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Just How Strict Will Texas Republicans’ Voting Bill Be?

Just How Strict Will Texas Republicans’ Voting Bill Be?

May 20, 2021
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AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Republicans on Monday resumed their push to pass a major voting bill with an array of restrictions , moving the bill to a closed-door panel of lawmakers who will hash out the final version of the legislation. But much of the suspense surrounding the panel, […]

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AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Republicans on Monday resumed their push to pass a major voting bill with an array of restrictions, moving the bill to a closed-door panel of lawmakers who will hash out the final version of the legislation.

But much of the suspense surrounding the panel, known as a conference committee, centers not on whether the legislation will pass the G.O.P.-controlled Legislature, but on what measures it will include when it does.

After a late-night scramble of last-minute negotiations among lawmakers last week, it looked as if recently introduced voting options, such as drive-through voting and 24-hour voting, would survive Republicans’ initial attempt to ban them. The version of the bill passed by the State Senate would have prohibited those types of voting, but the House version passed last week made no mention of either provision.

However, State Senator Bryan Hughes, the Republican sponsor of the initial bill and one of the committee members who will shape the final version behind closed doors, said in an interview last week that he would like to see the provisions banning drive-through voting and 24-hour voting added back to the final bill.

“It makes sense,” Mr. Hughes said, citing internal polling suggesting that Texas voters preferred standardized hours for early voting across the state. “So there’s some predictability and people are confident that the rules are being followed.”

The conference committee will meet this week to start crafting a final version of the bill, which would then be sent for a final up-or-down vote in both chambers. The Senate announced its members — made up of four Republicans and one Democrat — on Monday, and the House will make its appointments when the chamber convenes on Tuesday.

The bill initially sought a host of new restrictions on voting that would have had an outsize impact on voters in cities, most notably in Harris County, the biggest county in the state and home to Houston.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Harris County introduced a drive-through voting option, which more than 127,000 voters used in the general election. It also had a single day of 24-hour voting, which more than 10,000 voters used to cast ballots. The original bill that passed the House would have banned both of those methods, as well as placed limitations on the allocation of voting machines in counties with a population of more than one million, which election officials had said could force the closure of some polling locations.

But as the bill made its way through the Legislature, most of those provisions were removed. The bill as it passed the House included provisions greatly expanding the autonomy and authority of partisan poll watchers, included new penalties for election officials and workers who violate the rules, and barred officials from sending out absentee ballots to voters who have not requested them.

Mr. Hughes said he wanted the provisions against drive-through and 24-hour voting to be added back to the bill so there would be uniformity among counties in how elections are run.

    • 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: Measures here 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: Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill that would limit the distribution of mail ballots. The bill, which includes removing voters from the state’s Permanent Early Voting List if they do not cast a ballot at least once every two years, may be only the first in a series of voting restrictions to be enacted there. 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 the Republican-led Legislature in Michigan.

“One county can’t just make up the rules,” Mr. Hughes said. “Houston’s not the capital of Texas. Harris County doesn’t need to do that. Whether I like the change or I dislike it, one county can’t just make up the rules on the fly. That doesn’t work.”

Democrats in the Legislature have argued that this logic hampers the administration of elections, which are best run when local officials are empowered to address problems in their communities.

“You really can’t have uniformity when every county is different. Harris County is different than Loving County,” said Jessica González, a state representative and the Democratic vice chair of the House Elections Committee, referring to a county in West Texas with less than 200 residents. “And so, in my experience in doing voter protection work, it’s important that these elections officials are able to administer their elections, because they’re the ones who are actually on the ground and able to address those issues.”

If legislators in Texas were to add back provisions from the version of the voting bill that initially passed the State Senate, the state would stand as somewhat of an outlier nationally. Republicans in other states have tended to remove some of the strictest measures from voting bills as they make their way through legislatures. Both Georgia and Florida initially introduced bills that featured much more strident restrictions — such as limiting voting on Sunday or banning drop boxes — before settling on final versions that allowed for some weekend voting and limited drop box usage.

Texas is one of the last major battleground states working toward an overhaul of its voting rules and regulations. The Legislature is in session until the end of May, so any law will have to be on its way to the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, by midnight, June 1.

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