AUSTIN, Texas - Texas Republicans advanced a slate of proposed new voting restrictions Thursday that would reduce options to cast ballots, limit polling hours and hand more power to partisan poll watchers.
All those efforts are rolled into a single bill that cleared the GOP-controlled state Senate — a key marker in a campaign by Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott, to impose new restrictive measures over elections in America’s biggest red state.
A first vote on the Senate bill was slowed by hours of questioning by Democrats that spilled overnight into early Thursday morning. The measure eventually passed 18-13 in a vote along party lines.
It comes after an elections overhaul was signed into law last week in Georgia, where opponents have already filed lawsuits and are calling for boycotts of corporations that are silent on restrictive voting measures. Critics of the Texas legislation say the efforts particularly target expanded access put into place during last year’s election in Harris County, which is home to more than 2 million voters, controlled by Democrats and a key Texas battleground that includes Houston.
One measure would eliminate drive-thru voting, which more than 127,000 people around Houston used during early voting last year. More than half of those voters were Black, Latino or Asian, said Democratic state Sen. Carol Alvarado.
"Hearing all of that, who are you really targeting when you’re trying to get rid of drive-thru voting?" she said.
Republicans rejected accusations that the bill was designed to suppress turnout.
"None of what we’ve discussed is voter suppression. And none of what we’ve discussed is Jim Crow," Republican state Sen. Paul Bettencourt said.
A similar measure in the House chamber could advance toward a full vote as soon as Thursday.
The bill is one of two major voting packages in Texas that mirrors a nationwide campaign by Republicans after former President Donald Trump made false claims about election fraud.
Voting rights groups say the measures would disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minority voters. In Texas, which already has some of the strictest voting laws in the U.S., the proposed legislation grants more power to partisan poll watchers and eliminates the option to cast a ballot via drive-thru. The bill also includes a provision requiring a doctor’s note for people with disabilities who want to vote by mail, although Republicans signaled during the debate that language could change.
Trump won Texas but by fewer than 6 points. It was the closest victory by any GOP presidential nominee in Texas since 1996, underscoring Republicans’ loosening iron grip on the state.
The Senate bill cleared a committee last week following hours of testimony by voters. Some said the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is forcing them to choose between their health and their right to be heard by their government after weighing the risk of testifying on the bill in-person at the Texas capitol, where masks are not enforced.
Ofelia Alonso, 25, a volunteer with civil rights advocacy group Texas Rising and volunteer deputy registrar, said Friday she drove hundreds of miles from Cameron County along the U.S.-Mexico border, which has been hit extremely hard by COVID-19, to testify in Austin for the members of her community who couldn’t afford the health risk.
"Honestly, because we all work doing voter registration, we know how nonsensical this bill is," Alonso said. "It makes absolutely no sense to criminalize people for wanting to participate in democracy, which should be our goal. It is almost like Texans get punished for coming out and voting in large numbers."