Eric Gay / AP
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – Republicans in the Texas Senate have amended one of the most restrictive new U.S. voting laws to the top of the governor’s table, approving fewer ways to vote and more criminal penalties after they passed the law in the middle of the night.
The measure of scope, known as Senate Bill 7, passed along party lines around 6 a.m. after eight hours of questioning Democrats, who have virtually no way to prevent it from becoming law. But the bill still has to complete the final vote in the Texas House later Sunday to reach Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who is due to sign it.
“I have serious concerns about a law that was drafted in the shadows and passed late into the night,” Democratic State Sen. Beverly Powell said.
Under revisions during closed-door talks, Republicans added a language that could make it easier for a judge to annul an election and pushed back the start of Sunday’s vote, when many black churchgoers go to the polls. The 67-page measure would also eliminate passing voting and 24-hour polling stations, which were introduced last year by Harris County State, the state’s largest democratic stronghold.
Texas is the latest major battleground in GOP nationwide efforts to tighten voting laws driven by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that his 2020 election was stolen. Georgia and Florida have also imposed new voting restrictions, with President Biden unfavorably comparing the bill on Saturday. Texas with electoral changes in those states as an “attack on democracy”.
The vote in the Texas Senate came shortly after the final version of the bill was announced Saturday. Around midnight, Republicans by a majority vote stopped rules that would normally prohibit voting on a law that has not been released 24 hours a day, which Democrats protested as a violation of a protocol denying them and the public to review the language first.
The bill would re-empower party poll observers by giving them greater access within polling stations and threatening criminal sanctions against election officials who restrict their movement. Republicans originally proposed giving poll observers the right to be photographed, but that language was removed from the final bill that lawmakers were due to vote on this weekend.
Another new provision could also facilitate the annulment of the Texas election, allowing a judge to annul an outcome if the number of fraudulent votes could change the outcome, regardless of whether it has been proven that fraud affected the outcome.
Election officials will also face new criminal sanctions, including criminal charges for sending voting applications by mail to people who did not request it. The Texas and Texas County Attorneys Association said it included at least 16 new, expanded, or intensified election-related crimes in the bill.
GOP lawmakers are also pushing for a ban on Sunday’s vote before 1 p.m., which critics have called an attack on what is commonly known as “souls at the polls” – a campaign used by black church assemblies across the country. The idea goes back to the civil rights movement. Democratic Republican Nicole Collier, chairwoman of the Texas Legislative Black Club, said the change would “take away and disenfranchise those who use souls at the polls.”
Pressed to the Senate floor because Sunday’s vote couldn’t have started sooner, Republican Sen. Bryan Hughes said, “Election workers also want to go to church.”
Collier was one of three Democrats elected to negotiate the final version, and none of them signed his name. She said she saw the bill on Friday around 11pm – which was different from the one she had received earlier that day – and that she had asked for her signature the next morning.
Major corporations, including U.S. Airlines and Texas-based Dell, have warned that the measures could hurt democracy and the economic climate. But Republicans have rejected their objections and, in some cases, tore up business leaders for speaking out.
Texas already has some of the strictest voting restrictions in the country, and non-partisan groups regularly cite it as a state where voting is especially difficult. It was one of the few states that did not facilitate postal voting during a pandemic.
Top Republican negotiators, Hughes and Attorney General Briscoe Cain, called the bill “one of the most comprehensive and reasonable election reform laws” in Texas history.
“While national media downplays the importance of electoral integrity, Texas legislation has not focused on headlines or signals of corporate virtues,” they said in a joint statement.
Since Trump’s defeat, at least 14 states have passed more restrictive voting laws, according to the New York Brennan Center for Justice. He also counted nearly 400 laws filed this year across the country that would restrict voting.
Republican lawmakers in Texas have insisted that the changes are not a response to Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud, but are needed to restore confidence in the voting process. But doubts about the outcome of the election were fueled by some of the state’s top GOP leaders, including Attorney General Ken Paxton, who led a failed lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court to try to topple the election.
Gov. Dan Patrick, who chaired Trump’s presidential campaign in Texas, offered a million-dollar reward to anyone who can present evidence of voter fraud. Non-partisan investigations of previous elections have revealed that voter fraud is extremely rare. State officials from both parties, including Texas, as well as international observers also said the 2020 election went well.