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Texas Republicans revive voting restriction bills to begin special session

Democrats vowed to fight the GOP-led efforts to impose new rules on access to the ballot box.

The Texas Legislature began a special session Thursday morning that Republicans are promising will allow them to enact new restrictive voting rules intended to prevent fraud.

As they began a session that's expected to last a month, Republicans filed a pair of bills, House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1. The bills are similar to one Democrats blocked in May when they staged a late-night walkout that forced the Legislature to adjourn before the measures could pass. Democrats said they did so because the bill would have resulted in voter suppression, particularly of voters of color and disabled voters.

The House and Senate versions filed Thursday are similar. Both would require that voters have 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, embraced those expanded early voting options during the 2020 general election.

The two bills would also add criminal penalties for voting law violations, empower partisan poll watchers, and create a cure process, so voters can fix ballots with errors like a signature mismatch.

But the two versions have differences. The House bill would allow early voting until 10 p.m., while the new Senate bill proposes ending early voting at 9 p.m.

While both bills prohibit election officials from soliciting mail ballots — something critics worried would make it harder for election officials to inform eligible voters about their options — the House bill makes clear that election officials can post the mail ballot application online for eligible voters to access. The Senate bill does not include that assurance.

The Senate bill also seeks to purge non-citizens from the voter rolls by comparing Department of Public Safety citizenship data with the voter rolls; voting-rights advocates worry this will purge naturalized citizens from the rolls using outdated information.

While both bills create new procedures for how Texans help one another cast a ballot, the Senate bill requires anyone who helps transport three or more people to the polls to fill out a form with their name and address, unless those people are considered close relatives under the law.

Unlike the defeated bill from last session, neither of the new proposals would ban Sunday morning voting, a provision that was criticized for the impact it would have on Black voters and "souls to the polls" efforts. Republicans defended it, but later said it was a typographical error.

Democrats say their walkout — and national outrage over voting restrictions — have forced Republicans to modify their legislation.

“There’s no doubt about it: Republicans are walking it back, and it’s not because they want to — it’s because of the fight that’s been put up by Democrats,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democrat who went to Washington to lobby U.S. senators in support of federal election legislation.

He said legislation can — and often does — change drastically as it moves through the process. But it is unlikely that it'll reach a point where it isn't problematic.

“When you look at it overall, it’s still a voter suppression tactic, it’s still a solution looking for a problem,” Fischer said in an interview. “The fact that it’s improved doesn’t change or negate that we shouldn’t be deliberating over this legislation right now.”

The Senate bill will have its first public hearing on Saturday morning, according to a notice.

Opponents of the bills say the quick scheduling undermines the public's ability to offer meaningful input.

“Anyone who wants to go testify, read the bill, they’re going to have 24-36 hours to do it,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, a group working to defeat the legislation. “It definitely feels like a complete subversion of democracy to try and get their voter suppression bill passed.”

Carisa Lopez, political director for the Texas Freedom Network, said her group is working to help mobilize voters who want to testify about the bill travel to the capital, Austin, despite the short notice.

The Texas Freedom Network is one of at least 35 groups that have formed the Texas for All coalition, designed to fight voting restrictions nationally. The group has promised to spend more than $1 million on digital advertising and other mobilization efforts for the special session.

Republicans across the country 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. 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.