The Texas house of representatives has passed a sweeping elections bill that would prohibit 24-hour and drive-through voting, block election officials from sending out absentee ballot applications, impose new identification requirements on mail-in ballots, and give more leeway to partisan poll watchers at voting sites.

The bill – which passed on a 79-37 mostly party-line vote – now moves to the Texas senate, which has already passed a similar version. The senate can either concur with the house legislation or produce a final version using a conference committee. After that, it will go to the desk of Texas governor Greg Abbott, who is likely to swiftly approve it.

The legislation comes amid a nationwide effort by Republicans, who control state government in Texas, to enact legislation that imposes new restrictions on voting access. The Texas bill exploded into the national spotlight after Democrats in the state legislature repeatedly blocked it by walking out of the state legislature, denying Republicans the ability to move forward with legislative business. The standoff, which lasted a little over a month, ended last week when enough Democrats returned to the state capitol to allow the process to move forward.

Many of the provisions in the Texas bill are aimed at Harris county, Texas’ most populous county, and home of Houston, a Democratic stronghold. Harris County election officials took several steps to make voting amid the pandemic easier. Those measures included adopting drive-through and 24-hour voting. The majority of voters who used both processes in 2020 were either Black, Hispanic or Asian, according to an estimate by the Texas Civil Rights Project. About 127,000 people used the process.

Andrew Murr, the bill’s sponsor, said the measure would prevent fraud, increase voting access, and help prevent ballot secrecy. But he was unable to say how many instances of fraud there were in the 2020 election and couldn’t name any voters who had complained about the secrecy of their ballot during drive-through voting.

Rafael Anchía, a Dallas Democrat, said the little evidence of actual fraud presented was clear evidence the states justifications for the bill were a “pretext”.

“This is all about furtherance of the Big Lie,” Anchía said.

The lengthy debate on the bill and proposed amendments was mostly cordial on Thursday afternoon, but it was clear that tension lingered in the chamber, where Republicans recently authorized the arrest of House members who refused to come to the capitol, none were ultimately arrested.

“The chair would appreciate members not using the word ‘racism’ this afternoon,” said House speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican.

Murr and other Republicans have defended the legislation by arguing that it increases the minimum hours polls are required to be open during early voting. But state representative John Bucy III, a Democrat from Austin, noted that the bill for the first time would set a maximum cap on the amount of early voting hours a county could choose to offer.

The new restrictions would make it harder to cast a ballot in a state that already has some of the strictest voting rules, and the lowest turnout in the country. Texas is only one of a handful of states that only allows a select group of people – those who are age 65 and older, disabled or out of town – to vote by mail. The state also does not have online voter registration and ranked among the bottom of US states in 2020.

The Democrats in the state house of representatives spent much of the last six weeks in Washington, where they were lobbying federal lawmakers to pass two measures that would implement significant voting rights protections.

One of those measures cleared the house on Tuesday and would require states with a recent history of voting discrimination, including Texas, to get any voting changes approved by the federal government before they go into effect. The measure faces an uphill path in the US senate, where it needs the votes of 10 Republican senators to overcome the filibuster and pass.

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