Republicans in the Texas Senate muscled one of the most restrictive new voting laws in the US to the cusp of the governor’s desk early on Sunday, rushing the bill to the floor in the middle of the night.
The sweeping measure, known as Senate Bill 7 or SB7, passed along party lines around 6am, after eight hours of questioning by Democrats, who have virtually no path to stop it from becoming law. The bill must still clear a final vote in the Texas House later on Sunday in order to reach Republican governor Greg Abbott, who is expected to sign it.
“I have grave concerns about a bill that was crafted in the shadows and passed late at night,” said Democratic state senator Beverly Powell.
Under revisions during closed-door negotiations, Republicans added language that could make it easier for a judge to overturn an election and pushed back the start of Sunday voting, when many Black churchgoers go to the polls.
The 67-page measure would also eliminate drive-thru voting and 24-hour polling centers, both of which Harris county, the state’s largest Democratic stronghold, introduced last year.
Texas is the last big battleground in Republican efforts to tighten voting laws, driven by Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. Georgia and Florida have passed new restrictions. Joe Biden on Saturday compared Texas’ bill to election changes in those states as “an assault on democracy”.
The vote in the Texas Senate came a short time after a final version of the bill was made public. Around midnight, Republicans wielded their majority to suspend rules that would normally prohibit taking a vote on a bill that had not been posted for 24 시간. Democrats protested a breach of protocol that denied them and the public time to review the language.
The bill would newly empower partisan poll watchers by allowing more access inside polling places and threatening criminal penalties against officials who restrict their movement. Republicans proposed giving poll watchers the right to take photos, but that language was removed from the final bill.
Another provision could make it easier to overturn an election in Texas, allowing a judge to void an outcome if the number of fraudulent votes could change the result, regardless of whether it was proved that fraud affected the outcome.
Election officials would also face new penalties, including felony charges for sending mail voting applications to people who did not request one. The Texas District and County Attorneys Association tweeted that it had counted in the bill at least 16 new, expanded or enhanced crimes.
GOP legislators are also moving to prohibit Sunday voting before 1pm, which critics called an attack on “souls to the polls” – a get-out-the-vote campaign used by Black congregations nationwide. The idea traces back to the civil rights movement. Democratic state representative Nicole Collier, chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said the change would “disengage, disenfranchise those who use the souls to the polls opportunity”.
Pressed over why Sunday voting couldn’t begin sooner, Republican Bryan Hughes said: “Election workers want to go to church, too.”
Collier was one of three Democrats picked to negotiate the final version, none of whom signed their name to it. She said she saw a draft around 11pm on Friday – which was different than one received earlier that day – and was asked for her signature the next morning.
Major corporations have warned that the measures could harm democracy and the Texas economy. Republicans shrugged off their objections.
Texas has some of the country’s tightest voting restrictions and is regularly cited by nonpartisan groups as a state where it is especially hard to vote. It was one of the few states that did not make it easier to vote by mail during the pandemic.
The top Republican negotiators, Hughes and state Representative Briscoe Cain, called the bill “one of the most comprehensive and sensible election reform bills” in Texas history.
“Even as the national media minimizes the importance of election integrity, the Texas Legislature has not bent to headlines or corporate virtue signaling,” they said.
Since Trump’s defeat, at least 14 states have enacted more restrictive voting laws, according to the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice. It has also counted nearly 400 bills filed this year nationwide that would restrict voting.