AUSTIN — Texas is one of the last major battleground states in the throes of a contentious battle over a Republican-led overhaul of voting laws.
Around 3 a.m. on Friday, the state’s House of Representatives passed an omnibus bill that would introduce a host of new voting restrictions in the state, sending the legislation to the State Senate.
With the late-night passage came lots of twists, turns and political drama, setting up a contentious last few weeks of the legislative season here in Austin.
Where the bill stands
The bill passed in the House mostly along party lines, in an initial vote and a ceremonial final vote hours later. Now the legislation, called S.B. 7, has arrived at the Senate, loaded with some new amendments that have softened some of the original restrictions.
The bill has already passed the Senate once, early last month, so it does not need to go through the full committee process in the Senate, and faces two paths forward. The most likely option is what is known as a conference committee, in which selected members of the Legislature would gather behind closed doors and hash out a final version of the bill.
After the committee finishes, the bill would be sent back to both chambers for a final up-or-down vote, with no amendments allowed.
The other option, which operatives from both parties in Texas say is very unlikely, would be for the Senate to “concur” with the House version of the bill, sending it to the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican.
The Senate will most likely decide on a path forward for the bill early this week, and could decide its direction as early as Monday afternoon, when the legislative body convenes at 5:30 p.m. Eastern time.
Mr. Abbott has been vocally supportive of the effort to change the state’s voting laws, tweeting on Friday that he looked forward to signing the bill and “making it TX law.”
What’s in the legislation
As it stands now, the bill would bar election officials from proactively mailing out absentee ballots or applications for them. It would also greatly empower partisan poll watchers, granting them greater and closer access to voters and making it extremely difficult for election officials to remove observers for bad behavior. The bill also sets new penalties, and raises existing ones, for election officials who provide assistance to voters in ways that are found to violate the rules.
New amendments proposed by Democrats in the late-night negotiations last week also included a few measures to expand voting access, including a provision that would require judges to inform someone if a conviction will prohibit them from voting, rather than automatically charging such people with a crime if they try to vote despite their previous conviction.
The late-night alterations on Thursday and Friday of last week stripped the bill of some of its more onerous provisions, including bans on drive-through voting and 24-hour voting; new rules for voting machine allocation that could force some municipalities to reduce their number of polling locations; and allowing partisan poll watchers to video-record or photograph voters.
However, some of these provisions could be added back by the Senate in a conference committee, and the Democratic amendments could be dropped.
What Democrats are doing to oppose the bill
Texas is under complete Republican control, and though the margins in the State Capitol are somewhat smaller than they were years ago, the party still has a comfortable advantage in both chambers of the Legislature, leaving Democrats largely powerless to stop the bill from passing.
Amid months of false claims by former President Donald J. Trump that the 2020 election was stolen from him, Republican lawmakers in many states are marching ahead to pass laws making it harder to vote and changing how elections are run, frustrating Democrats and even some election officials in their own party.
- A Key Topic: The rules and procedures of elections have become a central issue in American politics. The Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal-leaning law and justice institute at New York University, counts 361 bills in 47 states that seek to tighten voting rules. At the same time, 843 bills have been introduced with provisions to improve access to voting.
- The Basic Measures: The restrictions vary by state but can include limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, adding identification requirements for voters requesting absentee ballots, and doing away with local laws that allow automatic registration for absentee voting.
- More Extreme Measures: Some measures go beyond altering how one votes, including tweaking Electoral College and judicial election rules, clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives, and outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections.
- Pushback: This Republican effort has led Democrats in Congress to find a way to pass federal voting laws. A sweeping voting rights bill passed the House in March, but faces difficult obstacles in the Senate. Republicans have remained united against the proposal and even if the bill became law, it would likely face steep legal challenges.
- Florida: The latest state to restrict voting. Measures include limiting the use of drop boxes, adding more identification requirements for absentee ballots, requiring voters to request an absentee ballot for each election, limiting who could collect and drop off ballots, and further empowering partisan observers during the ballot-counting process.
- Texas: The next big move could happen here, where Republicans in the legislature are brushing aside objections from corporate titans and moving on a vast election bill that would be among the most severe in the nation. It would impose new restrictions on early voting, ban drive-through voting, threaten election officials with harsher penalties and greatly empower partisan poll watchers.
- Other States: Georgia Republicans in March enacted far-reaching new voting laws that limit ballot drop-boxes and make the distribution of water within certain boundaries of a polling station a misdemeanor. Iowa has also imposed new limits, including reducing the period for early voting and in-person voting hours on Election Day. And bills to restrict voting have been moving through Republican-led legislatures in Arizona and Michigan.
Yet that has not stopped a loud protest effort. On Saturday, leading Texas Democrats, including the former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke and Representative Joaquin Castro, led demonstrations against the bill in major cities across the state. Though their cries are unlikely to resonate in Austin, the issue could become a motivating factor among Democrats in 2022, when Mr. Abbott is up for re-election.
Democratic lawyers have promised that they will file a lawsuit once the Texas bill is passed and signed into law, following similar Democratic litigious strategies in Georgia and Florida.
What about corporate pressure?
It has largely been ineffective. While Fortune 500 companies were late to push back on Georgia’s new voting law, and mostly stayed silent on Florida’s recently signed restrictions, major corporations like American Airlines, Dell Technologies and Microsoft all spoke out against the Texas legislation soon after it was introduced.
Weeks later, a coalition of about 50 international corporations, local businesses and chambers of commerce signed a letter calling for expanded access to voting in the state and broadly outlining their opposition to any effort to restrict voting. But the letter stopped short of specifically criticizing either of the voting bills that were moving through the Texas House at that time.
The issue has particularly fractured the Greater Houston Partnership, the equivalent of the local chamber of commerce in the country’s fourth-largest city. After the group decided not to take an outright stance in opposition to the voting bills, a large faction of the partnership broke away, with more than 100 local executives signing a stinging letter calling the proposals in Texas “voter suppression.”