AUSTIN, Texas – Radical changes to Texas Election Code await now Governor Greg Abbott’s GOP signing would make it more difficult – sometimes even more legally risky – to vote in the state, which already has some of the most restrictive electoral laws in the country.
Democrats have blocked the State Capitol for 38 consecutive days after more than 50 people fled to Washington, DC, in July, to deny Republicans a quorum, which is necessary to conduct state business . Enough of them returned less than two weeks ago to end the standoff, and GOP leaders quickly pushed the bill forward in both chambers on Tuesday. Abbott immediately said he would sign it.
Here is an overview of what is in the final version of the legislation:
EMPOWER SURVEY SURVEYS
Some of the most significant changes in Texas law relate to pro-poll observers, volunteers deployed by the two major parties to observe the vote and the count. As recently as 1962, Republican poll watchers in parts of Texas challenged black and Latino voters to read and explain the US Constitution before voting in a campaign dubbed “Operation Eagle.” Eye ”. In 2020, then President Donald Trump cited unverified observations by observers of the GOP poll to cast doubt on the results and make false allegations of fraud.
The final wording of the omnibus bill gives pro-poll watchers new access, new protections and new powers. The law makes it a Class A offense – comparable to vehicle burglary – for an election official to dismiss an appointed poll observer. Under this measure, it is also a legal offense for anyone who knowingly obstructs the view of a poll observer. The bill states that observers can have “free movement” around voting facilities and can “sit or stand close enough to hear or see the activity.” Texas law still prohibits poll observers from watching someone vote, however, they can observe the transfer of voting data.
The law allows election observers to prosecute and seek court orders against election officials who stand in their way. The new proposals would also require poll observers to take an oath not to harass voters and undergo pre-participation training in which they must present a certificate upon arrival.
Election observers can only be dismissed for violation of the electoral law if the violation is found by the electoral secretary or the judge and for violation of the penal code.
Republicans argue these changes are necessary because voters will only trust elections if their representatives have free access to just about every aspect of voting and counting. But Democrats and civil rights organizations are concerned about the history of Texas conservatives using poll watchers to intimidate voters from racial and ethnic minorities.
LIMIT VOTING OPPORTUNITIES
Laws written by Republicans explicitly overrule the ways Democratic counties made it easier for people to vote, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. It bans drop boxes for mail-in ballots – a practice that has been used for years in other states without major problems – and bans the mailing of mail-in ballot requests and ballots to all eligible voters. The bill would also make it a crime for any election official who sends out unsolicited candidacies or ballots to vote by mail.
The GOP bill would also ban drive-thru voting for most voters and control the times when county governments could keep polling stations open. That would put an end to 24-hour polling stations. Harris County in Houston, one of the country’s largest and most diverse regions, says 140,000 voters used its drive-thru and 24-hour locations. hours a day in November.
Republicans argue that these procedures were used during the current but unique pandemic in a century and should not be a regular feature of voting in the state. Democrats and voting rights groups say these measures simply make it easier for people to vote and have mostly helped working class voters, young people and the sick get to the polls.
Two provisions of the bill would make voting more convenient, extending early voting hours and requiring workplaces to allow employees to go to the polls during early voting or on polling day.
NEW BARRIERS TO MAIL VOTING
Texas is already one of the most difficult states in the country to vote by mail. The process is limited to those 65 years of age and over, voters who will be out of state during the election, or people with disabilities. But after Trump opposed postal voting in his failed re-election, Republicans in Texas and elsewhere turned against the method and have been keen to tighten regulations on this.
Texas bill adds more steps and paperwork for voters, including requiring them to include their driver’s license number, voter ID certificate, or the last four digits of their social security number and an “ink on paper” signature which can be verified with any signature previously filed in the corresponding records of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Opponents of the provision – somewhat similar to the one passed in Georgia – say it would create another opportunity for voters to make minor mistakes that could make it easier to reject ballots.
The new proposals partly respond to this concern. Voters who submit ballots before election day would be notified of the issues and allowed to go to an election office to resolve some issues that could disqualify the vote, such as an inconsistent signature, while some eligible voters may be able to correct errors online.
Texas bill, like others offered this year, would create or expand several criminal offenses involving elections, some of which are broadly defined and could entrap voters or those who assist them. Republicans argue they are necessary to prevent fraud or undue influence on voters. Democrats correctly note that voter fraud is extremely rare. The state’s Republican attorney general has spent millions of dollars investigating electoral fraud since last year, but has revealed only a handful of cases in a state where more than 11 million people have voted in November.
The bill would expand an existing mandate whereby people who help voters with ballots provide information on the envelope attesting to their role. By law, anyone who helps a voter complete a ballot must also submit their name, address, relationship and details of whether they were paid by a campaign or political committee and take an oath. , under penalty of perjury. Voters who cannot complete a ballot on their own or read the ballot are allowed to vote with assistance.
In a victory for disability advocates who said the clause required disclosure of personal or medical information, the final text of the bill amended the oath not to require poll assistants to pledge to certify that the voter was eligible due to a disability or inability to read the ballot.
The law also requires local election officials to return all cases of incorrectly cast ballots to the state attorney general. Voting rights groups fear this could be used to pursue common mistakes, such as a voter failing to update their registration when moving a county. Republicans argue that this is a common sense way to prevent fraud.
Language that would have protected those convicted of felony from prosecution if they voted without knowing they were not eligible to vote was removed at the last minute. It was one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement and approved by an overwhelming majority in the House following backlash over the arrests of two Texas voters, both black, which escalated criticism in the framework. a broader fight against voting restrictions which opponents say have a disproportionate impact on people of color. GOP lawmakers in the Senate rejected the change.
Riccardi reported from Denver.
Coronado is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative corps. Report for America is a national, non-profit service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.
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