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Texas GOP's bill to restrict voting passes final House vote, heads back to Senate

The pared down version leaves out some of the most controversial voting restrictions that have prompted widespread outcry from voting rights advocates.

AUSTIN, Texas — As opposition to Texas Republicans’ proposed voting restrictions continues to intensify, state lawmakers’ deliberations over the GOP priority legislation could soon go behind closed doors.

The House Friday gave final passage to a pared down version of Senate Bill 7, leaving out various far-reaching voting restrictions that have prompted widespread outcry from voting rights advocates, advocates for people with disabilities, and local officials in the state’s biggest counties. The legislation still contains some provisions opposed by those groups — including a prohibition on counties sending unsolicited applications to vote by mail.

Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park), a lead sponsor on the bill, said some amendments incorporated feedback from advocates for people with disabilities and the Texas chapter of the NAACP.

“Some amendments that went on yesterday were designed to clarify, ensure that people would not be prosecuted for honest mistakes,” Cain told lawmakers just before Friday’s final vote.

He says SB7 protects all Texas voters and applies election code uniformly.

Democrats: SB7 isn't needed

However, Democrats say it makes voting harder in the name of stopping nearly non-existent voter fraud.

“In the past five years, 16 defendants have been convicted of an election-related offense,” said Rep. John Bucy III (D-Cedar Park). “If you add in the deferred adjudications and diversion programs, out of the 16.9 million registered voters, and if you do the math, over the last 5 years of elections, that is 0.00000436 percent.”

Judge Lina Hidalgo said believes SB7 targets Harris County and said Friday despite the amendments, it’s still harmful.

“Remember, this is just the House bill,” said Judge Hidalgo. “There is a Senate bill that would end 24-hour voting, that would end drive-thru voting, that would mean that we’d have to shift voting locations from minority areas outside of those minority areas. That would lead to long lines.”

What's next?

The final version of the bill remains uncertain.

With a 78-64 vote to give it final approval, the bill now heads back to the Senate. It will then likely go to a conference committee made up of members of both chambers who will be able to pull from both iterations of the legislation in crafting the final version largely outside public view.

SB 7 has emerged as the main legislative vehicle for changing the state’s voting rules, though the versions passed in each chamber differ significantly.

As passed in the Senate, the legislation restricted early voting rules and schedules to do away with extended hours and ban drive-thru voting. It also required large counties to redistribute polling places under a formula that could move sites away from areas with more Hispanic and Black residents.

What changed?

Before the first vote early Thursday, Republicans further amended the bill to remove a provision that would have required people assisting voters to disclose the reason a voter might need help — even if for medical reasons or because a voter has limited English proficiency. That measure raised concerns among advocates for people with disabilities that it could violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, and groups with a long history of fighting state voting laws later found to be discriminatory said it would target voters of color who are more likely to need assistance. Lawmakers also amended the bill to slim down provisions that broadly enhanced protections for partisan poll watchers and provisions that boosted penalties for voting related offenses.

"This bill took a lot of work. We've heard ideas from many members and constituents," said state Rep. Briscoe Cain, the Deer Park Republican who is shepherding the bill through the House, noting those amendments to the bill were crafted based on feedback from advocates for people with disabilities and the Texas chapter of the NAACP. "This bill protects every single Texas voter."

In keeping the ban on distributing applications for mail-in ballots, the House upheld its response to Harris County’s attempt to proactively send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters last year with instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. Other Texas counties sent unsolicited applications to voters 65 and older without much scrutiny. Those voters automatically qualify to vote by mail, but sending them unsolicited applications would also be blocked under the bill.

Under the deal House members cut to keep the bill on the floor, Democrats were able to tack on several amendments to the legislation. Most notably, they added language to the legislation in response to the controversial illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election. Mason was on supervised release for a federal conviction at the time and said she didn’t know that made her ineligible to vote. SB 7 was amended early Friday to require judges to inform someone if a conviction will prohibit them from voting and require that people know why they are ineligible for an attempt to vote to count as a crime.

House Republicans’ procedural strategy to rewrite the bill in committee helped it move quickly through the chamber. Despite that revision and the amendments added during the floor debate, the House could ultimately embrace some of the more restrictive provisions in the original Senate legislation — and drop the language added by Democrats — when the bill goes through a conference committee.

With Republicans in full control of state government, the legislation is at the forefront of their broader efforts to further restrict voting after the state saw the highest turnout in decades in 2020. In Texas and nationally, those efforts have been largely rooted in baseless claims of widespread voter fraud for which there is virtually no evidence. In backing the measure earlier this year, Gov. Greg Abbott — who deemed “election integrity” a legislative priority — conceded he was unaware of instances of fraud that had upended an election in 2020. And one of the state’s top election officials told House lawmakers at a previous committee hearing that “Texas had an election that was smooth and secure.”

Without the votes to block the bill, House Democrats seized on that lack of evidence for widespread fraud in questioning Cain when debate began Thursday evening.

“What are we trying to fix here that is not broken?” state Rep. Jessica González, a Dallas Democrat, asked.

House Bill 6 and Senate Bill 7

SB 7 has emerged as the main legislative vehicle for changing the state’s voting rules, though the versions passed in each chamber differ significantly.

As passed in the Senate, the legislation restricted early voting rules and schedules to do away with extended hours and ban drive-thru voting. It also required large counties to redistribute polling places under a formula that could move sites away from areas with more Hispanic and Black residents.

Those and other provisions fell off when it was reconstituted in the House Elections Committee, with little notice and without a public hearing, to match the House’s priorities contained in House Bill 6.

Keeping the ban on distributing applications for mail-in ballots

In keeping the ban on distributing applications for mail-in ballots, the House upheld its response to Harris County’s attempt to proactively send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters last year with instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. Other Texas counties sent unsolicited applications to voters 65 and older without much scrutiny. Those voters automatically qualify to vote by mail, but sending them unsolicited applications would also be blocked under the bill.

RELATED: Turner, Hidalgo cancel speeches at Greater Houston Partnership over its silence on Texas voting bills

This story originally appeared in The Texas Tribune