Texas lawmakers are locked in a fight over legislation that would further restrict voting access, as Republicans lean on procedural moves to avoid public testimony and keep eleventh-hour negotiations behind closed doors.
“No rules are going to contain them. No norms are going to protect us. They’re gonna do whatever they want to, and whatever they can, to get these bills through,” said Emily Eby, staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project.
The Texas House of Representatives on Thursday evening started debating Senate Bill 7 (SB7), which would make it more difficult to cast a ballot in a state already infamous for being the hardest place to vote nationwide. Democrats were raring for an all-night battle, armed with more than 100 amendments.
Specious talking points about whether last year’s presidential contest was stolen – propagated and disseminated by Texas’s top Republicans –have created an army of voters who falsely believe that widespread election fraud is a real issue.
That, in turn, has ostensibly given politicians a pretext for trumped-up reforms at the ballot box.
“There’s not really a big problem with election fraud, right? That’s not actually a huge problem that we need to solve. But the public thinks it is, because they’ve been told that it is,” said Clare Brock, an assistant professor of political science at Texas Woman’s University.
Texas legislators have used the lightning rod of “election integrity” this year to introduce at least 49 bills with restrictive voting provisions – the most anywhere in the United States, the Brennan Center for Justice reported.
Twenty-nine bills “seek to create new barriers to voting while also creating or enhancing criminal penalties attached to them”, according to data compiled by Progress Texas. Among those, more than three-fourths of the penalties are felonies.
When Texas businesses and voters pushed back against the hardline legislation last month, the conservative state representative Kyle Kacal wouldn’t go so far as to come out explicitly against SB7, one of the two omnibus bills that took center stage this cycle.
But he did express skepticism about its provisions, seemingly endorsing practices – like extended voting hours during the pandemic – that his colleagues were actively trying to curb.
“I don’t know if the measures that are being talked about are necessary,” Kacal admitted. “I don’t know how much fraud there really is, but people need the opportunity to vote.”
Both SB7 and the other high-profile, sweeping proposal, House Bill 6 (HB6), spell a harder and scarier voting process for the state’s most vulnerable residents, while outlawing commonsense innovations that Houston’s Harris county tried to implement last year.
From broadly silencing public officials who want to proactively solicit or distribute vote-by-mail applications to doing away with drive-thru voting and limiting early voting hours, the suggested changes could disproportionately affect elderly and differently abled Texans, as well as voters of color and city dwellers. The new policies would also embolden partisan poll watchers to police voters, stoking concerns over intimidation tactics after a history of vigilantism.
“This is targeted legislation at restricting specific voting practices that occurred in specific places, and a lot of those places are places that leaned Democrat,” Brock said. “Which then makes it feel a lot more like voter suppression and a lot less like voter integrity.”
After SB7 advanced through the senate while HB6 dragged, house Republicans used a routine elections committee hearing last week to link the two, circumventing outside input from citizens in the process.
Democratic lawmakers and voting rights advocates excoriated the move, which they noted was unwontedly sneaky for legislators who supposedly had a mandate from their constituents.
“This is a massive overhaul of the election system in Texas, affecting almost every area of our election code,” said Charlie Bonner, communications director at the civic engagement non-profit Move Texas.
“That is something that should be well-considered, and that is something that should go through the full process, and the public have every opportunity to speak out.”
Instead, the committee gutted the senate’s text for SB7 and replaced it with a copy of HB6, effectively turning one bill into the other.
But, if the House passes that version, any differences between the two chambers’ priorities will probably be reconciled in a conference committee. There, appointees could splice text from each proposal together for one behemoth, rife with restrictions.
“I think it is extremely undemocratic. It completely lacks transparency. This is not how democracy and open government are supposed to work,” said Carisa Lopez, political director of the Texas Freedom Network.
Critics of SB7 are still holding out hope for errors that could make it procedurally dead by the end of the legislative session later this month. But they are outraged that stakeholders – who had anticipated another platform to voice their opposition before the bill became law – will no longer get that opportunity.
For weeks, impassioned outcry from state residents and Texas-based corporations has already bogged down the controversial reforms, stalling their passage longer than some voting rights advocates originally expected. The public provided more than 17 hours of divided testimony on HB6 alone, according to the Texas Tribune.
Meanwhile, local businesses, chambers of commerce and major national companies – including Etsy, American Airlines, Warby Parker, Microsoft and many others – have called on Texas’s elected leaders to oppose any changes that would make it harder to vote.
“This is a state in which these lawmakers run every lever of government,” Bonner said.
“The fact that we’ve been able to delay – and the fact that we have seen amendments that have reduced the harm of these pieces of legislation – is a testament to the work and the people speaking out.”