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Emerging from closed-door negotiations between the Texas House and the Senate, a GOP priority bill to enact new restrictions on voting has surpassed what each chamber originally passed to limit local control of elections and reduce voting options, and now includes even more voting law changes. .
Developed by a conference committee after the two chambers passed substantially different laws, the final version of Senate Bill 7 is taking two iterations to reduce early voting hours, ban drive-thru voting, further tighten mail voting rules, and improve access for poll watchers. It also now includes various additional rule changes that were not part of each chamber’s previous debate on the bill, adding new identification requirements for mail-in ballots. Lawmakers are expected to officially sign the agreement the next day and send it to Gov. Greg Abbott for signature before it becomes law.
The final bill keeps in its sights the initiatives used by Harris County in last fall’s general election – such as a 24-hour advance polling day and voting sites allowing voters to vote from their car – which has proven particularly popular among voters of color. But the legislation also blocks local efforts to expand voting options across the state and ultimately affects almost the entire voting process, from early voting to the count.
SB 7 has been at the legislative forefront as the 2021 Texas Legislature eagerly joined Republican efforts across the country to enact sweeping changes to voting laws in the name of “electoral integrity.” , although there is little or no evidence of widespread fraud. Earlier in the legislative session, Abbott conceded at a related press conference that he was unaware of any cases of fraud that upended an election in 2020. And one of the top election officials of the state told House lawmakers at an initial committee hearing that “Texas had a safe and smooth election.”
Cuddle up on how Texas voters’ access to the ballot box could be curtailed due to proposed restrictions during long public hearings, protracted debates, chaotic actions in committee, and midnight votes in the Senate and the House where the Republicans advanced majorities SB 7.
The bill was negotiated over the past week out of public view after the House refined the bill and replaced all Senate proposals with wording from another bill from the Room whose scope was narrower. But the final version of SB 7 ultimately drove back many of the proposals from the larger Senate version, including a ban on voting behind the wheel.
The legislation requires more counties to offer at least 12 hours of early voting every weekday of the last early voting week, but sets a new 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. window for voting. That would directly preclude Harris County’s 24-hour vote, which he planned to keep for future elections. It would also slightly reduce the overtime offered by other large counties in the last election by keeping their polling stations open until 10 p.m. – three hours after the usual 7 p.m. closing time – for at least a few days.
The bill also fixes a new window for early voting on Sundays, limiting it from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.
SB 7 also makes it a state prison crime for local officials to proactively send postal ballot requests to voters who have not requested them. This is another response to Harris County, where authorities attempted to send nominations to the 2.4 million registered voters last year. Other Texas counties sent nominations to voters 65 and older without much scrutiny. Although these voters are automatically qualified to vote by mail, sending unsolicited candidatures to them in the future would also be prohibited.
Counties would also be prohibited from using public funds “to facilitate” the unsolicited distribution of third-party ballot requests, which would prevent them from also providing requests to local groups helping to get the ballot out. Political parties would still be free to send spontaneous candidacies on their own – a practice regularly employed by Republicans and Democrats.
Final version of the bill further strengthens postal voting rules by establishing a new identification requirement for voters requesting a ballot to provide their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their social security number , if they have one. This language comes from separate Republican bills that were not passed on their own.
Voters will also be required to include this information on return envelopes containing their ballots for their votes to be counted.
In a state where the eligibility rules for postal voting are strict, the bill also increases the qualification threshold based on a disability. The current law allows voters to qualify if they suffer from an illness or physical condition that prevents them from voting in person without “risk of needing personal assistance or damaging the health of the voters.” ‘voter’. The bill sets a higher standard by requiring that a voter be certain that they “will not be able” to vote in person due to their condition, and establishes four specific categories from which a voter must choose to qualify. depending on a disability – illness, injury, illness confinement ordered by a health professional and mental or physical disability.
Beyond its new restrictions on voting rules, SB 7 extends the freedoms of observers who are supporters of the poll. Currently, election observers have the right to sit or stand “near” election workers. SB 7 would give them the right to be “close enough to see and hear” electoral activity. The bill also adds wording to the Texas Election Code to allow them “free movement” in a polling station, except to be present at a polling station when a voter is filling out a ballot.
The arrangements dropped by the conference committee include a controversial measure that would have allowed poll observers to register voters receiving assistance in filling out their ballots if the poll observer “reasonably believes” that the help. is illegal. This change has raised particular concerns about the possible intimidation of voters who speak a language other than English and voters with disabilities who would be more likely to receive assistance in voting.
SB 7 has progressed without any support from Democrats and facing opposition from local officials, voter advocacy groups, some members of the business community, and civil rights organizations with a track record of fighting the laws that could harm voters of color. Their criticism of the legislation has been rooted in its detrimental effect on access, especially for marginalized voters, and the possibility that it could violate federal guarantees for voters of color.
Aligning it with the legislative priorities designated by Abbott, Republicans have presented it as a measure of “electoral integrity.” While there were no major incidents in the 2020 election, they also argued that SB 7 aimed to normalize the election after counties – namely Harris County – adopted various initiatives to facilitate the vote in the pandemic elections last fall.
Despite their arguments for standardization, the legislation originally included a proposal to regulate the distribution of polling stations only in the state’s largest counties – various urban counties largely under Democratic control – in a formula that would have resulted in a significant drop in polling stations in largely democratic areas, with voting options reduced the most in areas with higher shares of voters of color.
The final version of the bill ultimately omitted this provision.
The work of the conference committee was made public in the morningafter State Senator Bryan Hughes and State Representative Briscoe Cain announced in a joint statement Friday evening that they had reached agreement on the final version of the legislation. The announcement – posted on the Republicans’ two Twitter accounts and sent in a press release – sparked confusion among Democrats on the committee who took to Twitter to say they had not been included in at least one party. deliberations.
State Senator Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, said she had received “no details regarding this bill” despite her appointment to the conference committee. In the House, State Representative Terry Canales, D-Edinburgh, called it “blatant” that Democrats on the committee had not seen the official draft of the final version of SB 7 despite the Republicans’ announcement of ‘agreement on the bill between the chambers.
Shortly after, Canales said it was “advised” that the ad “was published prematurely”. By then, Cain had deleted his Twitter post about the deal. Hughes’ post remained online.
Republicans did not need Democrats’ backing to move forward with the conference committee’s report, which required a majority of speakers in each chamber to be signed. On the Senate side, four of the five speakers were Republicans. Three of the five House attendees were Republicans.
In the end, none of the Democrats on the conference committee endorsed the conference committee report.