AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas State Senate advanced a far-reaching elections bill early Thursday with several provisions placing new restrictions on the voting process, particularly for those living in densely populated counties.
The vote on Senate Bill 7 was 18-13 after more than seven hours of debate and several amendments to the legislation. The final language of those changes is not yet available online to review.
The amendments introduced on the floor by Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes during the debate referenced making changes to controversial measures included in the initial bill language on poll watchers, voting hours, disability verification and the number of county polling locations.
The bill would ban drive-through voting and limit extended early voting hours.
The measure would also give partisan poll watchers broader authority when observing at a polling location, including being allowed to record a voter who receives assistance while filing out their ballot.
Democrats and voting rights activists have sounded alarms over the legislation, calling it suppressive and noting that it appears to directly target voting methods used by Harris County, which includes the heavily Democratic city of Houston.
“Make no mistake, Senate Bill 7 will disproportionately restrict the right to vote of all eligible voters, but especially that of marginalized communities, and deny young, disabled, Black and Brown voters their voice in the rising Texas electorate,” H. Drew Galloway, MOVE Texas Action Fund executive director, said in a statement on Thursday morning.
“Texas is already one of the hardest states to vote in in the country. We should be expanding the right to vote, not restricting it.”
Gilberto Hinojosa, Texas Democratic Party Chair, called passage of the bill by Republicans as a “racist, terrifying attempt to plunge Texas back into Jim Crow.”
“Texas Republicans are delusional if they expect anyone to accept this legislation without a fight. We will fight tooth and nail to stop this bill from being signed into law, and if it is, we will see Republicans in court,” Hinojosa added.
Republicans have said the bill is about election security and integrity, even though Texas already has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the nation and there is no evidence of any widespread fraud.
“These are provisions that will apply across the board [to] every voter. They’re consistent, they’re fair, they’re about making it easier to vote … and make it hard to cheat. Every vote should count and every voter should know that their vote will be counted,” Sen. Bryan Hughes, a Republican and sponsor of the legislation said early Thursday morning ahead of the bill’s passage.
The state already requires that a voter provide an eligible reason to vote by mail: be 65 or older, people with disabilities or illness, those confined to jail or those who will be out of the county during the election. The bill would also prohibit local election officials from sending out unsolicited absentee ballot applications or encouraging a voter to fill out an application to vote by mail, even if they qualify.
The bill comes as efforts to restrict voting access across the country have intensified over the last month. A new tally by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University finds that 361 bills with provisions that restrict voting have been introduced in 47 states as of March 24 — as more state legislatures work to clamp down on ballot access.
The total, released Thursday morning, marks a 43% rise in the number of bills introduced since Brennan last released a count a little over a month ago.
The legislation now heads to the Texas House of Representatives for committee consideration.