Texas finalized bill that will enact new voting restrictions and overturn election results

by Amy Gardner

The Texas legislature on Saturday moved closer to enacting dozens of new restrictions on the voting process, as Republican lawmakers reached a deal that imposes a raft of hurdles on casting ballots by mail and enhances civil and criminal penalties for election administrators, voters and those seeking to assist them.

The measure would make it illegal for election officials to send out unsolicited mail ballot applications, empower partisan poll watchers and ban practices such as drop boxes and drive-through voting that were popularized in heavily Democratic Harris County last year, according to a final draft distributed by legislative staff to voting right advocates Saturday morning.

In a last-minute addition, language was inserted in the bill making it easier to overturn an election, no longer requiring evidence that fraud actually altered an outcome of a race — but rather only that enough ballots were illegally cast that could have made a difference.

The final draft of Senate Bill 7 was filed Saturday morning, after being mired for days in protracted negotiations between the state House and Senate. The measure bucks the entreaties of civil rights leaders and business executives who sought to head off legislation they say will suppress voter participation and disenfranchise voters of color.

But GOP lawmakers pushed forward, saying it was necessary to shore up voter trust, even as they struggled to justify the need for stricter rules in the state, where officials said the 2020 election was secure.

The legislation is the latest example of how state officials have rushed to align themselves with former president Donald Trump’s false claims that lax voting rules undermined the integrity of the 2020 presidential election.

GOP lawmakers in dozens of states are pushing new voting measures in the name of election security, under intense pressure from supporters who echo Trump’s false claims of rampant fraud. States including FloridaGeorgia, Iowa and Montana have passed measures that curtail voting access, imposing new restrictions on mail voting, the use of drop boxes and the ability to offer voters food or water while they wait in long lines.

The Texas legislation is now headed to the House and Senate chambers for final approval this weekend. Gov. Greg Abbott (R), an ardent Trump supporter and potential 2024 presidential contender who threatened lawmakers with a special session if they did not pass a voting bill this week, is expected to sign it soon. The bill is among a number of controversial measures the Texas legislature has focused on in its final hours before adjourning on Monday, including a restriction on how teachers may discuss the nation’s history of racism in the classroom.

Voting rights groups have pledged to move quickly to challenge the law in court, and President Biden condemned the measure Saturday, calling on Congress to move forward on federal voting legislation that would override many of the provisions being passed in GOP-controlled states.

The Texas measure is “part of an assault on democracy that we’ve seen far too often this year—and often disproportionately targeting Black and Brown Americans,” the president said in a statement. “It’s wrong and un-American. In the 21st century, we should be making it easier, not harder, for every eligible voter to vote.”

The two lead proponents of the Texas voting legislation, Republicans Rep. Briscoe Cain and Sen. Bryan Hughes, announced late Friday that they had reached a compromise between the Senate’s original omnibus voting proposal and the House’s less restrictive version.

“Senate Bill 7 is one of the most comprehensive and sensible election reform bills in Texas history,” Cain and Hughes said in a statement issued Friday evening. “There is nothing more foundational to this democracy and our state than the integrity of our elections.”

As of Saturday midday, the final version was not yet published on the Texas legislature’s website. The 67-page draft distributed by House and Senate staff declares as its purpose “to reduce the likelihood of fraud in the conduct of elections, protect the secrecy of the ballot, promote voter access, and ensure that all legally cast ballots are counted.”

The bill would broadly prohibit local election officials from altering election procedures without express legislative permission — a direct hit against Harris County, home of Houston, where election officials implemented various expansions last year to help voters cast ballots during the pandemic. It also specifically targets some of those expansions, explicitly banning drive-through voting locations, temporary polling places in tents and 24-hour or late-night voting marathons.

The proposed new voting hurdles come after the state logged record turnout in the 2020 election, including huge surges in early voting in cities including Austin and Houston.

Voting rights advocates say that is exactly what the GOP is aiming to prevent with new laws.

“Senate Bill 7 is a ruthless piece of legislation,” said Sarah Labowitz, policy and advocacy director for the ACLU of Texas. “It targets voters of color and voters with disabilities, in a state that’s already the most difficult place to vote in the country.”

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