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Texas Republicans advance voting bills after all-night hearing

Restrictive measures Republicans are rapidly pushing through a special legislative session cleared key state House and Senate committees Sunday.
People stand in line to testify before the House Select Committee on Constitutional Rights and Remedies at the Capitol on July 10, 2021, in Austin, Texas.
People stand in line to testify before the House Select Committee on Constitutional Rights and Remedies at the Capitol on July 10, 2021, in Austin, Texas.Tamir Kalifa / Getty Images

Texas Republicans on Sunday advanced new voting measures, moving rapidly to overhaul elections in the state after a heated night of hearings.

House Bill 3 cleared committee along party lines early Sunday morning after approximately 24 hours of testimony and debate over the bill, according to Democratic lawmakers. Senate Bill 1 was similarly passed out of committee Sunday afternoon. The legislation, taken up during a special session of the Texas State Legislature, drew hundreds of people to the state Capitol Saturday, with some waiting hours only to testify in the middle of the night.

The bills' swift advancement through key committees tees up floor votes in the state House and Senate as soon as this week. Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature, leaving Democrats with relatively few options to block legislation — though state House Democrats were able defeat a restrictive voting bill just before the clock ran out on the previous legislative session in May. The lawmakers staged a late-night walkout, leaving Republicans without the required quorum to take a vote.

Emboldened by that victory, House Democrats are again weighing their options, considering procedural fights or even another walk-out, according to a source familiar with the caucus planning.

But the special session called by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott can last for a month, and breaking quorum in the House as they did before would require more than 50 lawmakers to abandon the Legislature for weeks to keep a vote from being called.

Texas is one of dozens of states that have worked this year to implement sweeping new voting restrictions, fueled in part by former President Donald Trump's repeated false claims that the 2020 election was stolen through rampant fraud, something Democrats have declared "the big lie." There has been no evidence of voter fraud, in Texas or elsewhere, that affected the outcome of the election, in which Trump lost by more than 7 million votes.

The pair of election bills, Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3, were introduced last week, with hearings scheduled for over the weekend. The bills, which are very similar, are updated versions of the legislation Democrats blocked in May.

The legislation would require voters to provide identification for mail voting and would ban drive-thru and overnight options for early voting. Harris County, a heavily minority and liberal area of the state that is home to Houston, embraced those expanded early voting options during the 2020 general election. The bills would also add criminal penalties for voting law violations and empower partisan poll watchers, while adding a spate of new restrictions on how Texans help others cast a ballot.

Democrats and voter-rights advocates have condemned the bill as unnecessary and discriminatory, arguing they will suppress the votes of Texans of color and those with disabilities.

The bills were considered in simultaneous hearings, with House and Senate lawmakers trading witnesses, as the legislators and voters sparred over voter fraud and ballot box access.

In dual hearings Saturday, members of state House and Senate committees heard hours of testimony from invited witnesses and members of the public, many of whom had traveled by buses organized by Democrats and voting rights advocates to speak out against the legislation. Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat who narrowly lost a 2018 U.S. Senate bid, was one of nearly 250 people who signed up to testify in the state Senate on Saturday.

“It is the big lie that is the source and inspiration for so many of these voter suppression bills,” O’Rourke said. “Some of you are akin to the arsonist who wants to light the fire, and then get credit for trying to put it out, because you say, look, there may not be a statistically meaningful level of voter fraud, but my constituents are worried about it. Well, why are they worried about it? Because you keep talking about a problem that doesn’t exist and then trying to apply a solution that’s in search of a real problem.”

Numerous voters with disabilities spoke out in the Senate hearing against the legislation, as well, arguing that the restrictions expose helpers to undue scrutiny and prosecution. These voters already face challenges participating in democracy, one witness added: The Senate hearing was scheduled with just 48 hours’ notice, even though the Legislature requires witnesses to request disability accommodations 72 hours before their appearances.

Republicans say the legislation is critical to preventing voter fraud. Numerous people who identified themselves as election workers testified in support of the bill, some making evidence-free claims of widespread voter fraud.

Bill author Sen. Bryan Hughes, a Republican from East Texas, said that the Texas attorney general had voter fraud charges pending against 44 defendants. More than 11 million people voted in Texas last year.

State Sen. Royce West, a Democrat from Dallas County, stayed laser focused on those numbers, dividing 44 by 11 million during the hearing and and repeatedly pointing to "point zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, four" as an incredibly low rate of alleged fraud.

Jonathan White, head of the Election Integrity Division in the Texas Attorney General's office, said it was hard to prosecute those cases.

Chuck DeVore, a vice president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, argued that “common sense” indicated that voter fraud happens despite the few prosecutions, just as Texas drivers speed near his home when police aren’t around.

David Weinberg, who testified against the bill on behalf of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, rejected that argument by noting that online reports indicate 688,000 Texans received a speeding ticket in one recent year.

More than eight hours into the Senate hearing and 12 hours into the House hearing, the proceedings showed little signs of slowing, even as witnesses expressed fatigue at the long day.

Crystal Chism, a city councilwoman from DeSoto, Texas, testified in the Senate that the bill took power away from voters.

"I don’t want to choose my voters," she said. "I want them to choose me."