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Texas Democrats stage walkout over restrictive voting bill, killing it for now

The GOP-backed legislation will be added to a special session agenda, Gov. Greg Abbott said.

Texas Democrats on Sunday night used every parliamentary tool at their disposal to effectively kill a bill that would add new restrictions to elections in the state, ultimately staging a walkout to prevent a vote from being held before a midnight deadline.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said that the bill would be added to a special session agenda.

Senate Bill 7, known as the Election Integrity Protection Act, passed the state Senate along party lines early Sunday morning after an all-night debate. The bill came up in the state House Sunday evening for final approval. But after hours of debate and delaying tactics, the chamber adjourned after Democratic lawmakers left in protest, breaking quorum and ending debate. At least 100 lawmakers must be present to conduct business.

The sweeping bill would ban drive-thru voting, limit voting hours, make it more difficult to cast mail ballots and empower partisan poll watchers. The final version of S.B. 7 was the result of a bicameral group of mostly Republican lawmakers reconciling proposals previously passed by both chambers. Elements were hashed out behind closed doors, and Democrats have argued they were left largely in the dark as last-minute changes and entirely new provisions were pushed through.

Democrats on Sunday night repeatedly pointed to language that could make it easier to overturn an election in Texas that was not included in original legislation. According to the bill text, a court may void an election if the number of fraudulent votes cast could change the result, whether or not fraud was proven to have affected the outcome.

Opponents railed against the new measures during debate Sunday night, calling them “unconscionable” and undemocratic. “The voices of Texans were not heard in this debate,” state Rep. John Bucy III said.

But Republican state Rep. Travis Clardy said lawmakers who back the additions had done their “level best” to be transparent and release information. The legislation will “make it easier for Texans to vote” and “harder to cheat” for “those determined to break the law,” he said.

Breaking quorum to block passage of a bill is rare — Texas lawmakers have done it only three other times, according to The Dallas Morning News. It happened most recently in 2003, when Democratic lawmakers fled to Oklahoma.

The final version of S.B. 7 would preserve the elimination of 24-hour polling stations and drive-thru voting centers, both of which Harris County, the state’s largest Democratic stronghold, introduced last year in an election that saw record turnout.

The bill would also prohibit Sunday voting before 1 p.m., which critics called an attack on what is commonly known as “souls to the polls” — a get-out-the vote campaign used by Black church congregations nationwide. The idea traces back to the civil rights movement. Democratic state Rep. Nicole Collier, chairwoman of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said the change is “going to disengage, disenfranchise those who use the souls to the polls opportunity.”

Collier was one of three Democrats picked to negotiate the final version, none of whom signed their name to it. She said she saw a draft of the bill around 11 p.m. Friday — which was different than one she had received earlier that day — and was asked for her signature the next morning.

Texas was also set to newly empower partisan poll watchers, allowing them more access inside polling places and threatening criminal penalties against elections officials who restrict their movement. Republicans originally proposed giving poll watchers the right to take photos, but that language was removed from the final bill that lawmakers voted on this weekend.

President Joe Biden criticized the GOP-backed legislation in a statement Saturday, calling it "part of an assault on democracy that we’ve seen far too often this year—and often disproportionately targeting Black and Brown Americans."

He again called on Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation.

Republicans have argued that strict penalties and empowered poll watchers would deter fraud, though there is no proof widespread fraud occurs. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office spent 22,000 hours looking for voter fraud in 2020 and uncovered just 16 cases of false addresses on registration forms, according to The Houston Chronicle. Nearly 17 million voters are registered in Texas.

Texas' bill is akin to many measures being considered in Republican-led legislatures across the country in the wake of President Donald Trump's stolen election lie.

Since Trump’s defeat, at least 14 states have enacted more restrictive voting laws, according to the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice. It has also counted nearly 400 bills filed this year nationwide that would restrict voting.

Republican lawmakers in Texas have insisted that the changes are not a response to Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud but are needed to restore confidence in the voting process. But doubts about the election’s outcome have been fanned by some of the state’s top GOP leaders, including Paxton, who led a failed lawsuit at the U.S. Supreme Court to try to overturn the election.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who chaired Trump’s presidential campaign in Texas, offered a $1 million reward to anyone who could produce evidence of voter fraud. Nonpartisan investigations of previous elections have found that voter fraud is exceedingly rare. State officials from both parties, including in Texas, as well as international observers have also said the 2020 election went well.

Asked earlier Sunday about Texas' failure to find evidence of fraud, as well as the provision in S.B. 7 that would make it easier for a judge to throw out the results of an election, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said, "This may be more of an optics issue."

"I think the intent —and I'm not in the state Legislature — is to restore confidence in the elections that fraud isn't taking place," McCaul told CNN's Jake Tapper.

"Now, you're — you make a good point. I'm a federal prosecutor. In a court of law, that hasn't really been borne to bear. This may be more of an optics issue, restoring confidence with the American people and in my state who actually do believe there was tremendous fraud," he said.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in March signed into law a measure that makes it harder to vote early. Republicans said the new rules were needed to guard against voter fraud, though they noted Iowa has no history of election irregularities.

Earlier this month, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, signed legislation that will periodically remove infrequent mail voters from the state's early voting list over protests from Democrats and advocates who said the law is discriminatory and will make voting harder.

Republicans in Georgia and Florida, meanwhile, have enacted broad restrictions. Georgia's law, which prompted significant pushback from outside groups that ultimately led a handful of prominent corporations to condemn the legislation or pull business from the state, imposes new identification requirements for mail voting, makes it illegal to take food or water to voters in line, limits the use of drop boxes and shortens the window to request absentee ballots.

Florida's law limits drop boxes, requires voters to request to vote by mail more regularly, prohibits election officials from using private money to help pay for election administration, restricts third-party voter registration organizations and adds new powers for partisan election observers.

The laws in Iowa, Georgia and Florida have already drawn legal challenges. Other states facing lawsuits over new voting limits are Montana and Arkansas, according to Marc Elias, founder of Democracy Docket and Democrats' top election attorney.