Texas House Passes Voting Bill as G.O.P. Nears a Hard-Fought Victory
The Republican bill, which would overhaul elections in Texas and introduce a range of new voting rules, must be approved by the State Senate before it can head to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.,
AUSTIN — The Texas House of Representatives passed a sweeping election overhaul bill on Friday, clearing a major hurdle in a monthslong push by Republicans to introduce a host of new voting rules.
The passage of the bill came a week after a handful of Democrats returned to the State Capitol, effectively ending a 38-day walkout that included the flight of much of the party’s State House delegation to Washington and drew national attention to the fight over voting rights in Texas.
It signaled the end stages in the most protracted battle in a nationwide Republican campaign to harden election rules in response to false claims about the integrity of the 2020 presidential contest.
The House’s version of the bill, which passed on a nearly party-line vote of 80 to 41, will be considered by the State Senate before it can be sent to the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott.
The bill would ban voting changes that were introduced last year by local officials, like drive-through polling places and 24-hour voting; greatly empower partisan poll watchers; limit the mailing of absentee ballot applications; and increase civil and criminal penalties for voter fraud and for election officials who run afoul of the election code.
The legislation has long been a priority of Mr. Abbott, a Republican, who pledged to repeatedly call special sessions until lawmakers sent a voting bill for him to sign.
The bill passed the State Senate this month, but because the House made changes and amendments, the Senate must review it again. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans. The Senate can vote to concur with the changes, which would send the bill to Mr. Abbott, or to send the legislation into a conference committee, in which differences between the two chambers’ bills would be worked out behind closed doors.
Previous iterations of the bill had been stymied by House Democrats’ decisions to break quorum in two consecutive sessions, denying Republicans the necessary minimum of lawmakers to conduct business.
During legislative debate on Thursday and Friday, Democrats denounced the proposed new voting restrictions as disproportionately harmful to Black and Latino Texans. Their amendments, aimed at weakening the legislation, mostly failed.
“If you think that you’re winning today,” State Representative Senfronia Thompson, a long-serving Democrat from Houston, told her Republican colleagues on Friday, “you will reap what you sow.”
Republicans’ response was, in essence, that it was not their job to entice more people to vote.
During debate on Thursday, State Representative Andrew Murr, a Republican from rural Kerrville, applied Texas Republicans’ mantra of personal responsibility to voting. “I’m not sure the goal of the state is to actively seek out voters,” he said. “The state is not so proactive that it tries to grab all the voters.”
Several late amendments to the bill addressed the integrity of voting and ballot counting systems, an outgrowth of former President Donald J. Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud in last year’s election. Some passed, like a requirement that large Texas counties provide livestreaming video of ballot-counting areas. Others did not, such as a Republican amendment to conduct a “forensic audit” of the 2020 election in Texas.
One of the last amendments on Thursday was aimed at avoiding criminal prosecutions of formerly incarcerated people for voting — people like Crystal Mason and Hervis Rogers — by instructing judges to tell those convicted of felonies that they are ineligible to vote.
In addition to voting on elections on Friday, the House is also considering a number of Republican priorities that have made 2021 among the most conservative in the history of Texas, including increasing funding for building a border wall and a bill on “censorship” by social media platforms.
The House’s vote on Friday most likely signaled the end of drama that began in late May when, in the closing hours of the Texas Legislature’s regular session, Democratic House members fled the chamber to stop Republicans from passing a similar bill.
An irate Mr. Abbott called a special session to begin in early July, urging legislators to consider a voting bill along with proposals to direct more money toward border security, restrict transgender youths’ participation in interscholastic athletics and limit access to abortion, among other conservative priorities. More than 50 House Democrats, led by their progressive wing, organized two charter flights from Austin to Washington, where they were initially greeted as heroes by congressional Democrats in their shared fight to enact new federal voting protections.
Their momentum was short-lived.
In the days after their arrival, groups of Texas House Democrats met with Vice President Kamala Harris and Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a key vote in the push to pass Democrats’ federal voting bills. But before their first week in the capital had ended, several of the Texas lawmakers tested positive for the coronavirus, turning their planned media tour and congressional pressure campaign into a series of videoconferences that failed to attract much attention.
They remained ensconced at a hotel in downtown Washington, unable to use the swimming pool because Republicans had stationed a videographer on the deck waiting to film any of them appearing to violate their pledge to work tirelessly for voting rights.
In the hours after the July special session ended, Mr. Abbott called a second one to begin two days later. But the potential arrests of Democrats who failed to appear in the statehouse chamber, promised by Mr. Abbott and State House Republican leaders, failed to materialize. By then, the Democrats had quietly returned to the state, with many going about their daily lives without incident.
By the end of last week, a trickle of State House Democrats began returning to the State Capitol, ending the walkout and allowing the business of the chamber to resume. While Texas Democrats celebrated their fight against new voting restrictions, Republicans moved swiftly to enact their proposals.
For all of the energy Democrats poured into their flight from Austin and attempts to pressure Congress, the scene inside the Texas State House chamber on Thursday and Friday was largely one of an ordinary day of legislating, devoid of fireworks or protesters in the gallery. Only a somewhat greater number of television cameras hinted at the stakes of the vote.
Mr. Murr opened the debate by pointing to moments in Texas history in which voting access had been broadened and denying that the current bill would suppress the votes of Black and Latino residents. “This is serious and thoughtful legislation,” he said.
Before the first Democrat spoke, the Republican speaker of the House, Dade Phelan, directed members “to be civil and respectful” during the debate and said he “would appreciate members not using the word racism this afternoon.”
More than two dozen Democrats maintained their absence from the Capitol even after a quorum had been established, exposing a rift in the party over how best to address an elections bill that they see as a threat to the voting rights of Texans of color.
Several Texas Democratic representatives returned to Washington earlier in the week to be present on Tuesday for the passage in the U.S. House of Representatives of a major bill to restore elements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, including federal oversight of state elections.
The Texas representatives presented the new federal bill’s House passage as a kind of victory for their walkout. But the legislation faces a likely Republican filibuster in the Senate.