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Texas Republicans renew effort to advance voting bill as Democrats regroup

A state House committee is hearing public testimony on sweeping changes to elections Monday morning as the clock ticks on a second special session.

Texas Democrats failed on Monday in a last-ditch effort to again paralyze the state House and block Republicans from passing a sweeping election bill, allowing the legislature to continue working toward passage.

Three Houston-area Democrats broke ranks with much of the rest of their caucus and returned to work at the Capitol last week, allowing the House chamber to conduct business for the first time in more than a month.

Democrats, however, still tried to force Republicans to prove they had enough members present, or a quorum — arguing that Republicans had assumed enough members were present without actually counting them.

State Rep. Erin Zwiener, a Democrat, forced a count, which found there were 100 members present, enough to satisfy the quorum requirement.

House Democrats, who are in the minority and lack the votes to block a bill, appear to be running out of options to stop Republicans from passing election legislation, even as they vow to continue to fight.

Earlier in the day, Republicans hosted a public hearing on the election legislation. Lawmakers and members of the public debated restricting mail-in voting, eliminating some early voting options, adding criminal penalties for violations and empowering partisan poll watchers.

The House committee hearing was called to consider Senate Bill 1, the Senate's version of the election legislation, but House members said they would substitute in the text of their version of the legislation, known as House Bill 3. This repeats the legislative maneuver lawmakers used in July to send two versions of the bill to a conference committee for reconciliation.

The bill was passed out of committee after hours of testimony. A final version of the legislation could be sent to the governor's desk with one vote in each chamber. The bills are similar, but the House's bill adds additional criminal penalties to the process, while only the Senate's version includes a process for voters to fix errors in mail ballots.

The hearing was made possible by three Houston-area Democrats who broke ranks with much of the rest of their caucus and returned to work at the Capitol on Thursday.

Their return restored a quorum for the first time since more than 50 House Democrats fled to Washington, D.C., last month, according to House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican. The Senate passed SB 1 on Aug. 12, but the House had been unable to take up any legislation because chamber rules require that two-thirds of members be present to conduct business. Legislators now have less than two weeks to pass the bill before the special session expires Sept. 5. If they do not, Republicans would be forced to reintroduce the bill in another session and repeat the public hearings.

The bill's advancement is a blow to Democrats, who have spent months trying to delay or block passage of voting restrictions despite not having the votes to kill the legislation outright. The coordinated escape from Austin left Texas Republicans furious, creating wanted posters and threatening to have missing members arrested. When the first special legislative session called in part to pass the election bill expired, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott immediately called another. Democrats, meanwhile, spent nearly a month in Washington advocating for federal voting legislation that would kneecap many of the changes Republicans have proposed.

While previous public hearings on proposed election legislation have drawn hundreds of people to the state Capitol, the surge in Covid infections ravaging Texas has complicated planning for organizers and voting rights advocates who seek to fight it.

The Texas House does not have a mask mandate, and House members who have tested positive for Covid-19 have been voting in person from a quarantine chamber just off the floor.

Significantly fewer people testified about the bill on Monday than they did in July, during a marathon Saturday hearing.

Many supporters of the legislation repeating unsubstantiated claims of significant voter fraud, while critics argued it was discriminatory, particularly to those with disabilities.

Stephanie Gómez, associated director of Common Cause Texas, said the bill would give partisan poll watchers “unhinged levels of influence over elections” and said the bill would make it harder for all Texans to vote, particularly voters of color and those with disabilities.

Her group also hosted what it called a "honk! for voting rights" protest, encouraging cars to circle the Capitol on Monday morning, hoping for a noisy show of dissent with social distancing baked in.

James Slattery, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the resurgent pandemic underscores problems voting rights advocates have with the legislation. The bill would ban certain early voting options, such as drive-thru voting, that Harris County embraced last year. Harris County, of which Houston is the county seat, is the most populous county in the state. Local officials said the drive-thru voting option allows people to vote safely when congregating at the polls is a major health risk.

"Clearly Covid is not gone," Slattery said. "The situation is so bad here that not even the governor of the state of Texas can protect himself. There was never a good time to get rid of drive-thru and extended-hours voting, but it is especially egregious now to ban counties from doing these things to keep their voters safe."

A spokesman for Abbott said Tuesday that he had tested positive for Covid. Abbott, who is fully vaccinated, has since announced that he is testing negative.

Despite the House moving forward with legislation, some Democrats are still staying away from the capitol. At least five, state Reps. Ron Reynolds, Jasmine Crockett, Penny Morales Shaw, Joe Deshotel, and Richard Raymond, are in Washington to continue lobbying for federal voting legislation, according to a source familiar with their location.

A vote on the revised John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is expected this week in the Democratic-controlled U.S. House. Most Republican lawmakers have opposed any type of federal voting legislation, however, and the bill faces long odds and probably a filibuster in the closely divided Senate.