Texas House Passes Controversial Election Bill

The bill passed 79-37 on second reading late Thursday night then passed 80-41 on a third reading Friday afternoon. The measure includes bans on 24-hour voting and drive-through voting.

KERA News / Keren Carrión
A Dallas polling place in 2020.

The Texas House of Representatives passed a controversial election bill late Thursday night after more than 12 hours of debate. Nearly all Republicans voted in favor of the bill, and all Democrats opposed it.

The measure includes significant new restrictions on how counties can run elections and would provide more protection for partisan poll watchers.

The bill aims to ban several new voting options introduced in Harris County during the 2020 election. Those include 24-hour voting, drive-through voting for those afraid of catching COVID-19, and mail-in ballot applications sent to people who didn't specifically request them.

Regarding partisan poll watchers, it would impose a criminal penalty on any election judge who "intentionally or knowingly refuses to accept a watcher for service” when the law protects their presence. Civil rights groups are worried this could hamstring election judges — the people who run the polling places — and make it easier for watchers to intimidate voters.

Thursday's action on the floor strengthened this provision. An amendment by the bill's own sponsor, Junction Republican Andrew Murr, upped the proposed penalty from what he submitted earlier in the week. The amendment, which was adopted, would make the election judge's violation a Class A misdemeanor, matching what the Senate passed earlier this month.

Murr's amendment was an apparent response to public testimony on Monday, when several advocates for the bill told a committee they were upset the House penalty was softer than the Senate's.

Meanwhile, many Democratic amendments to the bill were defeated, such as same-day voting registration and expanded online voting registration. Democrats had fled to Washington, D.C. for several weeks to prevent quorum in an attempt to block the bill, a tactic they ultimately abandoned as the stalemate dragged on for weeks.

Toni Rose (D-Dallas) proposed an amendment to study the racial impact of the bill, but Murr and other Republicans voted against it.

"This topic has been discussed many times in our committee hearings that we had regarding this legislation," Murr said in opposition.

That drew a frustrated response from Rose.

"Texas is not a one-size-fits-all state," she said about the potential disparate impact of the legislation. "A lot of times things happen in certain communities that, just because it doesn't happen in your community, doesn't mean it will not happen in another community."

According to Houston Public Media, former Harris County elections director Chris Hollins said 53% of the users of drive-through voting were people of color, a disproportionate amount. He said 56% of 2020 voters who used 24-hour voting were people of color.

However, at least one amendment from a Democrat did make it into the bill. Rep. John Bucy (D-Austin) won approval of an amendment clarifying that no language in the elections code can be "interpreted to prohibit or limit the right of a qualified individual with a disability from requesting a reasonable accommodation or modification" to any election rule or procedure.

Disability advocates had expressed concern that tightening rules for mail-in ballot applications and drive-through voting could affect how people with disabilities use those avenues to vote.

The bill now has to pass through the House one more time — a step called third reading. From there, the Senate can either accept the House’s amendments or the differences will have to be ironed out in a conference committee before it becomes law.

This story originally appeared on KERA. KERA News is made possible through the generosity of its members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Got a tip? Email Bret Jaspers at bjaspers@kera.org. You can follow Bret on Twitter @bretjaspers.

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