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Texas Voting Rights Groups Celebrate Failure Of Restrictive Voting Bill But Prepare To Keep Fighting

FILE PHOTO: Protest against new voting restrictions in Austin
FILE PHOTO: Voting rights activists gather during a protest against Texas legislators who are advancing new voting restrictions in Austin, Texas, U.S., May 8, 2021. REUTERS/Mikala Compton/File Photo

A bill to overhaul voting rules in the state failed to pass in the Texas House on Sunday night in a victory for Democrats and voting rights advocates. Sunday was the last day of the legislative session that the bill, Senate Bill 7, could have been passed, but it may be brought up again in the future.

The bill would place limits on early voting hours, drive-thru voting, and tighten restrictions on who can vote by mail. It would also expand the role that poll watchers can play, including allowing them to be closer to the polls and to record certain voters.

Republicans have called it a measure to ensure election integrity, despite the lack of evidence for widespread election fraud — the outgoing Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs told lawmakers earlier in the year that Texas’ election in 2020 was “smooth and secure.” Democrats and voting rights organizations have derided the bill as an attempt at voter suppression that would disproportionately harm racial and ethnic minorities.

Alex Birnel, the advocacy manager of MOVE Texas, a voting rights group in the state, said SB7 is part of a national effort to suppress votes in the demographically changing state.

“Texans are diverse, younger, Blacker and Browner than ever,” Birnel said. “And I think that without rigging the game and keeping voters from the ballot box there are individuals who fear their grip on power.”

SB7 failed to pass in the Texas House because a group of House Democrats walked out of the legislature, causing the House to lose quorum — in order for certain procedures to take place, such as passing legislation, a certain number of House members must be present — blocking Republicans from passing the bill despite their majority. Birnel said that was all made possible by the work of organizers.

“I’m glad that we had allies in the Democratic Party who rose to the occasion to meet the moment to protect the voting rights of all Texans,” Birnel said. “So for me the lesson is, credit to the organizers who set the conditions, who changed the atmosphere, who make this kind of confrontational crescendo moment — that historical moment — possible.”

Gov. Greg Abbott has already said he will convene a special session of the Texas legislature in the coming months to reconsider SB7, among other pieces of legislation, so the bill could still be passed.

“Ensuring the integrity of our elections and reforming a broken bail system remain emergencies in Texas,” Abbott’s statement said. “They will be added to the special session agenda. Legislators will be expected to have worked out the details when they arrive at the Capitol for the special session."

Abbott went further on Monday, saying he intends to withhold paychecks to state lawmakers after House Democrats staged the walkout to block voting restrictions proposed by their Republican counterparts.

For Birnel, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

“This is a reckoning over two strategies,” Birnel said. “One strategy is to suppress the vote to sustain power, and the other strategy is for millions of people to participate in our democracy and for that participation to transform the entire country for the better.”

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Josh Peck is a former TPR newsroom intern.