- Democrats in the Texas legislature left the state to stop two voting bills in a special session.
- House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1 limit the ways that local officials expanded voting in 2020.
- They also include new regulations for absentee voting and protections for poll watchers.
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On Monday, dozens of Democratic lawmakers in the Texas state House boarded two chartered planes and left the state altogether to head to Washington, DC to deny the quorum necessary to pass a slew of legislation in Texas’ ongoing special legislative session.
The stated purpose of their walkout is specifically to block two proposed omnibus election bills, House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1, that are part of an ambitious list of conservative priorities that Gov. Greg Abbott is trying to pass.
State House Democrats previously walked out at the end of the last legislative session in May in order to deny a quorum and run out the clock to pass Senate Bill 7, a bill that included new restrictions on voting and criminal penalties for election officials.
After the first walkout, Republicans dropped two of SB 7’s controversial provisions from the new bills: one that would have limited early voting hours on Sundays to began after 1 pm and a measure that would have made it easier for losing candidates to overturn election results.
But many lawmakers say their bold action isn’t as much about the specific provisions of the bills themselves than the overall principle of Republicans aiming to pass legislation that tightens voting rules in the wake of the 2020 election, – in addition to Abbott vetoing funding for the legislative branch in response to the previous walkout.
Texas already has strict voting rules, with no online, automatic, or same-day voter registration; requiring an excuse to vote absentee for those under 65; and mandating a photo ID to vote.
Biggest highlights of HB 3 and SB 1:
- New early voting hours. Both bills require counties to hold at least nine hours of voting during the early voting period that can start as early as 6 am and end as late as 9 pm in SB 1 and 10 pm in SB 1. The bills set a more specific set of hours than current law, which just requires early voting to be held during a county clerk’s office during “regular business hours.”
- Both bills also require early voting to be held for 12 hours a day during the last week of early voting in larger counties and allow small counties with less than 1,000 voters to hold fewer hours.
- The new hours for early voting, however, would ban local officials from offering early voting overnight 24 hours a day, as Harris County did in 2020 during the pandemic.
- Bans on drive-thru voting. Both bills prohibit officials from offering early voting in a “moveable structure” after officials in heavily Democratic Harris County offered it as a COVID-19-specific measure, prompting several unsuccessful last-minute lawsuits against the practice.
- ID information needed to vote absentee. Texas, which already uses signature matching to verify absentee ballots, will now require voters to provide the number on their driver’s license, other state ID, or the last four digits of their Social Security number on the outer envelope when requesting an absentee ballot.
- More restrictions on absentee applications. Both laws make it a state jail felony for election officials to send out absentee ballot applications unsolicited to voters both eligible and not eligible to vote absentee.
- More protections and access for partisan poll watchers.
- Enhanced criminal penalties for paid ballot collection, sometimes called ballot or vote harvesting, on behalf of a candidate or party.
- More rules for people assisting voters, including requiring assistors to fill out a form stating their relationship to the voter.
- The option for voters to “cure” or fix issues with their absentee ballots. In a move advocated by Democrats, both bills include a new provision that will require officials to notify voters if their absentee ballot is missing a signature on the outer envelope or has a mismatched signature, and give them an opportunity to fix the problem.
- In another provision sought by Democrats, HB 3 protects against a person being convicted of a crime for voting a provisional ballot while unknowingly ineligible, a response to the prosecution of Crystal Mason, who was sentenced to five years in prison for voting on supervised release.