Texas legislature gives final approval to sweeping voting restrictions bill

Bill, nearly identical to a measure that passed last week, gives poll watchers more power and prohibits 24-hour and drive-thru voting

The Texas legislature gave its final approval on Tuesday to a new bill that would impose substantial new restrictions on voting access in the state.

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The restrictions would only add to those already in place in Texas, which has some of the most burdensome voting requirements in the US and was among the states with the lowest voter turnout in 2020.

The Texas house of representatives gave its approval to a final form of the measure on Tuesday, 80-41. The senate quickly followed with an 18-13 vote Tuesday afternoon. The bill, nearly identical to a measure that passed the legislature last week, would prohibit 24-hour and drive-thru voting – two things officials in Harris county, home of Houston, used for the first time in 2020.

It would also prohibit election officials from sending out unsolicited applications to vote by mail, give poll watchers more power in the polling place and provide new regulations on those who assist voters.

The bill now goes to the desk of Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican. Civil rights groups are expected to swiftly challenge the measure once it is signed into law.

The sole remaining point of disagreement between the two houses on Tuesday was a provision inserted by the House that would have clarified people could not be prosecuted for illegally voting unless they knew they were ineligible.

The bipartisan provision was inserted after Crystal Mason, a woman from Fort Worth, was prosecuted and sentenced to five years in prison for mistakenly voting while ineligible in 2016. Lawmakers ultimately removed the protection after objections from the Texas senate Republicans, who said it could be used to protect non-citizens who illegally voted, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, is also bringing charges against Hervis Rogers, who waited seven hours in line to vote in 2020, but appears to be ineligible because he was on parole for a 1995 felony conviction.

The bill marks the end of a weeks-long standoff between Democrats and Republicans over the bill. In late May, Democrats walked out of the legislature, denying Republicans the necessary quorum to pass the initial version of the bill, which would have made it easier for judges to overturn elections and restricted early voting on Sundays, a day traditionally used by African American churches to encourage people to vote.

Republicans subsequently cut both provisions from the bill. But before a new version could be considered in a July special session, Democrats in the state house left the state and flew to Washington DC, again denying Republicans a quorum to proceed with legislation. While the Democrats in Washington lobbied federal lawmakers to pass federal voting restrictions, state senator Carol Alvarado undertook a 15-hour filibuster on the senate floor to try and block the measure.

Earlier this month, after Abbott called a second special session to consider the measure, the house speaker, Dade Phelan, signed civil arrest warrants for the Democrats who refused to show up at the capitol (no one was ultimately arrested). But slowly, a trickle of Democrats began to return to the capitol, giving Republicans a majority, and enraging Democrats who wanted to continue to stay away.

Democrats always knew Republicans would eventually pass the bill. But they hoped that by staying away from the capitol, they were buying time for Congress to act while also trying to hold negotiating leverage with Republicans, Rafael Anchía, a Democratic state representative, told the Guardian earlier this month.

While the new law is likely to be aggressively challenged in court over the next few months, Democrats made it clear that the only way to stop it would be federal voting reform. The filibuster, a senate rule that requires 60 votes to advance legislation, stands in the way.

“At this point, there is only one solution to preserve democracy and voting rights in Texas and around the country: we must enact federal legislation that will protect our voting rights,” Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic party, said in a statement.

“We need the US Senate to take up the baton, pass this bill into law, and preserve our democracy. Nothing less is on the line.”

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