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Texas Matters: How Voter Restrictions Passed In The Texas House

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Texas Legislature
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Rep. Briscoe Cain (R) defends SB 7 on Texas House Floor

It was at 3 a.m. Friday that HB6/SB7, the Republican voter restriction bill, won initial approval by the Texas House. But that didn't happen without some conflict and drama along the way.

Even Democratic lawmakers opposed to SB7 admitted during floor debate that Republican support of this Governor Abbott priority item was going to pass this bill — no matter what.

But what Democrats had in their favor was the sloppy work of Elections Committee Chairman Briscoe Cain.

While defending his bill Cain continued to appear to be flustered and unprepared to answer detailed questions about how it would be implemented and enforced.

The Democrats’ strategy was a familiar one — use House rules and procedures to wear the Republicans down and then negotiate to soften some of the hardest edges of this controversial bill.

The Democrats had prepared more than 130 amendments for the bill. Even if every one of them failed to pass the Dems would have successfully burned through many hours of precious time — which is a limited commodity at the legislature. Time that is also needed to pass other Republican priorities,

And the Democrats had another card to play — a point of order made by Democratic Representative John Turner.

"Mr. Speaker, I raise a point of order against further consideration of Senate Bill 7 under Rule 4, Section 32c of the House Rules, on the grounds the bill analysis does not comply with the rule," said Turner.

Parliamentary Points of Order are common during debates on controversial and high stakes bills — and usually they take a few minutes to settle. But this one seemed to much more substantial. Debate was halted for more than 2 hours. It appeared to be serious and another sign of Cain’s lack of attention to detail. It had the potential to torpedo the bill and force it back to committee which would kill it for this legislative session. But if that were to happen Gov. Abbott could revive the bill during a special session which is already expected this summer to deal with redistricting.

So, the horse trading began. Then the point of order was withdrawn and Cain took the microphone to address the House.

"I move to postpone further consideration of SB 7 until 11:30 p.m. today. Currently negotiating on some perfecting amendment," said Cain.

The bill didn't return to the floor until after 2:30 a.m. When it did, there was a rush of 19 amendments, most of them offered by Democrats and accepted without objection. The result sliced out various far-reaching voting restrictions that voting rights advocates objected to. Also provisions that advocates of voters with disabilities objected to were softened.

Lawmakers also changed a part of the bill that enhanced protections for partisan poll watchers and increased penalties for voting related offenses.

While these adjustments toned down parts of the bill that had promoted the loudest outcry from voting rights advocates, it wasn’t good enough to win over Democratic votes for the bills final passage.

But in the end, the bill passed the House on a party line vote.

And this is not the final version of the bill. After its final house passage it will head into the closed door conference negotiations to iron out differences with the Senate.

So, what are the main points in the bill that voting rights advocates say will make voter more difficult in the state?

  • It remains illegal to send out unsolicited applications for a mail in ballot.
  • Voting hours will be limited.
  • Drive-thru voting is prohibited.
  • Multiple ballot drop off boxes are outlawed.

Making any of these items law will be nothing to achieve the stated goal of HB6 and SB7 which is to root out voter fraud.

The accusation by Democrats is that these voter integrity bills are about making voting more difficult for communities of color and have a partisan motivation to keep the Republican party in power in a state with changing demographics not favorable to the GOP.

And to support that accusation, Democrats point to Florida where on Thursday Gov. Ron DeSantis signed his voter overhaul bill — which is similar to the Texas bill. DeSantis signed the bill at at Donald Trump fan club while live on Fox news and barring the participation and coverage from legitimate news media.

Back at the Texas Capitol in Austin during the Thursday debate, Democratic lawmakers including Rafael Anchia of Dallas continued to hammer at Republican Briscoe Caine by drawing attention to the Jim Crow roots of voter restrictions in Texas.

Democratic Representative John Turner on the house floor also laid out the history of Texas with racially motivated voter suppression.

Pro-democracy organizations across the country are calling out Texas republican leadership for pushing bills that will weaken democracy in Texas. That means the state legislature will ignore the will of the people to pass unpopular laws and ignore the true needs of the state. Sarah Walker is the executive director of Secure Democracy.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi