By ACACIA CORONADO, AP News.
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas Republican lawmakers marched late Thursday toward advancing a sweeping elections bill that would put America’s biggest red state closer to imposing a raft of new voting restrictions in the face of growing warning from corporations.
A key vote in the Texas House got off to a late and slow start as Democrats, who have little means of stopping the bill in the GOP-controlled state Capitol, deployed technical challenges— including an initial 130 proposed amendments— and hours of questioning that the bill’s author, Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain, appeared unprepared at times to answer. Meanwhile, dozens of protestors lined the doors of the Texas House with signs that read like their echoing chants — “suppress the virus not the vote.”
Thursday’s bill was combined with a similar bill, which already passed the Senate, and both chambers would still need to negotiate a final version before it goes to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who has broadly defended the measures. The session ends May 31.
Proposed restrictions include new regulations for who can help disabled voters or those who need language help and how and adds new criminal penalties to the state’s election code, among other crackdowns in a state where voting laws are already among the strictest in the U.S.
“It is old Jim Crow dressed up in what our colleagues are calling election integrity,” said Democratic state Rep. Jessica Gonzalez.
The debate in Texas came the same day Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, signed a wide-ranging bill to make his the latest state to toughen its election rules. Debate was expected to continue late into the night. If passed, the legislation would move to the Senate.
Abbott, who has not wavered in his backing of his party’s restrictions and has lashed out at businesses that have spoken out, reiterated his support Thursday.
“I made election integrity an emergency item this session to help ensure every eligible voter gets to vote & only eligible ballots are counted,” Abbott tweeted.
Cain, who chairs the House Elections Committee and who authored the House version of the voting bill, echoed those sentiments. Cain has been an ardent support of former President Donald Trump, who continues to make false claims that fraud cost him the 2020 election.
There were no major problems or fraud — which is extremely rare — reported in Texas and Trump carried the state in November.
Cain, who in March made a procedural gaffe that delayed testimony on the bill after hundreds of people showed up to testify, came under sharp questioning from Democrats who pressed him over the bill’s intent and whether he understood what the language in his own legislation meant.
“We don’t need to wait for bad things to happen to protect the security of the election,” Cain said. “I don’t believe that this is voter suppression, I believe it is voter enhancement.”
Other restrictions in Cain’s bill would outlaw Texas county officials from sending mail-ballot request forms to all registered voters, efforts voting officials in Harris County — where Cain is from — put in place last year to expand ballot access when in-person gatherings were more hazardous because of the coronavirus pandemic. Harris County, which includes Houston, is also a Democratic stronghold where 44% of the nearly 5 million residents are Latino and 20% are Black.
Voting rights groups say poor and minority voters will bear the brunt of GOP restrictions, and that Republicans are counting on the privilege of their voters to overcome hurdles. On Tuesday, more than 50 companies and business organizations, including some in Texas, released an open letter expressing opposition to “any changes” that would make it harder to vote in that state.
Republicans in Texas have angrily rejected those accusations. They say the measures would only rein in powers that county leaders never had in the first place.
One Republican in the Texas House, Rep. Lyle Larson, spoke out this week against his party’s proposals in an opinion column in his hometown newspaper. But he has been a lone public voice of dissent in his party in the Texas Capitol.
“The suppression tactics included in this bill would hurt the Republican Party as much or more than its opposition,” Larson wrote in the San Antonio Express-News. “One can only wonder — are the bill authors trying to make it harder for Republican voters to vote?”
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.