Texas Republicans aim to ram through voting restrictions at special session after Democrat walkout

Hailee Mouch woke up at 2am Saturday morning so she could drive to her state’s capital city of Austin and testify at two competing public hearings on Texas’s restrictive voting bills.

She knew she had to return to the Dallas area to be at work by 6am Sunday. But she was determined to stay as long as possible to tell state lawmakers how their proposals would hurt democracy in the small city where she goes to college.

“It shouldn’t be scary to vote,” she said. “And I worry that this will make it scary to vote.”

Mouch was among the crowd who flocked to the state capitol on Saturday, when committees in the state House and Senate held overlapping hearings on highly controversial voting legislation during their rapid-fire special session.

By 6am local time on Sunday, public testimony in the House was still ongoing. The overnight hearing paralleled actions during the legislature’s regular session, when lawmakers advanced elections bills while most Texans were sleeping.

“We have packed snacks, food, and everything, and we’re prepared for another 22-hour marathon if that’s what God’s calling us to do. We love our state. This is it. We don’t have anywhere else to go,” said Lori Gallagher.

Texas governor Greg Abbott convened the special session – effectively legislative overtime for no more than 30 days – starting 8 July, after Democrats killed a restrictive voting bill during the regular session with a historic walkout from the House floor.

“We feel like our ‘electeds’ are really trying to beat us down and trying to run out that, like, that urgency that we have and that commitment that we have,” said Lexy Garcia, a regional field coordinator for Texas Rising and Texas Freedom Network about the battle against voting restrictions.

Abbott announced his special session agenda on Wednesday, and the public received very little notice before they had to appear for Saturday’s hearings.

But Texans from across the ideological spectrum still filled multiple overflow rooms and sat patiently on hallway benches, preparing to wait all day, and possibly all night and night to testify in person at the sessions.

At around 6.30pm Saturday, seven and a half hours into the Senate’s public hearing, former presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke addressed the committee. He testified again for the House committee early on Sunday morning.

“Some of you are Republicans. I’m a Democrat. But I think we want to win these contests on the merits of the argument, and the ideas, and the vision that we offer,” O’Rourke said at the Senate hearing.

“We don’t want to win because we’ve excluded effectively and functionally millions of our fellow Texans from participating in these decisions that will impact all of our lives for generations to come.”

Texas is one of the country’s most bitter battlegrounds for voting rights, with a deeply divided electorate and a reputation as the hardest place to cast a ballot nationwide.

Now, Republicans are endorsing provisions that would ban 24-hour and drive-thru voting, expose public officials to state felonies for soliciting or distributing unrequested vote-by-mail applications, empower partisan poll watchers and otherwise significantly rollback voter access.

Voting rights advocates warned for months that those changes could disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color and people with disabilities, a concern Republican lawmakers in Saturday’s Senate hearing shrugged off.

“Every provision in this bill applies to every voter equally, regardless of where they live, or the color of their skin, or their political party,” said state senator Bryan Hughes, the Senate bill’s author. “We don’t register and state what our race is, or our religion.”

“I don’t believe there’s any voter suppression. I know there’s no ‘Jim Crow 2’ era law in this bill. And I’ll tell you that I know there’s not a poll tax in this bill,” said state senator Paul Bettencourt.

Some Texans think the new bills don’t go far enough, however, to establish what opponents call voter suppression but the governor calls “election integrity”.

Melinda Roberts, a poll watcher who said she was denied entry to a polling location in 2020, initially thought the Senate had butchered and overly diluted its legislation – though she later expressed support.

She ultimately wanted felony charges for election officials who restrict poll watchers’ access, but had little sympathy for anyone finding it too difficult to vote.

“I would like to ask them, ‘who has told you that you can’t vote?’” Roberts said. “I have an elderly mom. She votes in every election. Nobody has said she can’t vote. I have a son that’s a double amputee. He votes in every election. If you want to vote, you can vote. No one is suppressing you. No one.”

Betty Weed disagreed. She said she’s opposed to the bills because they would make voting “nearly impossible for many people”.

Weed volunteers with a group that provides free rides to voters, and she’s assisted Texans are blind and who, because of her help, are finally able to vote, after decades of being disenfranchised.

“The entire bill is my concern,” she said. “Pretty much everything about the bill will make it just so much harder to vote.”

The conservative-dominated US supreme court earlier this month upheld voting restrictions in Arizona, against a blistering liberal dissent, in a ruling that dealt a major blow to the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 civil rights law designed to prevent voting discrimination, and with far-reaching implication in other states.

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