AUSTIN, Texas - The Republican-controlled Texas House is expected to vote on election legislation Thursday for the first time since Democrats blocked it in late May by leaving the regular legislative session.
Now, in this second special session, the House has a quorum with the return of some breakaway Democrats.
Texas Republicans pressed forward on a third try at passing new voting restrictions after Democrats returned from a 38-day walkout with little ability now to stop the bill from reaching Gov. Greg Abbott.
A nearly 50-page bill was headed for early passage in the Texas House, where some but not all of the more than 50 Democrats who fled to Washington D.C. last month to temporarily block the legislation remained absent.
With enough Democrats back to secure a quorum and allow business to resume in the Texas Capitol, Republicans were racing to get the elections bill across the finish line before a Labor Day weekend deadline.
The atmosphere was charged. The GOP says the bill will ensure election integrity, but Democrats say it amounts to voter suppression for minorities and people with disabilities.
During debate Thursday, Republican Dade Phelan, the House speaker, interrupted lawmakers to tell them not to accuse each other of racism — or even say the word.
Texas is set to become the latest big GOP state to pass tighter voting laws in response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
On Wednesday, the U.S. House passed federal voting rights legislation that congressional Democrats say is progress in their quest to fight back against voting restrictions advanced in states such as Texas. But Democrats do not have the votes to overcome opposition from Senate Republicans.
"As much as you might decry our need to go to Washington, I really beg for federal protection," Democratic state Rep. Rafael Anchia said.
Some Republicans did not hide their frustration with Democrats’ refusal to return until now.
"I think you could care a little more, and should have been here," Republican J.M. Lozano said during one exchange with Anchia.
The bill closely resembled the same one Democrats walked out on more than a month ago. It includes a raft of tweaks and changes to the state’s election code, which when taken as a whole would make it harder to cast a ballot in Texas.
Among other things, it prohibits drive-thru voting and threatens local elections officials with felony charges if they send mail-in voting applications to voters who don’t request one.
"There was a repeated pattern of getting the tablet from the rightful voter and having someone else vote," claimed State Rep. Mike Schofield (R-District 132). "And that is the reason why we oppose having drive-thru voting because it is a recipe for fraud."
Republican supporters say restricting curbside voting and having requirements like voter ID protect against fraud.
"It protects the secrecy of the ballot to say that we’re not here to let every person vote from your car when you’re perfectly able to go to a secure polling location and vote," said State Rep. David Murr (R-District 53).
But Democrats say fraud claims are grossly exaggerated and that the bill will suppress the vote, especially for the disadvantaged and voters of color. It could also hurt voter turnout.
"The likelihood of fraud in a Texas election is a rounding error of a rounding error of a rounding error," Anchia said. "It is so infinitesimal so as to be a lower percentage than even being struck by lightning."
Texas Republicans accuse Democrats of exaggerating the bill’s impact and maintain it’s not driven by Trump’s loss, even as some have dodged questions about whether they believe the election was stolen. Republicans point out that the latest version would require another extra hour daily of early voting, and result in more counties offering at least 12 hours of early voting on weekdays.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.