AUSTIN, Texas -- The GOP-controlled Texas Legislature passed a broad overhaul of the state’s election laws Tuesday, tightening already strict voting rules and dealing a bruising defeat to Democrats who waged a monthslong fight over what they argued was a brazen attempt to disenfranchise minorities and other Democratic-leaning voters.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said he will sign the bill, the latest in a national GOP campaign to add new hurdles to voting in the name of security. The effort, which led to new restrictions in Georgia, Florida, Arizona and elsewhere, was spurred in part by former President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election.
Texas Democrats fought the legislation for months, arguing the bill was tailored to make it harder for young people, racial and ethnic minorities and people with disabilities — all Democratic-leaning voters — to cast ballots, just as they see the demographics shifting to favor their party. The bill specifically targets Democratic strongholds, including Houston's Harris County, further tightening rules in a state already considered among the hardest places to cast a ballot.
The legislation set off a heated summer in Texas of walkouts by Democrats, Republicans threatening them with arrest, Abbott vetoing the paychecks of thousands of rank-and-file staffers when the bill failed to reach him sooner, and accusations of racism and voter suppression.
“The emotional reasons for not voting for it are that it creates hardships for people because of the color of their skin and their ethnicity, and I am part of that class of people,” said Democrat Garnet Coleman, a state representative whose return to the Capitol earlier this month helped end a 38-day standoff.
Even the final vote did not escape a parting round of confrontation after Senate Republicans, at the last minute, scuttled one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement: efforts to shield voters with felony convictions from prosecution if they did not realize they were ineligible to cast a ballot. It had been included following backlash over the arrests of two Texas voters, both of whom are Black, which intensified criticism amid a broader fight over voting restrictions that opponents say disproportionately impact people of color.
Texas will limit voting hours and empower partisan poll watchers under the nearly 75-page bill, known as Senate Bill 1. It is largely similar to the one Democrats first walked out on 93 days ago, underscoring how Republicans, who have overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate, held their ground in the face of months of protest and escalating brinksmanship.
“Senate Bill 1 will solidify trust and confidence in the outcome of our elections by making it easier to vote and harder to cheat. I look forward to signing Senate Bill 1 into law, ensuring election integrity in Texas,” Abbott said in a statement minutes after the bill passed.
That acrimony is unlikely to end with Abbott’s signature.
The Texas Capitol is set to immediately shift into another charged fight over redrawn voting maps that could lock in Republican electoral advantages for the next decade. Texas added more than 4 million new residents since 2010, more than any other state, with people of color accounting for more than nine in every 10 new residents.
Democrats criticized the voting bill as an attempt to suppress the turnout of an ascendant and more diverse electorate as Republicans, who are used to racking up commanding electoral victories in America’s biggest red state, begin to lose ground.
Texas Republicans defended the bill in the same terms the GOP has used in more than a dozen other states that have also passed restrictive voting laws this year: calling the changes practical safeguards, while denying they are driven by Trump’s baseless claims that he lost reelection because of widespread voter fraud.
When the bill won final approval Tuesday in the Senate, holding the gavel on the dais was Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Days after the election last year, Patrick offered a $1 million reward in support of Trump’s unfounded claims of irregularities at the polls.
One provision in the bill had sought to add clarity that a person must have known he or she was voting illegally in order to face prosecution. But although it had buy-in from the House, it was rejected by Senate negotiators just as the bill was being finalized over the weekend.
Texas law prohibits people on parole, probation or supervised release from voting. But both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have expressed unease over the case of Crystal Mason, who was sentenced to five years in prison in 2018 for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 presidential election when she was on probation. She has said she was unaware that she was ineligible to cast a ballot at the time.
Her provisional vote wound up not counting, and her case is now on appeal.
After the full voting bill cleared, the House approved a resolution that “a person should not be criminally incarcerated for making an innocent mistake.” It passed 119-4.
“You should not be put in jail for five years under those circumstances,” Republican state Rep. Dustin Burrows said.
Texas already has some of the nation’s toughest election laws, and many of the most hotly contested changes now heading to Abbott are prohibitions on expanded voting options put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic in Texas’ largest county, which includes Houston and is a major source of Democratic votes.
Harris County last year offered 24-hour polling places and drive-thru voting, as well as tried sending mail-ballot applications to 2 million registered voters. All of that would now be outlawed with Abbott’s signature, and election officials who send mail-in ballots applications to voters who don’t request one could face criminal penalties.
Republicans said the tightened rules reign in powers that local elections officials never had in the first place, while accusing critics of exaggerating the impacts. They also emphasized that polls during two weeks of early voting everywhere in Texas must now be open for at least an extra hour, and that more counties must have polls open for at least 12 hours.
Mason’s illegal voting arrest is not the only one to draw criticism from Democrats and voting rights groups. In July, Hervis Rogers was arrested on charges of illegal voting because he cast a ballot while still on parole after waiting more than six hours in line during the 2020 presidential primary.
The cases drew national attention and angered critics who saw both as overzealous attempts by Republicans to look tough on rare cases of improper voting. The Brennan Center for Justice in 2017 ranked the risk of ballot fraud at 0.00004% to 0.0009%, based on studies of past elections.
Acacia Coronado is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.