Right-Wing Voting Limits Killed By Texas House Democrats

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ushered through the Senate a controversial slate of Republican-backed election reforms late Saturday night.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ushered through the Senate a controversial slate of Republican-backed election reforms late Saturday night. Screenshot
Update 6:37 a.m.:

Texas House Democrats pulled off a major upset late Sunday night when they walked out of the Capitol just before 11 p.m. to prevent a final vote on Senate Bill 7, the controversial Republican-authored election bill.

Enough Democrats left the building that there were fewer than 100 representatives present, the minimum required to hold a vote. The walkout effort doomed SB 7’s chances of passing before the end of the legislative session Monday night, as the House needed to approve the bill’s final language by midnight Sunday.

In response, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement vowing that he would call a special session of the legislature to push for “election integrity” legislation and to revive a bail reform measure that would make it harder for people accused of violent crimes to get out of jail before trial.

“Ensuring the integrity of our elections and reforming a broken bail system remain emergencies in Texas,” Abbott wrote. “They will be added to the special session agenda. Legislators will be expected to have worked out the details when they arrive at the Capitol for the special session.”

While the Texas House Republican Caucus in a statement said Democratic state representatives “quit on their constituents” and “quit on Texas,” progressives and voting rights advocates celebrated the walkout effort for killing what they considered an attack on Texans’ civil rights inspired by unfounded Republican claims of widespread fraud after former President Donald Trump lost his reelection bid last year.

“One of the ugliest anti-voter bills in the country died today in the 2021 Texas Legislature,” said Sarah Labowitz, policy and advocacy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “Democratic lawmakers broke quorum in a courageous move that shows just how hard Texans will fight to protect their constitutional right to vote.”

Democratic state Rep. Chris Turner (Grand Prairie), the House Democratic Caucus Chair who engineered the walkout, said Sunday night that the Dems originally planned to try and block SB 7 with lengthy speeches and procedural moves, but changed course when Republicans attempted to prematurely end the debate on the House floor to force a vote.

“At that point, we had no choice but to take extraordinary measures to protect our constituents and their right to vote,” Turner said. “Republicans have only themselves to blame for the way this Session is ending.”

Earlier Sunday night before state House Democrats left the building, the House signed off on the major electric grid reform bill Senate Bill 3, the final step needed to send it to Abbott’s desk for his approval. If signed into law by Abbott as expected, the bill would create a new statewide emergency alert system for weather-related disasters, and would require power generators and electric line operators to weatherize their equipment and facilities to prevent them from failing in ultra-cold weather.

The House’s version of SB 3 would have placed stricter weatherization requirements on natural gas producers, but the final compromise version of the bill softened those rules to only apply to gas producers state regulators consider critical infrastructure. The bill’s final form also doesn’t include any new state funding source to help energy producers and electricity transmission utilities to pay for the changes needed to prepare for extreme weather.

Original Story:

Instead of enjoying Memorial Day weekend, Texas lawmakers have been working through the night in a sprint to push forward several big-ticket bills before the legally-mandated closing time of the 2021 legislative session at 11:59 p.m. Monday.

Most notably, the Republican-majority Legislature is still on track to send a sweeping set of election reforms to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature, new limits conservatives argue are needed to ensure the integrity of voting in Texas but that Democrats —- including President Joe Biden — claim are a thinly-veiled attempt to make it harder for people to vote to boost Republicans’ own chances in future elections.

While lawmakers on Sunday were still discussing the final versions of bills to reform the state’s electricity system in case of future winter storms and to limit the Texas governor’s powers in a future pandemic, state Republicans managed before the weekend to muscle-through a bill that would limit what Texas educators can teach public school students about race and racism, which Democrats claim would amount to a state-mandated whitewashing of American history.

These frenzied final days of the legislative calendar have capped off one of the most conservative Texas Legislature sessions in recent memory, as indignant Democrats have been unable to stop their Republican counterparts from passing right-wing legislation to get rid of permit requirements for carrying handguns and to effectively ban abortions after six weeks.

