AUSTIN, Texas - Texas has become the latest Republican-dominated state to advance sweeping new limits on voting, despite no evidence of any problems with last year’s vote and a coalition of state and federal officials calling the 2020 presidential election the most secure in history.
The key vote at 3 a.m. Friday in the Texas House followed hours of debate that started the day before, with lawmakers now negotiating the final version of the legislation that will need approval before heading to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who has broadly defended the measures.
From Florida to Georgia, Iowa and now Texas, Republican lawmakers have used unsubstantiated claims by former President Donald Trump and his allies to justify new voting restrictions. They argue the new limits, which largely target mail voting, are needed to boost public confidence and improve security. In some cases, the rules also create onerous requirements and penalties for local election officials.
"It is old Jim Crow dressed up in what our colleagues are calling election integrity," said Democratic state Rep. Jessica Gonzalez.
Friday’s early morning vote was less than 24 hours after Florida Gov. Rick DeSantis signed a wide-ranging list of new voting restrictions into law. New voting limits have also been signed into law in Georgia and Iowa. Elsewhere, Republicans in Ohio and Michigan are also pressing ahead with overhauls of various election procedures.
"We are seeing the strong effect of President Trump’s big lie. We are seeing the Republican Party go all-in on supporting him and his lies," said Sylvia Albert, voting and elections director for Common Cause, which advocates for expanded voter access. "We are seeing them use this opportunity to create deliberate barriers to voting for Black and brown voters. It’s un-American.
In Texas, Democrats had no path to stop the bill in the GOP-controlled state Capitol, but they deployed various technical challenges and used hours of questioning that the bill’s author, Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain, appeared unprepared at times to answer.
Finally, an agreement was reached between Republicans and Democrats leaving the bill with 20 amendments that significantly watered down some of what advocates called the most problematic aspects of the bill as it passed the key vote 81-64. The session ends May 31.
The amendments lowered initially proposed enhanced criminal penalties, allowed poll watchers to be removed if they breach the peace and clarified that election judges and volunteers wouldn’t be held liable for honest mistakes. Additionally, they instructed the state to send voter registration applications to high schools and instructed the state to develop an online format for tracking early ballots.
Abbott, who has not wavered in his backing of his party’s restrictions and has lashed out at businesses that have spoken out, reiterated his support Thursday, tweeting: "I made election integrity an emergency item this session to help ensure every eligible voter gets to vote & only eligible ballots are counted."
Cain, who chairs the House Elections Committee and who authored the House version of the voting bill, echoed those sentiments in urging his colleagues to back the proposals.
"We don’t need to wait for bad things to happen to protect the security of the election," Cain said. "I don’t believe that this is voter suppression, I believe it is voter enhancement."
Other restrictions in Cain’s bill would outlaw Texas county officials from sending mail-ballot request forms to all registered voters, efforts voting officials in Harris County — where Cain is from — put in place last year to expand ballot access when in-person gatherings were more hazardous because of the coronavirus pandemic. Harris County, which includes Houston, is also a Democratic stronghold where 44% of the nearly 5 million residents are Latino and 20% are Black.
Voting rights groups say poor and minority voters will bear the brunt of GOP restrictions, and that Republicans are counting on the privilege of their voters to overcome hurdles. Some Republicans across the country have expressed concern the new rules could end up hurting GOP voters as well. Republican voters, particularly seniors, have long embraced mail voting.
"What’s even more perplexing is the proposed legislation attacks voting practices that Republicans have relied on for decades to turn out voters," Texas state Rep. Lyle Larson, a Republican, wrote in an opinion column earlier this week.
On Tuesday, more than 50 companies and business organizations, including some in Texas, released an open letter expressing opposition to "any changes" that would make it harder to vote in that state.
Republicans in Texas have angrily rejected those accusations. They say the measures would only rein in powers that county leaders never had in the first place.
Acacia Coronado is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy contributed to this report from Atlanta.