In Texas, Sweeping GOP Voting Overhaul Sent to Governor

August 31, 2021 by Dan McCue
Texas State Rep. Cecil Bell, Jr., R-Magnolia, holds his hat to his chest as he joins in the pledge in the House Chamber at the Texas Capitol as they prepare to debate voting bill SB1, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

AUSTIN, Texas — For the Democrats who fought bitterly to prevent it, it’s all over but the playing of a sad song on a honky tonk juke box.

On Tuesday, the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature sent a major overhaul of the state’s elections laws to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature.

In a lengthy statement, Abbott said he will sign the changes into law, something which could happen in a matter of days.

Meanwhile state Rep. Chris Turner, the chairman of the Texas House Democratic caucus, said in a statement that he and colleagues knew they wouldn’t be able to block the vote on the bill forever.

“Now that it has come, we need the U.S. Senate to act immediately,” he said.

Texas Republicans and Democrats have been fighting tooth and nail over the state’s voting regulations ever since former President Donald Trump refused to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election, claiming he’d been a victim of fraud at the polls.

The nearly 75-page bill passed Tuesday is nearly the same as the proposed legislation that caused Texas Democrats to twice flee the state capitol to prevent a vote.

It adds additional rules to nearly every aspect of voting and elections, while limiting voting hours and empowering partisan poll watchers.

The bill is also intended to curb several methods of voting implemented at the height of the pandemic to help people cast ballots safely. Among other things, it prohibits drive-through and 24-hour voting, methods that were widely used by voters of color, according to local election officials.

It also places limits on mail voting, making it a felony for election officials to distribute mail ballot applications unless voters request them. 

The bill also creates new penalties for people who assist others as they fill out a voter registration form or cast a ballot. Those people will now have to complete paperwork and swear a lengthy oath on penalty of perjury that they are following the rules.

Critics of these last provisions have a two-fold effect on voting. First, they say, it will simply make it harder for non-English speakers and those with disabilities to vote. Secondly, it will have a chilling effect on the voting process by exposing people to stiff penalties for simple mistakes.

But Texas Republicans contend all of the changes are necessary in order to protect the integrity of the state’s election.

That rationale was reiterated by the governor on Tuesday.

“Protecting the integrity of our elections is critical in the state of Texas, which is why I made election integrity an emergency item during the 87th Legislative Session,” he said. “I thank Senator Brian Hughes, Representative Andrew Murr, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and Speaker Dade Phelan for stepping up to ensure that this bill made it to the finish line during the second special session. 

“Senate Bill 1 will solidify trust and confidence in the outcome of our elections by making it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” Abbott continued. “I look forward to signing Senate Bill 1 into law, ensuring election integrity in Texas.”

“Senate Bill 1 creates uniform statewide voting hours, maintains and expands voting access for registered voters that need assistance, prohibits drive-through voting, and enhances transparency by authorizing poll watchers to observe more aspects of the election process. The bill also bans the distribution of unsolicited applications for mail-in ballots and gives voters with a defective mail-in ballot the opportunity to correct the defect,” he said.

Democrats criticized the voting bill as an attempt to suppress the turnout of an ascendant and more diverse electorate as Republicans, who are familiar with racking up commanding electoral victories in America’s biggest red state, begin to lose ground.

The one bit of drama on Tuesday occurred when state Sen. Bryan Hughes, the primary author of the bill, rejected language added by the House to address the controversial conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County, Texas woman facing a five-year sentence for a ballot she has said she did not know she was ineligible to cast. 

Defending the change, Hughes read aloud details of Mason’s tax forgery conviction and said she had signed a provisional ballot application affirming she hadn’t been convicted of a felony.

“Those are the facts about the Crystal Mason case,” Hughes said, later claiming the courts had deemed her a “threat.”

Mason has said she was being helped by a poll worker and didn’t read the fine print; she testified she didn’t know she was ineligible to vote.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat whose return to the chamber helped Republicans reach quorum, told reporters Tuesday that he believes the legislation has “major flaws”  that will “create problems down the road.” 

“All I can hope is that if those problems occur … that we come back here in two years and fix it,” he said. “Because the worst thing we could ever do is prevent someone from exercising their constitutional right to vote.”

In an interview with the Texas Tribune newspaper, Claudia Yoli Ferla, the executive director of MOVE Texas Action Fund, a voting rights advocacy group, said, “Our collective fight for a better future was not fought in vain.

“With a broad coalition of activists, organizers, attorneys, artists, business leaders, and voters speaking out — many of the most dangerous provisions of this anti-voter legislation were defeated,” Ferla said.

With Abbott’s signature, Texas will join at least 17 other states that have tightened their voting rules since the 2020 general election.

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