AUSTIN, Texas -- A Texas House committee on Monday advanced the GOP-backed voting restrictions bill that first prompted Democrats to stall legislative work during a weekslong quorum break.
The 9-5 party-line vote on the revived legislation, Senate Bill 1, is part of a third bid to enact proposals that would outlaw local efforts to make it easier to vote, ratchet up vote-by-mail rules and bolster protections for partisan poll watchers. It comes just days after the House regained enough Democrats to restart business following a nearly six-week exodus over the minority party's opposition to the voting legislation.
With the second special legislative session past the halfway mark, the House Select Committee on Constitutional Rights and Remedies opted to replace the Senate's bill with language from its own bill, House Bill 3. That means the House is essentially starting over with the same exact proposals that instigated a stalemate in the chamber following Democrats' departure to Washington, D.C., in early July.
State Rep. Andrew Murr, the Junction Republican authoring the legislation, indicated he could "foresee" at least some changes to the legislation when it reaches the House floor, though it remains unclear how expansive those amendments could be.
"We're picking up right where we left off from and so those changes are yet to come," Murr told the committee.
He had faced questions from Democrats over possible revisions in light of an overnight hearing last month that garnered more than 12 hours of deliberations and public testimony, largely against the legislation, during which there seemed to be some tenuous consensus, including on possibly mandating training for poll watchers.
Since Democrats' exodus upped the ante in their fight against the legislation, Republicans have not appeared willing to negotiate on contentious provisions or pull back on some of the bill's main tenets. That includes a provision that bans the drive-thru and overnight voting options championed by Harris County last year that were disproportionately used by voters of color.
The Senate's previous changes to SB 1 covered technical issues and only some concerns raised by advocates for voters with disabilities. And unlike in the regular legislative session that ended in May, the two chambers' versions of the legislation are much more closely aligned with the House embracing proposed restrictions it had not previously included in its legislation.
Though the legislation under consideration was identical to the House's bill from the first special session, Monday's hearing ran much shorter than the committee's previous marathon hearing during which Murr faced hours worth of questions from Democrats who focused on different portions of the 47-page bill. This time, state Rep. Trent Ashby, the Lufkin Republican who chairs the House's special session committee, limited that questioning to just 40 minutes, noting he was hoping to avoid the long wait time - at least 17 hours - members of the public faced before testifying during the first special session.
While Republicans have pushed the bill under the mantle of "election integrity," House lawmakers for the third time this year heard from voting rights groups and advocates for people with disabilities who reiterated their concerns that the bill would undermine access for marginalized groups, including people of color and disabled voters.
"The Legislature choosing to cut the number of early voting hours after a county has chosen to do it - and combined with the fact that we know this was used disproportionately by voters of color - is voter suppression," said James Slattery, a senior attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project.
The bill adds an extra hour of required early voting hours, moving it from eight hours to nine, and it increases the number of counties that are required to provide at least 12 hours of early voting each weekday of the second week of early voting. But it also creates a new window for early voting - between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. - to forbid Harris County's efforts to provide overnight voting for shift workers and others for whom typical hours don't work.
Upon Democratic questioning about the possibility of disparate racial impact, Murr on Monday echoed his remarks from the first special session and indicated he had not looked into those concerns.
The bill also makes it a state jail felony for local election officials to distribute unsolicited applications for a mail-in ballot, even to voters 65 and older who automatically qualify to vote by mail, or to provide applications to local groups helping to get out the vote.
Advocates for disabled voters warned against keeping portions of the legislation that would complicate the voting process for voters with disabilities by limiting the assistance voters are entitled to have and potentially subjecting those helping them to increased penalties for mistakes.
In light of the House's bill swap Monday, some of the few advocates who had registered a neutral position on the bill swapped back to being in opposition once changes they fought for in the Senate version fell off. Many of those who supported the bill cited its enhanced protections for poll watchers as the reason for their endorsement but criticized the swap because the House legislation carries lower penalties for interfering with poll watchers.
The legislation grants poll watchers "free movement" at polling places and makes it a criminal offense to obstruct their view or distance the watcher "in a manner that would make observation not reasonably effective." The bill also says poll watchers cannot be removed from the polling place for violating the law or the election code unless they were previously warned their behavior was illegal.
During the first special session, 484 Texans - 407 registered in opposition to the bill - traveled to the Capitol for a Saturday hearing on the legislation. On Monday, just 158 Texans registered a position on the legislation, with 88 registered in opposition.
The bill heads to the chamber's Calendars Committee, which is then expected to place it on an agenda so it can be taken up by the full House as soon as this week.
As they returned to the Capitol in larger numbers Monday, Democrats indicated they remained optimistic about successfully fighting the bill during the House's floor debate. State Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, pointed to Democrats' ability to cut a deal on what was a pared down version of the bill during the regular legislative session. After the House approved that version in May, lawmakers reshaped the bill behind closed doors so that it swelled beyond what each chamber initially approved.
That reworked version of the bill instigated Democrats' first quorum break at the end of the regular legislative session; it also served as the blueprint for the current legislation under consideration.
"We had a version of what was SB 7 leave this House in far better shape than it got here," Anchía said. "We expect to be part of the process just like we were during the regular session."
The video above is from a story on the House resuming work on the bill.
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