• Tue. Sep 28th, 2021

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Texas Voting Bill Nears Passage as Republicans Advance It

Note: Just before midnight on Sunday, Texas Democrats in the Legislature staged a walkout to force the temporary failure of the Republican election bill. Read more.

The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature was racing against the clock on Sunday night to pass a sweeping overhaul of the state’s election laws that would rubber-stamp some of the most rigid voting restrictions in the country, but Democrats were pledging an all-out fight to try to stall the bill and prevent it from passing by a midnight deadline.

Though Republicans control both chambers, Democrats were becoming increasingly bullish on their chances of delaying passage of the bill and preventing it from coming to a floor vote in the House through either legislative maneuvers or a lengthy debate. Earlier on Sunday, after a legislative power play by Republicans that led to an all-night session and hours of impassioned debate and objections from Democrats, the Senate passed the bill.

Republicans in the House professed confidence that the bill would still pass on Sunday. Failure to meet the deadline would represent a setback for G.O.P. lawmakers determined to usher in a raft of new limits to voting, and would force Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, to call a special session of the Legislature to pass the bill.

Mr. Abbott, who could call a special session as early as June, has previously stated that an election overhaul was one of his top priorities for this legislative session, and he was widely expected to sign whatever bill Republicans passed.

The bill includes new restrictions on absentee voting; grants broad new autonomy and authority to partisan poll watchers; escalates punishments for mistakes or offenses by election officials; and bans both drive-through voting and 24-hour voting, which were used for the first time during the 2020 election in Harris County, home to Houston and a growing number of the state’s Democratic voters.

The bill in Texas, a major state with a booming population, represents the apex of the national Republican push to install tall new barriers to voting after President Donald J. Trump’s loss last year to Joseph R. Biden Jr., with expansive restrictions already becoming law in Iowa, Georgia and Florida in 2021. Fueled by Mr. Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud in the election, Republicans have passed the bills almost entirely along partisan lines, brushing off the protestations of Democrats, civil rights groups, voting rights groups, major corporations and faith leaders.

President Biden and key Democrats in Congress are confronting rising calls from their party to do whatever is needed — including abolishing the Senate filibuster, which moderate senators have resisted — to push through a major voting rights and elections overhaul that would counteract the wave of Republican laws. After the Texas bill became public on Saturday, Mr. Biden denounced it, along with similar measures in Georgia and Florida, as “an assault on democracy,” blasting the moves in a statement as “disproportionately targeting Black and Brown Americans.”

He urged Congress to pass Democrats’ voting bills, the most ambitious of which, the For the People Act, would expand access to the ballot, reduce the role of money in politics, strengthen enforcement of existing election laws and limit gerrymandering. Another measure, the narrower John Lewis Voting Rights Act, would restore crucial parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, including the requirement that some states receive federal approval before changing their election laws.

The bill in Texas, if it passes, is unlikely to be the final G.O.P. voting legislation this year. Multiple states, including Arizona, Ohio and Michigan, have legislatures that are still in session and that may move forward on new voting laws. Republicans in Michigan have pledged to work around a likely veto from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, by collecting signatures from citizens and seeking to pass new restrictions through a ballot initiative.

Republican lawmakers in battleground states have been backed in their effort by a party base and conservative media that have largely embraced the election falsehoods spread by Mr. Trump and his allies. G.O.P. legislators have argued that the nation must improve its “election security” even though the results of the last election have been confirmed by multiple audits, lawsuits, court decisions, election officials and even Mr. Trump’s own attorney general as free, safe, fair and secure.

In a provision added late in the process, the Texas bill would make it easier to overturn the results of an election in the state in some circumstances. Texas law previously required proof that illicit votes had resulted in a wrongful victory. The new measure says that the number of fraudulent votes would simply need to be equal to the winning vote differential; it would not matter for whom those votes had been cast.

By seeking to ban drive-through voting, 24-hour voting and the use of tents or temporary structures as polling locations, the Legislature is targeting cities and suburban areas where Democrats did well in November; roughly 140,000 residents of Harris County used one of those methods in the 2020 election. The bill would also bar election officials from mailing out absentee ballot applications to voters who have not specifically requested them, and says that any voter with “an illness, injury or disability that does not prevent the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day” may not cast a ballot by mail.

The bill also creates new regulations for the maintenance of voter rolls, which could lead to bigger and more frequent purges of voters from the lists. And it would give partisan poll watchers extensive access to voting sites, stating that they must able to sit or stand close enough to “see and hear the election officers.”

As with bills passed in other states, voting rights groups say the new provisions in Texas would be likely to disproportionately affect poorer people and those of color.

“They are intent on creating voting restrictions that reverse the trends that you’ve seen in Texas,” Gilberto Hinojosa, the chair of the Texas Democratic Party, said in an interview this month. “And they’re all geared around minorities in the sense that they are primarily affecting large urban areas that are where most of the people of color in this state live today.”

“What they’re trying to do is create a system that discourages people from actually going out to vote,” he said.

Republicans in the Legislature have defended the bill, falsely arguing that it contains no restrictions on voting and saying that it is part of a yearslong effort to strengthen election security in the state. Even so, they have acknowledged that there was no widespread voting fraud last year in Texas, and the Republican secretary of state testified that the state’s election was “smooth and secure.”

“This isn’t about who won or who lost, it’s really to make the process better,” State Senator Bryan Hughes, one of the Republican sponsors of the bill, said in an interview this month. “We want to make the elections more accessible and more secure, make them smoother.”

Mr. Hughes pointed to a case in which a Democratic county commissioner in his district was indicted in October on charges of fraudulently soliciting mail votes.

“When the problems occur in the elections in Texas, we try to address them,” Mr. Hughes said. “How much fraud is OK? It’s never acceptable to have fraudulent elections.”

Voting rights groups have long pointed to Texas as one of the hardest states in the country for voters to cast ballots. One recent study by Northern Illinois University ranked Texas last in an index measuring the difficulty of voting. The report cited a host of factors, including a drastic reduction of polling stations in some parts of the state and strict voter identification laws.

As the spring legislative session neared its conclusion on Monday, the process took several unexpected turns that sent the deliberations deep into the early morning hours — on Friday, when the final provisions were hammered out, and then again late Saturday, when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other Republicans suspended rules that require a bill to be public for 24 hours before a final vote. That set off hours of debate before the Senate passed the bill around 6 a.m. Sunday by an 18-to-13 vote.

Democrats denounced the dark-of-night legislative maneuver on a measure that State Senator Borris L. Miles, a Democrat from Houston, said people in his largely Black and Latino district called “Jim Crow 2.0.”

“They do ask me, every time I’m in the neighborhood, Is this 2021 or is this 1961?” Mr. Miles said on the Senate floor. “And why are we allowing people to roll back the hands of time?”

State Senator Royce West, a Democrat from Dallas, raised concerns that a provision banning voting before 1 p.m. on Sundays would limit “souls to the polls” organizing efforts that are popular with Black churches. Mr. Hughes said that clause was intended to allow poll workers to go to church.

Mr. West noted that a separate bill passed by the Legislature would allow the sale of beer and wine starting at 10 a.m., two hours earlier than current law permits.

“We’re going to be able to buy beer at 10 o’clock in the morning, but we can’t vote until 1 o’clock,” he said.

Austin Ramzy and Anna Schaverien contributed reporting.