Texas House passes controversial changes to Texas voting rules

Texas Politics

Texas House lawmakers argue a point of order during debate over proposed voting rules on May 7, 2021. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — In a floor debate that started Thursday and spanned into the early-morning hours of Friday, the Texas House debated and voted on controversial changes to the state’s election rules.

The Republican-backed legislation has been the focal point of a contentious battle over what Republicans call election integrity and Democrats label voter suppression.

The GOP-led Texas House gave its initial approval early Friday around 3 a.m., in an 81-64 vote. The legislation passed out of the Texas House on Friday in a 78-64 vote.

“I filed this bill to, you know, ensure that we have a equal and uniform application of our election code and and to protect people from being taken advantage of,” the bill’s author, State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, said.

The legislation would enhance protections for partisan poll watchers and restrict distribution of vote by mail applications. It would require anyone who assists a voter to fill out a form detailing the reason for the assistance.

Cain, drilled with questions from House Democrats, admitted the 2020 election was free and fair, but stated this legislation was not filed as a reaction to the results of last year’s vote.

“We don’t need to wait for for bad things to happen in order to try and protect and secure these elections,” Cain, who chairs the House Elections Committee, said.

Democrats, many of whom donned masks with the phrase “Good Trouble” on them, planned to introduce more than 100 amendments and also attempted to derail the bill using procedural delays.

“Every single member on this floor believes that election fraud is a crime and should be prosecuted,” State Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, said.

“Where we disagree is that we do not believe that legal voters should be rejected and disenfranchise because of extraordinarily rare crime of election fraud,” González, the House Elections Committee vice chair stated.

Democrats took the opportunity to question Cain on their belief the legislation would have a disparate impact on voters of color. They quizzed Cain on his true intent for filing the omnibus election bill, which had a bumpy road as it made its way to the House chamber.

“The theory driving this bill, and the provisions themselves in the bill, are designed and intended to undermine and suppress participation in elections by Black Texans, Latino Texans, the Asian American community and folks who have a disability,” State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said Thursday.

“It’s a straight up assault on voting rights,” he continued. “Key provisions of this bill will almost certainly be overturned by the courts.”

After back-door negotiations, lawmakers from both parties introduced a total of 19 amendments. All of them, except one (which would strike the enacting clause of the bill), were approved. A dozen of the proposed changes came from Democrats.

One of the additions, by State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, struck language referencing “purity of the ballot box,” which Democrats said made reference to racism.

Cain added a change to ensure poll watchers may not photograph private information, the marking of a ballot or the actual ballot itself.

State Rep. John Bucy, D-Cedar Park, added a provision to clarify that “only people who know they are ineligible to vote can be prosecuted for illegal voting,” he said on the floor.

Bucy also added an amendment to ensure election transparency though posting of election information. An additional amendment required the Secretary of State’s office to post databases of information about elected officials.

State Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio inserted language to declare all races with unopposed candidates as elected and moving them to the bottom of the ballot.

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, included a change to allow voter registration applications to be sent to high school students in spring and fall semesters.

An addition by State Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, required the Secretary of State’s office to develop an online tracking program for mail-in ballots and applications to vote by mail.

State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, D-San Antonio, made an adjustment to give notice to a voter whose ballot had a defect and give that voter an opportunity to fix it.

State Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston, added a provision to allow voters to take time off of work to vote during early voting.

A change by State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, would permit candidates to use nicknames on the ballot if they fill out the appropriate paperwork.

Gov. Greg Abbott made “election integrity” an emergency item for lawmakers to address this legislative session. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker Dade Phelan backed the election overhaul legislation being worked on in their chambers.

“I don’t see voter suppression in House Bill 6,” Phelan, R-Beaumont, said last month.

“The bill is needed because Americans no longer trust the system,” Patrick said of Senate companion Senate Bill 7.

But Democrats contend the legislation is a direct reaction to record-turnout for Texas in the last election and seeks to limit voting rules implemented by Harris County during the pandemic.

Cain said his legislation aims to ensure election security.

“I don’t think this is voter suppression,” Cain said. “I believe it’s voter enhancement. I think this, this bill seeks to improve things for all Texans.”

The Senate’s version of the bill differs from the House version in that it restricts early voting hours and regulates how polling places are distributed across metropolitan communities in the state. In order the bill to advance to the Governor’s desk, the Senate needs to approve of the House’s tweaks, or the differences would be ironed out between members of both chambers.

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