Republican lawmakers on Saturday began debating the final language of Senate Bill 7 — the controversial slate of changes to Texas election law Democrats have blasted as unwarranted voting restrictions — after days of negotiation among the bill’s conference committee, a small group of state senators and representatives who worked in private to settle on a compromise after the House and Senate initially passed different versions of the bill.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Texas Senate voted to approve the final version of SB 7 early Sunday morning, after an all-night debate and outrage from Democrats that followed a move from Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes — the bill’s author — to disregard a Senate rule that would have delayed a vote until Sunday afternoon. The irony of how Republicans pushed for a late-night debate wasn’t lost on many SB 7 critics on social media given how the bill would force all state polling places to close by 9 p.m. if passed into law.

The Texas House is expected to vote on the bill late Sunday, the last hurdle it faces before it can head to Abbott’s desk. While House Democrats will likely try to stall that process through procedural wrangling, the chamber’s healthy Republican majority means an eventual rubber-stamp from the House is extremely likely.

Texas’ so-called “election integrity” bill follows similar legislation limiting voting passed this year in GOP-led states Florida and Georgia. All of those new restrictions were enacted in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s repeated, unfounded claims that fraud cost him the 2020 presidential election. Even though there was no significant voter fraud in Texas during 2020’s election, Abbott named reforming the state’s election laws one of his top priorities ahead of the session.

The final version of SB 7 includes bans on drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting, two innovations implemented by Harris County Democrats last year that had been stripped out of the version of the bill passed in the House. The revised bill would make it a felony for election officials to send out unsolicited mail-in ballot applications (as former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins attempted to do), and would ban mail-in ballot drop boxes altogether. It also includes new voting hours restrictions and drastic changes to state rules on when elections can be overturned that weren’t originally included in either the Senate or the House’s original language on the bills.

The conference committee added language to SB 7 that says early voting on Sundays can’t begin until 1 p.m., which Hughes said was meant to give poll workers time to go to church. But enraged Democrats like state Sen. Royce West, who is Black, claimed it would unfairly impact the “Souls to the Polls” tradition of rallying Black parishioners to vote after Sunday service.

Other last-minute changes added language that would lower the bar for overturning a future election in Texas, including downgrading the burden of proof for demonstrating voter fraud from “clear and convincing evidence” down to a “preponderance of evidence.”

If approved, SB 7 would also allow a court to overturn an election if the number of votes illegally cast in the election is equal to or greater than the number of votes necessary to change the election’s outcome, but wouldn’t even require the court to figure out who those fraudulent votes had been cast for to nullify the results.

Biden joined Texas Democrats in decrying SB 7 over the weekend, calling the bill an attack on “the sacred right to vote” that’s “part of an assault on democracy that we’ve seen far too often this year — and often disproportionately targeting Black and brown Americans.”

“It’s wrong and un-American,” Biden said of SB 7 in a statement. “In the 21st century, we should be making it easier, not harder, for every eligible voter to vote.’

“It’s wrong and un-American. In the 21st century, we should be making it easier, not harder, for every eligible voter to vote.’ - President Joe Biden

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The conference committee did nix two provisions that Democrats railed against in previous versions of SB 7 that would have allowed partisan poll-watchers to videotape voters they worried were committing fraud, and that would have redistributed the locations of polling places to take voting centers away from highly-populated urban areas with lots of Democratic-leaning minority voters in the state’s largest counties.

Still, Houston area officials remained outraged about the bill’s final form Saturday. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo tweeted that the newly-constructed SB 7 is “gut wrenching” and is “worse than the original bills.” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner agreed in a tweet of his own, writing that the bill was “Undemocratic and should be roundly denounced.”

Moving less quickly is Senate Bill 3, the last big-ticket bill on reforming the state’s electricity system after February’s deadly winter storm that could still get passed before session’s end.

SB 3 would make it mandatory for companies that generate electricity and those that operate the state’s power lines to weatherize their equipment and facilities so they wouldn’t be crippled by a future winter storm. It would also create a statewide emergency alert system that could zap a message to every cell phone in Texas like an Amber Alert.

Just like with SB 7, there were some key differences in the versions of the winter storm response bill passed by the Senate and House. For starters, the Senate’s version would add fees for wind and solar energy companies on account of how they aren’t able to produce as much power when there’s extremely cold weather, a move pushed for by fossil fuel advocates frustrated about what they consider unfair federal subsidies for renewable energy.

