AUSTIN — After months of drama and political resistance, the curtain has lowered on Democratic attempts to stave off a far-reaching rewrite of the state’s voting laws coveted by Republicans seeking to retain their hold on power in a changing Texas.
One week after finally regaining enough members to conduct business, the Texas House slogged through a 12-hour floor debate Thursday before signing off on a slightly revised version of the Republican legislation that first prompted Democrats to stage a nearly six-week absence from the Capitol. The late-night 79-37 initial vote on Senate Bill 1 moved the state closer to enacting new voting restrictions, including limits on early voting hours and other measures opponents say will raise new barriers for marginalized voters, especially voters of color, who tend to vote Democratic, and those with disabilities.
The House returned Friday to give the bill final approval, 80-41, leaving the House and Senate to resolve their differences before the legislation heads to Gov. Greg Abbott.
“You largely did what you wanted in this bill. You kept changing the bill in the dark, and you backed off agreements we had from time to time that you made with some of us,” state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, told the chamber’s Republicans before the Friday vote. “But make no mistake this is your bill, your idea, and you will be responsible for the consequences.”
Unlike in the spring regular legislative session, the two chambers are much more aligned in their proposals, with the House legislation embracing proposed restrictions it had not included in its previous version of the bill. On Thursday, it further amended various sections of the bill to more closely match the Senate’s version.
Republicans have pitched the legislation as a benign effort to secure elections from fraud, though they have been unable to find significant evidence of it, and to standardize election processes across the state, pressing forward despite a chorus of opposition from Democrats, civil rights groups, voting rights organizers and advocates for people with disabilities.
“The point that I make to you today is that Texas has consistently reviewed its election law policy over time, making changes and updates as needed,” state Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, who authored the legislation, said at the start of the House’s debate Thursday. “SB 1 continues this process.”
The partisan tensions underscoring the ongoing fight were perhaps best illustrated by lawmakers’ debate over how the bill takes aim at diverse, Democratic Harris County, the state’s most populous, where officials instituted a series of voting initiatives last year meant to widen access to the ballot. That included creating overnight early voting to accommodate voters for whom regular hours don’t work and drive-thru voting that was used by 1 in 10 of those who voted early in person in the 2020 election.
Republican efforts to pull back on those voting options have been decried by Democrats and voting rights advocates as voter suppression targeting voters of color, who county officials have said disproportionately used those methods.
Seeking to head off heated discussions about discrimination, House Speaker Dade Phelan made an out-of-the-ordinary request to lawmakers at the start of their debate Thursday, urging them to avoid using the word “racism.”
Defending the ban on drive-thru voting, Murr indicated moving voting outside of the polling place opens up what is supposed to be a private and secure process. Upon Democratic questioning, though, he indicated he was unaware of any instances of fraud or in which a voter felt their privacy was undermined.
Aside from Phelan’s unusual request, Thursday marked a return to familiarity in the chamber, which stood at a standstill for nearly six weeks after Democrats decamped to Washington, D.C., to protest the bill and lobby for congressional action on federal legislation that would have preempted it.
They were always going to be outnumbered back at the state Capitol, though. And with Abbott vowing to continue calling lawmakers back for special legislative sessions until the Legislature passed the new restrictions, Democrats were destined to face a losing vote.
On Thursday, Democrats lined up to speak against the bill and question Murr on whether he looked into the possibility of disparate racial impact from the proposals. Over 12 hours, the Democrats offered more than three dozen amendments — trying to scrap portions of the bill, establish automatic voter registration and require a state study on the impact of voting law changes to different demographic groups, among several others — that were pushed to a pile of failed long-shot proposals.
House Republicans proved unwilling to move on all but one of the main tenets of the legislation.
They entertained some of the changes Democrats have been pushing for over the last few months to the portion of the bill that bolsters access for partisan poll watchers inside polling places, granting them “free movement” and heightening criminal penalties for election officials who interfere with their ability to observe elections.