State Watch

Texas GOP move to overhaul voting laws: What you need to know

The war over voting access that has roiled Georgia is headed next to Texas, where Republican legislators are working through an omnibus elections overhaul package that would dramatically change the way some voters cast a ballot in future contests.

The measure has been labeled a priority by both Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who controls the state Senate. It follows on the heels of election overhauls that passed in 2017 and failed in 2019, but after a chaotic election held amid a pandemic, it aims to crack down on several practices that supporters say ran afoul of current state law.

“We want a system that people can trust, we want it to be accurate, and we want folks to know that it’s accurate,” said state Sen. Bryan Hughes (R), the measure’s prime sponsor. “If folks don’t trust the system, they’re not going to vote.”

The bill has generated substantial opposition from Democrats, and — in an echo of Georgia’s experience — from major corporations based in the Lone Star State.

“What happened in Georgia yesterday and what we’re starting to see in Texas is part of a nationwide Republican-led effort to suppress the vote,” state House Democratic leader Chris Turner (D) told The Hill last month. “Republicans know that the way for them to extend their power and to continue to hold power at the state and federal level is to change the rules and make it harder for people of color primarily, and other people, to participate in the electoral process.”

The 38-page measure, the latest version of which is here, is chock-full of provisions that would substantially alter long-standing Texas elections practices. Though it must still make it through state House and Senate committees, here are the key provisions in the bill as it exists today: 

Limits on early voting

Several sections of the bill limit the ability of local elections officials to promote early voting. One provision seeks to prohibit local officials from urging people to complete an early voting application.

Another bans the unsolicited distribution of applications for early ballots. That provision also bars elections officials from using public funds to let outside groups send out early vote applications.

If someone does apply for and receive an early ballot, and if they decide to return it in person, they must hand their ballot to an actual person. That means new limits on ballot drop boxes.

“Each of those provisions is a clarification of current law,” Hughes said in an interview Tuesday. He pointed to Harris County, home of Houston, where the county clerk sent out vote-by-mail applications to every registered voter. “Local elections officials have to follow the law. The legislature passes the law for the state and local governments don’t have the authority to just make it up as they go along.”

Lina Hidalgo, the Harris County judge, said the changes Houston and its surrounding areas undertook led to the highest voter turnout in state history — among both Democratic and Republican voters.

“At one level, it’s about undoing the successes we had in Harris County last year, almost unconceivably because they were great successes in both parties,” Hidalgo said in an interview. “It seems almost illogical to tackle that.”

The bill makes it easier for voters to track and monitor their ballots. Voters who send in early or absentee ballots would be able to see when their ballots were received and whether those ballots were accepted through a new portal created by the secretary of state’s office, a best practice that many other states have adopted in recent years.

A later provision in the bill allows voting to take place for at least nine hours between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. in large voting districts, and for at least four hours in smaller counties. In the last week of early voting, the bill limits counties to 12 full hours of early voting; current law requires those counties to be open for at least 12 hours.

“We had one election in one county last year where they invented 24-hour voting, and there was testimony that it was difficult to get election workers for 24-hour voting,” Hughes said, another reference to Harris County. “It was even more difficult to get poll watchers, the eyes and ears of the public. It’s important that they be there.”

No more straight-ticket voting

Another provision of the bill bans counties from creating voting systems that allow a voter to select all candidates from one party in “one motion or gesture” — in other words, straight-ticket voting.

Straight-ticket voting has a long history in Texas; in 2016, almost two-thirds of the vote cast in the state’s 10 largest counties were cast that way. It’s a method disproportionately used by Democratic voters, though the state does not break down election results to show which party received more straight-ticket votes.

“Straight-ticket voting is helpful for efficiency, especially in heavily populated areas where lots of people may be waiting in line at a polling place,” said Wesley Story, communications director at the group Progress Texas, which opposes the bill. “Not having straight-ticket voting can lead to a drop off in voting between statewide races at the top of the ticket and local races further down the ballot.”

The new provision codifies a ruling by a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals panel from 2020, which eliminated straight-ticket voting just weeks before last year’s elections.

Vote harvesting gets the axe

In many states, Democrats and Republicans alike practice what is known as vote harvesting, collecting absentee ballots from voters, already cast, signed and sealed.

