AUSTIN, Texas — The GOP-controlled state House of Representatives passed election legislation Friday afternoon that adds new penalties to the voting process after Democratic lawmakers waged an all-night fight against the bill.
The bill also gives partisan poll workers additional access and makes it a crime to block or obstruct their view.It passed along party lines, 78-64.
Democrats were able to leverage a procedural challenge Thursday evening to secure changes to the bill, negotiating with Republicans deep into the night and eventually hammering out 18 different amendments.
The agreed-upon amendments removed some of the portions of the law that had most worried voting rights advocates. Democrats negotiated reduced criminal penalties and clarified that election workers wouldn't be criminally liable for honest mistakes. Another amendment makes it possible for disruptive poll watchers to be removed from a polling place.
Republicans have argued that strict penalties and 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.
The Senate, which passed its election bill limiting early voting options and empowering partisan poll watchers in April, and the House bill are soon expected to land in a conference committee so lawmakers can iron out difference between the two versions.
Ahead of the final vote in the House, Democrats gave impassioned speeches against the legislation, stressing that voter fraud is extremely rare.
State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democrat, previewed likely legal challenges should reconciled legislation be signed into law.
"You have your vote, you have your majority, but guess what? I look forward to seeing you in federal court," he said on Friday. "So, please do not delete any emails."
Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, is expected to sign the bill. Abbott previously urged legislators to pass election legislation, which he made a priority for the session.
House Democratic lawmakers argued the House version of the bill would suppress voting and disenfranchise voters of color. Republicans led by Rep. Briscoe Cain, the chair of the Elections Committee, said the House bill would ensure ballot integrity and protect voters from coercion and fraud.
“This bill protects every single Texas voter,’ Cain said shortly before it passed.
Democrats did not have the votes to stop the bill, but sought to slow down the process after it was introduced Thursday.
In addition to changing criminal penalties, Democrats also secured a requirement that the state create a ballot tracking system online for mail voters.
Still, it's unclear if the final version of the bill will include those changes, worrying advocates.
"I think all of us have longstanding trust issues with Dan Patrick," Charlie Bonner, communications director of advocacy group MOVE Texas said of the Texas lieutenant governor and president of the state Senate.
Bonner credited the advocacy and lobbying of voters for allowing Democrats to secure changes on the legislation.
"Even though so much of what happened off the floor and happened away from public view, it was a result of the work of the people who have shown up," he added.
Sarah Labowitz, policy and advocacy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, called the changes "modest."
"The magnitude of the solutions that they’re proposing are still wildly out of proportion with the problem they’ve identified," she said on Friday. "The modest changes they’ve made in criminal penalties and poll watchers — at the end of the day, it’s still an extreme bill."
The bill would prohibit election officials from sending mail ballot applications unless a voter asks for that ballot first. But an amendment clarified that discussing mail voting was acceptable for election workers. Advocates had worried the broad language of earlier drafts would make it harder for election officials to do their jobs and communicate about the option with voters who are eligible to vote by mail.
Democrats had also warned that empowering poll watchers could make it easier for partisan officials to intimidate voters. Republicans in Harris County already plan to recruit thousands of Republican poll watchers, particularly in the suburbs of Houston, and send them into communities of color in Houston's urban center.
The bill was originally proposed as House Bill 6, but Republican lawmakers used a legislative maneuver to ensure that it would advance quickly. Last week, Republicans replaced the text of a different bill, S.B. 7, a Senate elections bill, with H.B. 6.
The vote in the Texas House came after Florida became the latest U.S. state to enact restrictive voting laws, with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signing the legislation live on Fox News' "Fox & Friends." It enacts restrictions on voting by mail and at drop boxes, which Democrats and activists warn could suppress voter turnout.
Former President Donald Trump's stolen election lie has inspired hundreds of restrictive election bills across the country, even though there is no evidence of widespread fraud in elections. By all official accounts, the 2020 election was secure, and the results were certified as accurate. But state legislators — many of whom joined Trump to cast doubt on the system — are nonetheless legislating to restrict the vote, arguing that new measures are needed to restore trust in the system.
The push in Texas has also prompted businesses to speak out, with hundreds of community and business leaders and more than 50 companies rallying against voting restrictions in the days leading up to the vote.
State and national Democrats hosted a news conference on the Capitol grounds early Thursday, and dozens of protestors held signs and chanted "voter suppression has got to go" as legislators walked onto the House floor for the 10 a.m. session.
"The response to more competitive elections in Texas by the Republican Party has been to try and stop people who disagree with them from voting," Democratic U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro said. "Their strategy is not good governance. It's not great ideas anymore. Their strategy in Texas is to keep you from voting. That's the Republican Party in Texas today, and quite honestly, it's the Republican Party across the country."
Rep. James Talarico tweeted Thursday afternoon before the floor fight kicked off that the party was ready with more than 100 amendments: "We're prepared to fight this all night. Good trouble. Necessary trouble."