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Texas Senate approves stringent voting restrictions after all-night debate

May 30, 2021
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After a dramatic all-night debate, the Texas Senate approved one of the most restrictive voting bills in the country early Sunday on a party-line vote, despite emotional pleas from Democrats who likened the measure to the Jim Crow laws of the 20th century that effectively barred Black Americans from […]

Click here to view original web page at www.washingtonpost.com


After a dramatic all-night debate, the Texas Senate approved one of the most restrictive voting bills in the country early Sunday on a party-line vote, despite emotional pleas from Democrats who likened the measure to the Jim Crow laws of the 20th century that effectively barred Black Americans from voting in Southern states.

The Republican-majority House is scheduled to take up the measure later Sunday; if it passes, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is widely expected to sign it quickly.

Republicans barreled forward with the bill and hashed out a final version behind closed doors late last week, over the objections of civil rights leaders and business executives, who said the measure targets voters of color. President Biden on Saturday called it “wrong and un-American,” and Democrats vowed to immediately challenge it in court.

The bill is the latest example of how Republican legislators around the country have pushed for new voting restrictions as former president Donald Trump has kept up a barrage of false attacks on the integrity of the 2020 election.

GOP lawmakers in Texas argued the bill is necessary to shore up voter trust, even through they have struggled to justify the need for stricter rules in the state, where officials said the 2020 election was secure.

Senate Bill 7 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. It would bar early-voting hours on Sunday mornings, potentially hampering Democratic get-out-the-vote programs aimed at Black churchgoers

In a last-minute addition, language was also 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 Senate debate lasted more than seven hours into early Sunday morning, as Democrats argued that the measure would create barriers for many voters of color.

One Black senator from Houston, Borris Miles (D), took issue with a provision requiring anyone who transports more than two voters to the polls to fill out a form, saying that many of the voters he represents lack transportation and get rides from other residents.

“You really have no idea how things work in my neighborhood,” he said around 3:20 a.m. Central time, according to Houston Chronicle reporter Jeremy Wallace, who chronicled the debate on Twitter through the night.

Miles gestured to portraits of Confederate leaders hanging on the walls of the Senate chamber and asked, “Why are we allowing people to roll back the hands of time?”

Another lawmaker accused Republican proponents of Senate Bill 7 of intentionally erecting barriers for voters in Harris County, home of Houston and an increasingly Democratic stronghold with a large minority population.

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.

The bill would broadly prohibit local election officials from altering election procedures without express legislative permission — a direct hit against Harris County, 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.

Republican Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston defended the restrictions that would prevent Harris County from expanding voting access as it did in 2020, claiming without evidence that “drive-through voting didn’t work” and resulted in a 1.5 percent error rate.

“Drive-thru voting is safe, convenient, and secure for Texas voters. It worked so well in 2020 that nearly 1 in 10 in-person voters in Harris County cast their votes at drive-thrus,” he said in a text message.

“It’s a great service for Democratic and Republican voters, and everyone in between. Senator Bettencourt is not a fan because in 2020, too many of those voters were women and minorities.”

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

Cliff Albright, co-founder of the group Black Voters Matter, said such rhetoric mirrors the language used during the Jim Crow era to bar Black Americans from voting without explicitly stating that as the goal. He noted that an earlier version of Senate Bill 7 described protecting the “purity of the ballot box” — language used decades ago by White supremacists to limit Black voting.

“This bill is exactly in the Jim Crow tradition,” Albright said. “While not mentioning race, it is inarguably the case that these provisions are squarely aimed at Black and brown voters.”

Critics also took aim at the process as much as the substance of Senate Bill 7. They noted that the conference committee appointed to work out a compromise between House and Senate versions of the bill never actually met in person, leaving much of the legislature in the dark about its details. And they slammed Republican leaders for failing to appoint a single Black lawmaker to the negotiating team on a bill with major civil rights implications in a state with a long history of voting discrimination.

Marc Elias, a prominent Democratic election lawyer, promised to challenge the law in court quickly if Abbott signs it. He also noted that the measure’s restriction of early voting before 1 p.m. on Sundays is a direct assault on Souls to the Polls, the longtime Democratic get-out-the-vote effort that encourages Black voters to cast their ballots after church services.

“Can anyone send links to the statements about the new Texas bill from the 700 companies that said they were standing up against voter suppression?” Elias tweeted on Saturday. “Specifically, what steps they will take in Texas now?” The tweet also included images of crickets, donating the business community’s silence in recent days about the Texas bill.

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 Florida, Georgia, 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.

During debate in the House earlier this month, Cain maintained that he was not backing a voter “suppression” bill but rather a voting “enhancement” bill, insisting that the measure was designed to protect “all voters.”

● Impose state felony penalties on public officials who offer an application to vote by mail to someone who didn’t request it.

● Allow signatures on mail ballot applications to be compared to any signature on record, eliminating protections that the signature on file must be recent and that the application signature must be compared to at least two others on file to prevent the arbitrary rejection of ballots.

● Impose new identification requirements on those applying for mail ballots, in most cases requiring a driver’s license or Social Security number.

● Impose a civil fine of $1,000 a day for local election officials who do not maintain their voter rolls as required by law, and impose criminal penalties on election workers who obstruct poll watchers.

● Grant partisan poll watchers new access to watch all steps of the voting and counting process “near enough to see and hear the activity.”

● And require individuals to fill out a form if they plan to transport more than two non-relatives to the polls, and expand the requirement that those assisting voters who need help must sign an oath attesting under penalty of perjury that the person they’re helping is eligible for assistance because of a disability and that they will not suggest whom to vote for.

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