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Texas House advances GOP-backed election bill after 12-hour fight

The voting restrictions Democrats fled the state to block are one step closer to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk.

The Texas House advanced a contentious, GOP-backed elections bill Thursday that would impose restrictions and criminal penalties on the voting process in spite of months-long opposition from state Democrats.

After 12 hours of debate Thursday, the bill was approved 79-37 along party lines with the exception of one Republican, Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio, who voted no. The vote brings the sweeping changes Republicans want to impose a step closer to GOP Gov. Greg Abbott's desk. The House took its final vote on this version of the bill on Friday afternoon.

The bill will soon head back to the state Senate, which can either concur with changes the House made or send it to a conference committee to reconcile the two versions of the legislation.

The floor fight over GOP efforts to rewrite voting laws in the state quickly turned heated Thursday afternoon after Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan asked members not to use the word "racism" while debating a bill Democrats have said will make it harder for people of color to vote.

“Intentional discrimination of people of a certain race, is that racism?” state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, a Democrat, said as other members cried out in anger within the chamber.

“We can talk about racial impacts of this legislation without accusing members of this body of being racist,” Phelan said from the speaker’s dais.

Texas State Representatives pray in the House Chamber at the Texas Capitol as they prepare to debate voting bill SB1 on Aug. 26, 2021, in Austin, Texas.Eric Gay / AP

“Respectfully, I’m not accusing members of this body,” she said, before returning to her questioning despite audible frustration from other members. “When there is an act that is intentionally discriminatory of people of a certain race, is that racism?”

The Democrats' questions were directed at Democratic state Rep. Rafael Anchía, who had cited several court rulings that he said found certain recent election-related rules and redistricting plans to be intentionally discriminatory. Anchía agreed with her, saying the court rulings were “pretty clear.”

Lawmakers in Texas have for months been sparring over a sweeping elections bill that would, if enacted, restrict mail-in voting, eliminate some early voting options, add criminal penalties for violations and empower partisan poll watchers.

Republicans say the legislation is necessary to prevent voter fraud from occurring, despite broad evidence indicating voter fraud is exceedingly rare. 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. Democrats have declared the bill “Jim Crow 2.0” and said it’s designed to suppress the votes of voters of color.

“I’m sorry that some people get triggered when you talk about intentional discrimination,” Anchía said, before directly questioning Republicans’ motives. “If this isn’t about expanding access to the franchise, if it’s not about the very, already very low incidence of fraud and where you're not advised of any examples. If it’s not about the secrecy of the ballot box because no voter has complained, well, my inference is well, it may be about the same stuff those other bills were about.”

The bill's advancement was made possible after three Houston Democrats broke ranks and returned to the House floor last week, ending Democrats' weekslong boycott of a special legislative session that had paralyzed the chamber by denying the Legislature the quorum needed to conduct business.

More than 50 state Democrats flew from Austin to Washington, D.C., during the July special session to deny the legislative chamber the legal quorum needed to conduct business. They spent nearly a month in Washington advocating for federal voting legislation that would kneecap many of the changes Republicans have proposed.

While federal legislation is stalled, Republicans in Austin have kept the pressure on. It was clear that a quorum was easily present Thursday, when 110 members were present during the first votes of the day. By the time the House began considering amendments on the election bill, more members had joined the floor, and at least 119 members were present.

Hinojosa supported the boycott and tweeted that she'd only returned to Austin on Thursday after it became clear there was a quorum.

"I won't be censored on the floor of the House," she said in a text to NBC News after her remarks.

CLARIFICATION (Aug. 27, 2021, 7:35 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article said the House passed an election bill, with final passage still to come. The article has been updated to reflect that the vote was on preliminary passage, and to include the next steps for the bill.

Dennis Romero contributed.