Texas Republicans introduced another set of sweeping bills that voting rights advocates say could make it harder to vote in a state that already has some of the most restrictive election laws in the country. Democrats left the state on Tuesday in a second effort to block the legislation from moving forward.
The bills — House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1 — were filed during the special legislative session called by Gov. Greg Abbott, which started last week. Republican leaders vowed to take another pass at approving voting legislation after Texas House Democrats blocked a previous effort in May to pass more voting restrictions.
HB 3 and SB 1, however, do not include some of the more controversial measures that were added to that previous bill in the final hours of the legislative session in May. Those included a provision that would have restricted voting on Sundays as well as a measure that would have allowed election officials to overturn election results if there are voter fraud allegations.
The bills are part of a nationwide effort by state-level Republicans to enact more restrictive voting laws following former President Donald Trump's loss in the 2020 election. Trump and his allies have falsely claimed that the election was stolen. Twenty-eight restrictive voting laws in 17 states have been enacted since January, according to the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice.
The latest bills in Texas include new identification requirements for people voting by mail and prohibit local election officials from sending a vote-by-mail application to someone who hasn't requested one.
They also ban drive-through voting and extended hours during early voting. Republicans in the state argue that these innovations — which were mostly used by Houston officials during the pandemic — opened the door to voter fraud.
James Slattery, a senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said voters of color and shift workers benefited the most from these methods of voting last year.
"And so you can consider the bans on those forms of voting to be a direct attack on voters of color in particular," he said.
In addition, the bills expand what partisan poll watchers can observe during elections and prohibits poll watchers from being removed for violating election law. If passed, these bills would also create new criminal penalties for any election worker who "intentionally or knowingly refuses to accept a [poll] watcher."
Slattery said these bills basically give a host of new powers to partisan poll watchers.
"Both bills make it harder to control disruptive partisan poll watchers when they are acting aggressively or disrupting voting," he said.
The bills also create a slew of new criminal penalties and requirements for folks who assist voters at the polls, or people who assist others planning to vote by mail.
For example, they require that people fill out paperwork if they are taking someone who is not a relative to vote in person. And they require people to exit a car if there is someone voting curbside in that vehicle.
And while Republicans have backtracked on another provision that would have made it easier to overturn election results, Slattery said these bills kept other parts of that measure.
He said that includes a way for losing candidates to "harass winning candidates in court" through a new election contest process that allows the former to allege various kinds of voter fraud. Slattery said this process could mire the results of an election.
"When you think about it, what this is, this is part of the efforts that we have seen — especially in other states after the 2020 election — to undermine the legitimacy of election results," he said.
Republicans focus on fraud
Republicans in Texas have argued that concerns about election integrity are serious and should be addressed, even though they haven't offered evidence of any widespread problem with voting in the state.
State Rep. Travis Clardy, a Republican from Nacogdoches who is a member of the Texas House Elections Committee, told NPR in June that he has "zero doubt about the legitimacy of elections" in the state.
"This is a preventative measure for us," he said. "We do have and heard testimony throughout our session of problems of voter irregularities, of voter fraud, of cases currently being investigated. It is an issue. It is a real thing. But I think it's our job to make sure that doesn't blossom into a problem."
Slattery said the provisions in these bills, however, do nothing to make elections more secure in Texas and would instead further the false claims Trump and his allies have made that the 2020 election was stolen.
"There isn't any election security benefit to nearly any of these provisions," he said. "It's all in service of the big lie and enshrining the big lie even further into the laws of this most restrictive state in the country."