In states where absentee voting is becoming more prevalent, Republicans are starting to turn against the practice — and none go further than what the Texas law would impose. One section of the bill makes paid vote harvesting a felony, both from the person receiving pay and the person doing the paying.

“Most of the security measures in this bill are aimed at the vote harvesters, not at the voters,” Hughes said. He cited Gregg County, in his district, where a county commissioner has been charged with 23 felonies in connection to the 2018 Democratic primary.

If a losing candidate suspects he or she has lost a race because of vote harvesting, the candidate is allowed to contest the results of an election. If they can prove vote harvesting happened, they are eligible to collect the money paid for the illegal activity, plus attorney’s fees, plus $25,000.

What’s more, if the losing candidate can prove that the number of ballots harvested exceeded the margin by which he or she lost, they are eligible for damages equal to every penny they paid in campaign expenditures.

“That’s intended to provide a strong incentive for people to follow the law, or a disincentive for people to cheat. So if you do get away with stealing the election, you’re going to have to pay for it,” Hughes said.

More rights for poll watchers

The role of poll watchers became a significant pillar for those promoting baseless allegations of election fraud in 2020, and the new Texas measure would vastly enhance the rights of those sent by Republican or Democratic parties to observe ballots being cast.

One section of the proposed Texas measure allows watchers to be “near enough to see and hear” elections officers. That provision allows poll watchers free movement anywhere votes are being counted, and if they are obstructed by a county official, another provision allows for that official to lose his or her job.

Most notably, the new Texas law removes an existing provision that prevents watchers from recording the proceedings. Voters are not allowed to bring recording devices into a polling place, but the watchers are — and they can submit the recordings they make to the secretary of state’s office if they believe it shows evidence of unlawful activity.

“We’ve had testimony before the legislature, and we’ve heard this from prosecutors and also the attorney general’s office where a poll watcher will report illegal activity by an election worker, but there are no witnesses,” Hughes said. “This bill is intended to allow evidence to be offered. It’s important to remember that poll watchers are the eyes and ears fo the public, and there are poll watchers from both political parties and from each candidate.”

But Democrats are worried that poll watchers may get overly aggressive and intimidate voters out of casting their ballots.

“Here in Texas, partisan poll watchers have a history of harassing and intimidating Black voters and people of color,” Story said. “Giving untrained poll watchers the authority to take matters into their own hands and record Texans who are simply trying to exercise their right to vote is a recipe for disaster.”

Poll watchers will not be allowed to record information on a voter’s ballot — that is, the actual votes a voter casts — but they will be allowed to keep an eye on people who vote from their vehicles.

Fewer resources for urban precincts

Texas has 254 counties, but about a third of the state’s 29 million residents live in just five counties with populations larger than 1 million. In those counties, the new bill requires elections officials to allocate polling places, poll workers and voting equipment to state House districts based on the number of eligible voters who live in each.

Texas legislative districts are not drawn based on the number of eligible voters, they are drawn based on the number of residents — including undocumented immigrants, children and those who do not count as eligible voters.

“An urban county controlled by a partisan county government should not be allowed to stack the deck against the opposition party. And that applies to Republican controlled counties and Democratic controlled counties,” Hughes said.

A district in, say, the inner core of Houston or Dallas may have just as many residents as a district in the suburbs, but a higher undocumented population would mean that urban district has fewer eligible voters — so they get proportionally fewer polling places and voting equipment.

Hughes again pointed to Harris County, where a Democratic-heavy district with the same population as a nearby Republican-heavy district had more polling locations and drive-in voting locations.

Hidalgo said the county has a long history of building its election infrastructure with the goal of moving voters through lines as fast as possible, no mean feat in a county of more than 4 million residents.

“In 2020 in the fall, what we were able to do was to be really smart about the way we allocate voting machines,” she said. “We had functionally no lines. There were lines but they were moving.”

The bill also targets those drive-in voting locations, which popped up in Harris County last year. A provision bans early polling places from operating in a parking garage or parking lot, something Harris County officials set up for the round-the-clock voting sites.

“We had one county and one election that invented drive-thru voting. They created drive-through voting,” Hughes said. “What they’re calling mobile polling stations, that was their justification for drive-through voting.”

“What they are doing is essentially aiming to create lines, which a lot of busy people just don’t have the time to stand in line for hours in order to vote,” Hidalgo said. “These rigid formulas in the past have done nothing but create long lines, and we know who that impacts.”

