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Democrats knew the risk when they stepped out en masse in May, shattering the House quorum at the end of the regular legislative session and temporarily derailing Republicans’ efforts to make voting in Texas more difficult.
In the five and a half weeks since winning this battle, political and legal currents have shifted, and those who hope to prevent the GOP’s resolve to adopt new voting restrictions face a war. wider as the legislature meets Thursday in extraordinary session.
A second GOP lead candidate has emerged to challenge Gov. Greg Abbott’s reelection bid next year from the right, and Abbott appears to be toughening up to protect his Tory flank.
By ruling on a voting rights case in Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court weakened one of the few remaining legal mechanisms to protect people of color from discriminatory state-imposed voting restrictions.
And Republican leaders have found a source of energy in their ongoing crusade against a reading of the past that recognizes and confronts the role of racism in Texas history and how it continues to shape the state.
These developments raised the stakes for the special session, creating the possibility that the adopted version of the voting legislation was even more restrictive than Senate Bill 7, the bill at stake when Democrats staged their walkout. .
“That was the threat they made before we left,” State Representative Nicole Collier D-Fort Worth said in a recent interview with The Texas Tribune. “They said, ‘You know, if we have to come back, this bill will be worse.’ We saw some of the damaging provisions in the original Senate version, and we expect them to bring them back. “
The failure of Texas Republicans to pass new voting restrictions, while conservatives with less grip on power in other states succeeded, was a remarkable stumble in the GOP’s national response to the 2020 election. and the baseless claims by former President Donald Trump that his outcome was in jeopardy. by fraud.
Beyond Trump, Republicans in Texas have their own push to tighten the voting rules. With their margins of victory eroding statewide, they have two opportunities this year to pass laws that could extend their grip on power. The second, which outlines the legislative constituencies of Congress and State, will not be engaged until a special session later this year.
But the first effort, by enacting new voting restrictions under the banner of “electoral integrity” which seems likely to make voting more difficult primarily for Democratic voters – including urban voters of color and other marginalized groups – starts again for good Thursday.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said on Wednesday the Republicans would move quickly to their second attempt to pass the restrictions, with a Senate committee meeting on Saturday on the voting bill that is expected to be reconstituted as Bill 1 of the Senate. During the regular session, the Senate began with a much broader bill compared to the thinner set of restrictions favored by the House.
In its opening proposal for the extraordinary session, the House seemed to have already extended the restrictions it had adopted during the ordinary session. House Bill 3 encompasses many of the previous Senate restrictions, including two targeting Harris County voting initiatives and a new identification requirement for postal voting that was added to SB 7 at the last minute .
The Senate had not revealed its first vote on the legislation Wednesday evening.
The Democrat-defeated bill, SB 7, would have made sweeping changes to the Texas election by restricting voting hours, reducing election control by local officials, further strengthening postal voting rules and strengthening the access of observers in favor of the polls. Other far-reaching provisions of the bill would have created new offenses or heavier penalties for local election officials and those who help voters vote.
This massive bill was the end product of behind-the-scenes negotiations between the Senate and House Republicans in which lawmakers added new restrictions, some of which had yet to be discussed in public. As the special session approaches, SB 7 is what some Republicans envisioned as a starting point.
“We worked really hard to get a good report from the conference committee,” said State Representative Travis Clardy, referring to the final version of the bill that Republican Nacogdoches helped craft over the course of. these negotiations. “What I really hope is that we have the opportunity to come up with a clean bill, to point out ‘here are some concerns that have been raised appropriately’ and ‘this is how they were handled and cleaned up. “
Clardy is among Republicans who, since the Democrats’ walkout, have backed out of two controversial provisions added out of public view. A proposal would have lowered the legal standard for court quashing of elections, leading to Republican wrangling over who was responsible for including it in the bill.
Another included new limits on early Sunday voting times, including a 1 p.m. start time, which were ridiculed as an attack on “souls at the polls” efforts focused on black worshipers. Republicans then blamed the new rule on a typo, alleging it should have been printed at 11 a.m. even though they publicly defended the change.
“Before the end of the regular session, we probably had, on both the House and Senate side, too many cooks, too many fingers in the cake,” Clardy said. “Mechanically, it should have been winnowed and simpler.”
Patrick continued the bickering in a press release on Tuesday accusing the House of Sunday restrictions, but made it clear that they were no longer on the table in the Senate.
Since the walkout, the Lieutenant Governor has continued to champion the work of Republicans in an effort to standardize electoral procedures, including focusing on Harris County’s efforts in 2020 to expand local voting options and protect the voting process. voting irregularities.
“We wanted to make sure we had a full check of the mail-in ballots and again to make sure the people who say they are going to vote and vote are the people they say they are,” Patrick said in an interview. to Fox News earlier this summer. “This is not a suppression of voters.”
The outcry over these two provisions has largely overshadowed the broader concerns of voting rights advocates over other last-minute additions to the legislation, including new identification requirements for postal voting and a possibly higher threshold. for who can qualify for a disability-based mail-in ballot. But without the votes to completely block the legislation, some Democrats have taken those concessions as a partial walkout victory.
Still, Democrats remain concerned about the potential return of other controversial rule changes that had been left out of the bill.
An earlier version of the law would have allowed pro-ballot observers to videotape voters who receive help filling out their ballots. This provision has raised concerns about targeting voters with disabilities and those who speak languages other than English who may be more likely to need assistance.
Republicans had also tried to work out a new formula for allocating polling stations in the handful of predominantly Democratic counties of 1 million or more. An analysis from the Texas Tribune showed that voting options under this proposal would have been the most limited in areas with the highest proportion of voters of color.
Democrats and voting rights advocates have also indicated they remain wary of potential new additions to voter registration rules, including an effort to draft the state’s botched effort in 2019. to revise the electoral rolls of so-called non-citizens in law or increased citizenship checks that would target naturalized citizens. .
We saw them “remove the amendments agreed to by the Democrats and add new provisions that were never even considered in committee,” said State Representative Jessica González, the Dallas Democrat who served as vice president of the House Elections Committee. “We don’t expect it to be any different.”
But the renewed debate over what might be in the Republicans’ bill will not take place in a vacuum.
Upholding a pair of disputed Arizona laws as discriminatory against voters of color, the Supreme Court earlier this month issued a ruling that legal experts broadly agree to give states more leeway. to impose new voting restrictions without violating federal voting rights law.
The ruling signaled to courts that they might be more receptive to the reasons given by lawmakers for passing new restrictions – to prevent election fraud, for example, as Texas Republicans have claimed – instead of s’ build on the disparate impact of a new law on voters of color. .
The GOP’s continued efforts to quell public discussions of racism in Texas history and the resulting persistent discriminatory practices may cast an equally long shadow over the electoral debate.
Much of this struggle over the past few months has focused on new law restricting how the history of racism and its connection to current events can be taught in Texas schools. Abbott called on lawmakers to rely more on this legislation during the special session. But it also gave way to new controversies over Republicans’ objections to which parts of the story could be discussed at the state history museum. Last week, Patrick took credit for the brutal cancellation of a promotional event at the Bullock Texas State History Museum for a book that questioned the role of slavery in the run-up to the Battle of Alamo.
For some Democrats, these historic threads are inextricably linked to the debate over voting restrictions.
“It’s an attempt to whitewash history, but we don’t know what mistakes to repeat if we don’t learn our history,” Collier said. “All of these things are interrelated.”
Disclosure: The Bullock Texas State History Museum has financially supported The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, non-partisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial support plays no role in the journalism of the Tribune. Find a full list of them here.