Austin State Capitol

The fight for increased election laws has made its way to Texas. 

State lawmakers advanced a bill out of committee on Thursday that would make it a state jail felony for local election officials to distribute an application to vote by mail to a voter who didn’t request one.

House Bill 6 and Senate Bill 7 are part of a broader Republican 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 and the Texas Senate on a party line vote with only Republicans voting in favor of it.

Support or opposition to the proposed bills also fell along party lines on the local level.

“I favor [the bills] because I’ve witnessed voter irregularities during early voting,” Burleson Republican Brenda Gammon said. “These bills would help stop that. We have our election laws and tighten them up a little bit.”

Gammon said she’s witnessed incidents of only one election judge — both are required — go to a vehicle in cases of taking a ballot to a disabled voter among other things.

Burleson Democrat Joe Davis disagreed.

“Definitely against these bills,” Davis said. “Texas is much, much too restrictive already. They spent huge amounts of money under [Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton] investigating supposed voter fraud and only found 17 people who didn’t vote in their precinct. They’re just spending a lot of time, effort and money in restricting other peoples’ rights.”

Like other Republican proposals, the measures 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 qualified 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.

Cain said that the legislative intent for the bill is “to reduce the likelihood of fraud in the conduct of elections, it is the intent of the legislature that the provisions of this code shall be applied evenly, and the conduct of elections throughout this state shall be uniform and consistent.” 

House Bill 6 now heads to the House Calendars Committee, which determines whether bills make it to the full Texas House for a vote.

Another piece of legislation, Senate Bill 7, moved through the Texas Senate last week. The bill, which would limit the extension of early voting hours, prohibit drive-thru voting and make it illegal for local election officials to proactively send applications to vote by mail to voters, even if they qualify, was delivered to the Texas House earlier this week. 

Limits on voting hours make sense, Gammon said.

“I’ve worked as an election judge for years,” Gammon said. “It’s hard work to be a judge or election clerk. It’s hard work finding people to sign up to do that in little old Burleson. I can imagine what it’s like in Dallas, Atlanta, New York. Can you imagine trying to get people to work overnight. It’s also hard to find places for polling stations, let alone places that would let you be there 24 hours. You’ve got to think of logistics and security too.

“Like I said, it’s not an easy job. People argue, are rude to you. I’ve had so many clerks that, once the election was done, said they’d never do it again. That you couldn’t pay them enough to do that again.”

Davis disagreed.

“They’ve even admitted, the secretary of state of Georgia, that the only reason they’re passing these laws is that low voter turnout tends to favor Republicans,” Davis said. “I hope these bills don’t pass in Texas. But there’s the reality of our legislature. I do know the political backlash in Georgia has been significant. We’ll in 2022 how Georgia voters will vote in response to their bill restricting voting rights.”

The Texas Senate bill, which was co-authored by Senator Charles Schwertner, would implement uniform election times for all precincts.  

Early voting hours could only run for nine hours per day in the first week and 12 in week two, with local officials given the discretion to set that window sometime between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. Voting from a car would be prohibited unless the voter has a disability that prevents them from entering the polling location.   

The bill would also require cameras in all central vote counting centers, and poll watchers would be permitted to take video of election officials they reasonably believe are violating election code. However, the bill affirms existing state law forbidding the recording of voters casting ballots. The bill’s author Senator Bryan Hughes said that any video taken could only be submitted to the Secretary of State and not otherwise released. 

Alexa Ura with The Texas Tribune and Joseph Brown with the Huntsville Item contributed to this report.

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