The House version of SB 3 wouldn’t penalize renewable energy providers, and unlike the Senate’s version, would place stricter requirements on natural gas facilities, many of which failed during the winter storm. It would also require natural gas facilities to register ahead of time to be considered critical infrastructure to make sure their own electricity doesn’t go out during a disaster, similar to how essential services like hospitals are protected.

Thanks to those differences, another conference committee is currently working on negotiating a final version of SB 3 and hadn’t revealed its finished product to lawmakers as of Sunday afternoon.

Another major bill yet to be passed is House Bill 3, which would change the rules for how the state responds to future pandemics. Written in response to criticism of how Abbott dictated Texas’ pandemic policies through executive orders since COVID-19 hit during a legislative off-year, HB 3 would give state lawmakers more power during disease outbreaks and would limit local officials from issuing sweeping public health mandates.

Under HB 3, the governor would still be allowed to declare a statewide emergency, close businesses and issue mask-wearing requirements in the event of another pandemic, but would need to get the approval of a new 12-member committee of state senators and representatives led by the lieutenant governor and the Speaker of the Texas House to extend those orders longer than 30 days.

If a disaster declaration has been in place for 90 days, HB 3 would then require the governor to immediately call for a special session of the Legislature. State lawmakers would then have the power to pull-back or extend any pandemic-related disaster orders. The bill would also prevent local officials like mayors and county judges from shutting down businesses or issuing any orders that conflict with state guidelines.

While Abbot had signaled his openness to sign a law limiting his own powers, it looks like he might not get the chance; The pandemic response powers bill was sent to a conference committee for final deliberations on Friday, but according to Dallas Morning News’ Allie Morris, the committee “could not come to agreement” on a compromise. “There is no conference committee report filed, meaning it is effectively dead,” she wrote Sunday afternoon.

Before all the hoopla over the weekend, state Senate Republicans on Friday successfully pushed through House Bill 3979, which would effectively ban teachers from discussing what conservatives call “critical race theory,” or the idea that racism isn’t just the actions of bigoted individuals but is embedded in modern society and can be unconsciously perpetuated by people and governments.

The measure appeared dead Friday evening after Democratic state Rep. James Talarico scuttled the Senate’s amended version on technical grounds. But hours later, Patrick’s Senate brought the bill back up for discussion, stripped off all of the Senate amendments that made the bill differ from the House’s original legislation, and approved the pared-down version of the bill to match what the House originally voted on.

The critical race theory bill’s Republican supporters argued it was headed to Abbott’s desk since the Senate did ultimately approve the version of the bill that the House had approved before all of Friday’s procedural shenanigans, but as of Sunday afternoon it was unclear whether or not the House would end up voting again on the bill thanks to the strange way it was passed.

There’s always the chance for any of these bills that end up getting derailed last-second before Monday night’s deadline to be revived in a follow-up special legislative session if Abbott uses his executive powers to force lawmakers to stay in town overtime. Patrick already requested last week that Abbott call a June special session to take up conservative Senate bills killed by the House over transgender athletes and alleged social media censorship of Republicans, but Abbott called that request “pretty goofy” on Thursday.

Abbott clearly didn’t want to submit to Patrick’s request while this session’s clock was still ticking. But if state House Democrats pull off some procedural magic and somehow block the election integrity bill from advancing before the deadline, or if the electric grid reform package doesn’t make it through in time, Abbott may be more inclined to call for an immediate special session.

Even if Abbott doesn’t call for legislative overtime in the summer, there’s all but guaranteed to be a special session in the fall to cover legislative redistricting thanks to the fact that the 2020 U.S. Census results needed to draw new electoral maps won’t be in until September due to the pandemic. So while the legislative calendar technically ends tonight, we could still be in for plenty of bombshells from Austin in the months ahead.
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Schaefer Edwards is a staff writer at the Houston Press who covers local and regional news. A lifelong Texan and adopted Houstonian, he loves NBA basketball and devouring Tex-Mex while his cat watches in envy.
Contact: Schaefer Edwards