After marathon hearings, Texas Republicans advance voting measure

By David Montgomery

Texas Republicans moved legislation to overhaul the state’s voting system closer to passage Sunday, brushing aside fierce opposition from Democrats to gain approval from key committees in the House and the Senate after marathon weekend hearings.

The committee votes, coming just days into a 30-day special session, adhere to Gov. Greg Abbott’s timetable for swift action on the legislation, which he has called a priority for his administration. The full 31-member state Senate is expected to vote on its bill as early as today. The 150-member House is also likely to take up its own version of the measure this week.

Democrats on both committees united in opposition to the bills and prepared for further combat on the floors of the Senate and the House. Beverly Powell, a state senator from the Fort Worth suburbs who voted against the bill in committee, said Senate Democrats were planning “many” amendments during the floor debate and might try to introduce an alternative bill.

The Senate State Affairs Committee took about 45 minutes Sunday afternoon to approve the bill, known as SB 1, on a 6-3 party-line vote after slightly modifying the bill with nine Republican amendments.

“We feel good about the bill,” said Bryan Hughes, the Republican committee chair.

Earlier, the committee was in session for nearly 15 hours, until about 1:30 a.m. Sunday, hearing testimony from more than 200 witnesses, many of them opposed to the bill.

The hearings before the House committee went even longer, concluding at about 7:30 a.m. Sunday with a vote to approve the bill after nearly 24 hours of debate and public comment. All nine Republicans on the committee supported the bill, while the five Democrats voted against it.

Abbott, a Republican, has said that passing a new voting law is one of his top priorities. He called the Legislature into the special session, which started Thursday, after Democrats blocked the bill in late May with an 11th-hour walkout from the Capitol that denied Republicans a quorum.

Hundreds of Texans flocked to the Capitol over the weekend for the committee hearings on companion voting bills being pushed by Republicans, part of a national effort by the party to impose new restrictions on state election systems. Republicans say the restructuring is necessary to improve voter integrity, but Democrat-aligned opposition forces are fighting what they call an unprecedented campaign to suppress voting.

“This is the single greatest coordinated attack on democracy in our lifetimes and perhaps in the life of this country,” said Beto O’Rourke, a former U.S. representative and candidate for president, who has taken a lead role for Democrats on the voting issue and was at the Capitol for the hearing.

But Hughes, the Republican chair, opened the hearing Saturday by declaring that the legislation was designed to create a “better election process that’s safe and accessible.”

House and Senate Democrats have vowed to do everything necessary to kill the legislation a second time, but their options are limited. They have hinted that they are prepared to resort to another bold move, such as staging another walkout or possibly taking the more extreme step of fleeing the state.

Studies consistently rate Texas near the top of the list of states that make it harder to register and vote, which explains, in part, why the Democrats view the stakes as so high.

The voting bills would ban 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting sites, increase the criminal penalties for election workers who run afoul of regulations, limit what assistance could be provided to voters and expand the authority and autonomy of partisan poll watchers, among other provisions.

But provisions from the earlier session that Democrats had vehemently opposed were removed: a limitation on Sunday voting and a proposal that would have made it easier to overturn an election.

For the hearings over the weekend, Democrats and voter advocacy groups opposed to the bills had rallied witnesses from around the state to testify.

State Sen. Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat, said two busloads of witnesses and a 20-car caravan had made the trip from his district. Both Miles and Lina Hidalgo, the chief executive of Harris County, the state’s most populous county, told reporters that the bills would extract a harsh toll in the Houston region by dismantling election innovations, such as 24-hour voting, that were put in place during the 2020 election.

“We’re under attack,” Miles said.

After getting a late start on the voting measure by spending hours on a bail overhaul bill, the House committee worked through the night to hear many of the nearly 300 witnesses who had signed up to testify. Several who were still waiting in the committee room past dawn began to joke about the time and expressed gratitude to Trent Ashby, the Republican House chair, for not shutting off testimony.

“Good morning, Mr. Chair. Thank you for staying,” said Hector Mendez, representing the group Texas College Democrats.

“Happy 6:30 to all of you,” another witness said.

Although Democrats sought more time to digest the bill, Ashby said he wanted to proceed with a committee vote because of the “compressed nature” of the special session. Before voting to send the measure to the full House, the committee also rejected eight amendments offered by Democrats, also on party-line votes.

Texas follows several other battleground states controlled by Republicans that have passed substantial overhauls of their election laws and enacted new voting restrictions this year.

Since January, at least 22 bills that make voting more difficult have been signed into law in 14 states.

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