State

Republicans Push Election Integrity Bills in Texas, Democrats Attack Legislation as ‘Voter Suppression’

After a wide swathe of Republican voters expressed doubts about the integrity of the 2020 election, GOP lawmakers in Texas are calling for reforms to assuage public fears about election security in the Lone Star State.

An assortment of bills have been filed, but the two to get top priority are House Bill (HB) 6 from Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) and Senate Bill (SB) 7 from Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) and 12 other Republican joint authors.

Cain and Hughes are the chairs of the House Elections Committee and Senate State Affairs Committee, respectively, where the bills were referred to in each chamber.

In their first drafts, HB 6 and SB 7 are both 27 pages long and cover a wide range of subjects related primarily to the Texas Election Code.

Though equal in length and tackling many of the same issues on the surface, the two bills are far from identical.

Cain’s proposal is broken down into five main articles beyond its general provisions — which emphasizes that the legislative intent of the election code is for “uniform and consistent” election conduct throughout the state — and its effective date:

  • Registration and Conduct of Elections:
    • Expedites the requirements for deaths to be reported to the voter registrar
    • Requires election officers to keep records of spoiled ballots
  • Election Officers and Observers:
    • Expands protections for poll watchers
  • Assistance of Voters:
    • Increases disclosure requirements for individuals assisting others with voting, including the completion of a new form indicating the assistance given on the official carrier envelopes of mail ballots
  • Fraud and Unlawful Practices:
    • Prohibits public officials from soliciting mail ballot applications to individuals who do not request it
    • Increases the penalty for voter assistants who lie in required oaths
    • Expands offenses related to vote harvesting
  • Enforcement:
    • Requires courts to prioritize voter fraud cases prior to an election

“The idea that our elections are free from vote dilution is demonstrably false, and we must root out and penalize every attempt to delegitimize our votes,” said Cain in a press release. “Every Texan from every background must have the security and trust that their vote matters. It is our duty to get this right, and we will get this right.”

“We must protect the strength of our elections so that all Texans know that safeguards are in place when they exercise this fundamental freedom, and I look forward to the Texas House getting to work on this important legislation,” said House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont).

Hughes’ bill likewise addresses many of the same issues, such as requiring spoiled ballots to be logged and prohibiting local officials from soliciting mail ballot applications — a chide against the Harris County clerk who tried doing just that last fall.

Other overlapping issues have more noticeable differences, such as the protections for poll watchers.

While HB 6 focuses on strengthening existing rights for poll watchers to monitor elections, SB 7 would instead amend current law to permit poll watchers to record the vote counting process so long as no information on a voter’s ballot is captured.

The senate offering is broken into four main articles:

  • Voter Registration:
    • Requires courts to inform defendants on the effect of a felony conviction on their right to vote
    • Requires voter registrar to notify the attorney general and secretary of state of findings that individuals are illegally registered to vote
    • Increases regulations to require voter registrar to correct violations on registration list
  • Voting by Mail:
    • Requires mail ballot applications on the basis of disability to provide documentation of disability
    • Requires the secretary of state to develop an online tracking tool for mail ballots
    • Requires separate tabulation of mail ballots
  • Election Security:
    • Truncates recording restrictions for poll watchers
    • Requires countywide polling places to have “approximately the same number of voting machine as each other countywide polling place in the county”
    • Requires persons assisting with vote-by-car to affirm that the voting method is a necessity
    • Establishes regular voting hours no earlier than 7 a.m. and no later than 7 p.m.
    • Requires voting locations to be located indoors
    • Requires a paper audit trail for voting results
    • Permits recount of an entire precinct if total votes exceed the number of registered voters in the precinct
  • Enforcement:
    • Establishes new penalties for violations of the code from election officials
    • Permits injunctive relief for poll watchers

While Hughes was chairing a State Affairs Committee hearing on Monday that looked at a slate of pro-life legislation, Gov. Greg Abbott appeared at a press conference in Houston alongside Cain and Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) to tout the election security bills.

“Our objective in Texas is to ensure that every eligible voter gets to vote and that only eligible ballots are counted,” said Abbott.

The Texas House Democratic Caucus held a press conference on Monday afternoon in which they responded to Abbott’s press conference which they criticized as an “attack on voting rights.”

Whereas Cain touted the need for “free, fair, and secure” elections alongside Abbott, the Democratic lawmakers emphasized that voting should be “free, fair, and accessible.”

The most nuanced criticism at the Democrats’ press conference came from Sen. Nathan Johnson (D-Dallas), who said that “SB 7 serves only to promote a false and corrosive narrative that if a Republican loses a Democrat must have cheated,” but also noted things in the bill that he said “aren’t so objectionable.”

Some items he approved of included the requirement for a paper trail to give “certainty in our elections,” a system to track mail ballots, and keeping polling places open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. — “unless you’re putting that in there as a way to secretly knock out the polling places that are on college campuses.”

Things that Johnson said he opposes include the requirement for all countywide polling places in the same county to have the same number of voting machines, the requirement for vote-by-car assistants to sign a form, and the requirement for proof of a disability to vote by mail on that basis.

“We’re not for a big bloated government. We don’t want the big brother Orwellian state looking over everyone’s shoulder and making sure you have a doctor’s note and paperwork so you can drive your family member to the polls,” said Johnson.

“Let’s fix the bill in the House. Let’s fix the bill in the Senate,” he added. “Let’s strike out the provisions that are patently designed to suppress the vote. Let’s go ahead and hone and make effective those that truly do contribute to the integrity of our election systems, because we’ll all benefit from that and there are plenty of good ideas out there to make that happen.”

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