AUSTIN, Texas -- Former El Paso Congressman Beto O'Rourke was among hundreds of Texans who lined up at the state Capitol on Saturday for their first opportunity during the special legislative session to testify before lawmakers against a bill which would enact sweeping voting restrictions across the state.
Nearly 300 members of the public were signed up Saturday afternon to testify on the legislation that makes up the GOP’s renewed effort to further tighten state voting rules.
Lufkin Republican state Rep. Trent Ashby, chair of the select committee hearing the House's voting bill, said he expected the House's bill could get a floor vote as early as next week.
Lawmakers returned to Austin on Thursday for a special lsession called by Gov. Greg Abbott because Democrats thwarted the priority elections bill in the final hours of the regular legislative session by staging a walkout to break quorum.
Both bills also carry over measures from the regular session to bolster protections for partisan poll watchers and embrace new ID requirements for voting by mail that were added at the last minute to the sweeping voting bill.
“You’ll notice that most of the security measures in Senate Bill 1 are not aimed at individual voters,” state Sen. Bryan Hughes, the Mineola Republican authoring the Senate legislation, said in presenting his bill. “By and large, individual voters are trying to vote. They’re trying to do the right thing. We want them to do that. The security measures in this bill, by and large, are directed at vote harvesters or folks who are trying to steal votes.”
O'Rourke was among those who waited for his opportunity to testify against the bill, while using his social media to encourage others to join him at the state Capitol.
"If you want to make sure that we save democracy and preserve voting rights and have free and fair elections in Texas then come down to the state Capitol and sign up to testify," he said in video posted to Twitter.
O'Rourke, D-El Paso, who called the legislation "a solution in search of a problem," later told lawmakers in his testimony there are more pressing matters facing the state and referenced a deadly winter storm earlier this year that has since prompted concerns about the reliability of the state's electric grid.
"If you're looking for something, more than 700 of our fellow Texans died because we couldn't keep the power on in February," he told the committee. "There are very real problems that require our attention and our focus, and [SB 1] just does not happen to be one of them."
Falling in line with the GOP’s nationwide response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread voting irregularities, Texas Republicans have pitched their voting bill as part of an effort to bolster the security of Texas elections — even though there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud and state officials described the 2020 election as “smooth and secure.”
But it has been met with concerns from civil rights organizations and voting rights advocates who have argued that efforts geared toward improving security would instead complicate the voting process, particularly for marginalized voters. Significant portions of both bills focus on shutting down local expansion of voting options meant to make it easier to vote that local officials say proved particularly successful in reaching voters of color.
Debate over the election bills comes as Republicans at the Texas Legislature push a number of other issues on Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session agenda — an 11-item priority list that appeals largely to conservative voters and includes legislation that did not pass when the Legislature convened earlier this year.
Democrats so far haven’t ruled out another quorum break to again block the election bill, with party members in both chambers saying all options remain on the table. Though House Republicans have changed some of their approach for the special session in an apparent effort to appease opponents, Democrats say the legislation is still flawed and insist they plan to fight the bill at every opportunity.
Senate Democrats have echoed those sentiments, though a number of them have rallied around a counter proposal to SB 61 filed by West. The legislation would allow for online and same-day voter registration and expand the early voting period, among other provisions.
West acknowledged during a Friday news conference that while his measure likely won’t receive a hearing in the GOP-dominated Senate, he hopes Democrats and Republicans can “strike compromises to make certain that all people in the state of Texas are able to vote, that it’s transparent and that it’s secure.”