Texas lawmakers advance election reform legislation in late night vote

AP Photo/Eric Gay

In a middle-of-the-night vote, HB6 was passed, moving the election reform legislation out of the House Elections Committee in the Texas House of Representatives. The bill now moves to the House Calendars Committee. A decision will be made by that committee on whether or not the bill goes to a full House vote. The vote was taken after hours of debate at 3:00 a.m Friday.

There is little doubt that the bill will move to a full House vote. This is a top legislative priority with Governor Abbott and other Republican leaders. The vote to move the legislation out of the Elections Committee was 81-64. HB 6 was authored by Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain of Deer Park, in the Houston area. Houston and Harris County was ground zero in 2020 in Texas as the Democrats tried their best to undermine election laws on the books to their party’s advantage. The excuse for their overreaches was due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many legal challenges were argued and Democrats were often overruled. Cain is the chairman of the Elections Committee.

The legislation is watered down from the original legislation. Compromises were made with Democrats yet the reporting of this bill often sounds like Democrat talking points. Republicans hold a majority in both the state House and Senate, as well as the governorship. Texas has a Republican state government trifecta. Just something to keep in mind as the Democrats and their cohorts in the media paints the picture that Republicans are mean and are trying to suppress the voting process.

House Bill 6 is part of a broader Republican effort this year to enact wide-ranging changes to elections in Texas that would ratchet up the state’s already restrictive election rules in the name of “election integrity” despite little to no evidence of widespread fraud. The legislation was approved by the House Elections Committee on a party line vote with only Republicans voting in favor of it.

Like other Republican proposals, the measure would target Harris County’s initiatives from the 2020 general election, including a shift to proactively send out vote-by-mail applications. Various counties sent unsolicited applications to voters who were 65 years and older, who automatically qualify to vote by mail in Texas. But Republicans’ ire fell on Harris County officials when they attempted to send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county with specific instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. The Texas Supreme Court ultimately blocked that effort.

HB 6, by Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain, would also set up new rules for people assisting voters – like those with disabilities or those who speak languages other than English – in casting their ballots. Voters can select anyone to help them through the voting process as long as they’re not an employer or a union leader. But the bill would require those helping voters to disclose the reason they need help.

One contentious part of the legislation is that of poll watchers. Poll watchers are appointed by political parties and candidates. Just as the name implies, they are put in place to observe, or watch, voting as it takes place. Poll watchers are partisan. Many poll watchers endorsed HB 6 because of enhanced protections for poll watchers written into the bill. This includes criminal liability for election workers for their treatment of watchers. Rep. Cain included that provision as as a measure meant to “restore trust in the electoral process.”

“When people do not have confidence in our electoral institutions, when political legitimacy is questioned, liberty is threatened,” Cain said in presenting the bill in committee. “Therefore it is incumbent on the Texas Legislature this session to ensure that elections, the bedrock of our republic, are free and secure.”

Mail-in ballots are a big issue, too. The brand new Harris County Clerk tried to send mail-in ballots to all registered voters in the county in 2020. This is not a part of state election law. Texas is not set up as a universal mail-in ballot state. In Texas, there are specific requirements to be met in order to vote by mail. Any registered voter over age 65, for example, can vote by mail. As is predictable, professional race-baiters claim that mail-in ballot applications suppress the votes of various communities. It’s malarkey but this is always their argument. Even with the court decision that the Harris County Clerk is not allowed to change election law on a whim and mail ballots out to all voters, there was a record number of votes cast in Harris County in 2020.

The bill also picked up opposition from civil rights groups who raised the prospect that the legislation violates federal safeguards for voters of color who would be treated differently for being more likely to need assistance and concerns about the punitive nature of the bill against election workers. Advocates for people with disabilities worried it could violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and cautioned against complicating the voting process for voters with disabilities by creating new requirements for the individuals they select to help them.

“You can’t any longer help an elderly constituent by providing them with a mail-in ballot application – this is truly incredible,” said Gary Bledsoe, president of Texas NAACP. “There’s only one reason to create criminal laws and that is to dissuade minority voters and [minority] voting officials.”

That implies that Texas election workers are racists. Senior citizens will not lose their ability to vote by mail. The law doesn’t change any of that. It does specifically address power grabs that are outside election laws that Democrats attempted to make in 2020. The bill tightens up flexibility, thus preventing future confusion. The Senate version of the bill included limits on early voting hours, eliminating drive-through voting, and allowed poll watchers to photograph voters as they cast their ballots. All of those provisions were taken out of the House bill.

The chairman of the House Democratic Caucus issued a statement.

The theories driving this bill and the provisions themselves are designed and intended to undermine and suppress participation in elections by Black Texans, Latino Texans, the Asian-American community and folks who have a disability,” said Rep. Chris Turner, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “It’s a straight-up assault on voting rights.”

The vote came after a series of bipartisan amendments that included decriminalizing simple errors, allowing employees time off work to vote early and providing voter registration forms to high schools.

The provision to levy high fines for simple errors was stricken from the bill. The voter registration forms in high schools aren’t particularly controversial. High school seniors have been given the opportunity to register to vote for many years. I know this to be true from my son’s high school days. He registered to vote during his senior year.

Democrats were more strongly opposed to the Senate version of the bill. The House bill marries the two bills together and discards the most controversial measures.