Helping a voter? Fill out a form

Some voters need help casting their ballots, either because of physical limitations or more logistical struggles like the lack of access to a car that can get them to a polling place.

Under current provisions in the bill, anyone driving three or more voters to the polls must sign a form provided by local elections officials, a form that is then turned over to the state.

The next section requires anyone who helps a voter fill out their ballot to submit another form, explaining how and why that voter needed help.

Hughes said his committee heard testimony that some voters were intimidated into voting in a particular way. The forms are intended to allow state investigators to identify anyone accused of that intimidation, he said.

“It’s not clear whether these people are being intimidated,” he said. “It’s not clear that they’re voting their own will and it’s not clear that they’re voting a secret ballot.”

But Democrats are worried that their voters will be the ones left behind.

“Curbside voting is folks who have limited mobility, so they have somebody drive them and then they have the machine brought to them,” Hidalgo said. “They’re afraid that they’re not going to find somebody who will drive them.”

Changes to voting machines and their vendors

Current state law shields from the public communications between an elections official and vendors who provide voting equipment. Under the new law, those communications are subject to public disclosure.

“There have been concerns about what the voting machine companies are representing to the counties, what are they saying their machines can do, what they are telling the counties about security and reliability,” Hughes said. “This makes sure those conversations aren’t done back in shadows”

Other provisions of the bill would require the use of an electronic device that tracks input and activity on voting machines, a device that would be delivered to the secretary of state’s office after an election.

Local election administrators would be required to set up video surveillance systems to record areas where ballots are being counted; in counties with populations greater than 100,000, those video systems would be required to livestream to the public.

Democrats say Republicans are the ones who have undermined the integrity of elections, after former President Trump’s attorneys spread baseless lies about some companies that ran voting machine systems during the 2020 elections — lies over which those companies are suing for billions of dollars.

“Everyone knows that there was no widespread voter fraud in America, including in Texas in 2020, and this is a manufactured issue,” Turner said. “Republicans have essentially set the fire by claiming that there’s widespread voter fraud and convincing their base that this is true, and then they’re acting like the fire fighter coming to extinguish the voter fraud that doesn’t exist by passing all these unnecessary voter suppression bills.”

Beginning in 2024, counties would be required to use auditable voting systems that include a paper trail. The paper record of votes would supersede all other vote counts, starting with the next presidential primary election.

Finally, the new bill would require an automatic recount of any precinct in which the results show more votes tallied than there are registered voters. That didn’t happen in any of Texas’s thousands of precincts in 2020, though false rumors of extra votes percolated through other states President Biden won narrowly last year, none of which proved accurate.

Counties are on their own — and on notice

Late last year, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan donated close to $400 million to help local administrators fund the infrastructure they would need to run the 2020 elections. One hundred sixteen of Texas’s 254 counties were among the 2,500 local governments that received grants — and in Texas, the vast majority of those counties voted for then-President Trump.

But no more: Texas’s new elections package would bar counties from receiving outside contributions to help run elections without the written consent of the secretary of state — and the secretary of state could only give that permission if he or she gets sign-off from the governor, the lieutenant governor and the Speaker of the state House.

“We want to make it clear that elections in Texas are not for sale. Conducting elections is a core government function and that’s the responsibility of the government,” Hughes said. “It’s so fundamental and it’s so important that we don’t even want the appearance of undue influence.”

The following section of the bill goes so far as to lay the onus on county election administrators if they make any of a series of errors. One section allows them to be fired for knowingly refusing to accept a poll watcher. Another requires them to prevent voter fraud, under financial penalty if they do not.

“We do not have a statewide voter roll maintained by the Secretary of State. Each county maintains its own voter roll. So it’s the responsibility of those counties to make sure they follow the law and to make sure those rolls are accurate,” Hughes said. “That provision is an attempt to preserve the local influence.”

And Republicans appear eager to move election challenges to friendlier venues: Current state law allows challenges to statewide elections to only be filed in Travis County, home of the state capital, Austin. A section of the bill would allow a challenge to be filed in any of the other 253 counties in the state, where presumably a challenger could go hunting for a friendlier judge.

Tags Donald Trump Georgia Greg Abbott Joe Biden Mark Zuckerberg Texas voting law

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