The Texas bill to overhaul its elections is dead for now, after Texas Democrats walked out of the state Capitol late Sunday night, denying Republicans a quorum as the clock ticked down on the legislative session.
Governor Greg Abbott immediately put lawmakers on notice that he’ll call a special session to get an election bill passed and told a local radio station on Thursday the session could take place before the fall.
It’s not clear at this point what election reforms lawmakers will be debating and voting on when they’re corralled back to Austin, but the final version of the bill, known as SB7, gives a strong indication of the GOP’s priorities. Lawmakers have already suggested that they will make some tweaks to the bill and Democrats have vowed to keep up the pressure against it in the weeks ahead.
This is what was in SB7:
Limits on Early Voting Hours
The bill set limits on the hours of early voting, which comes after Harris County, home to Houston, offered a handful of 24-hour early voting days before the November election. The bill would allow counties to set their hours, but early voting could only take place between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.
The bill also would have delayed Sunday voting, a time typically used by Black churches for Souls to the Polls events, until 1:00 p.m., but that may change in future versions. Republican state Representative Travis Clardy told NPR on Tuesday that was not what lawmakers intended.
“I think there was a, call it a mistake if you want to, what should’ve been 11 was actually printed up as 1,” Clardy said.
The bill had some expansions of early voting hours. Weekday early voting would have lasted nine hours at a county’s main early voting site, rather than just the county clerk’s business hours.
Counties with at least 30,000 people would have to offer at least 12 voting hours on each weekday during the final week of early voting at the main early voting site, at least 12 hours on the last Saturday of early voting and at least six hours on the last Sunday. Currently, those requirements only apply to counties with at least 100,000 people. The bill also upped the mandatory Sunday hours from five to six.
Ban on Drive-Thru Voting
The bill sought to ban drive-through voting, something Harris County used during November 2020 and in the recent May elections. A judge dismissed a lawsuit on the eve of the general election filed by four Republicans that tried to prevent officials from counting about 127,000 ballots cast at drive-thru voting sites.
New requirements for voting by mail
Texas has some of the strictest mail voting requirements in the country. To vote by mail, a voter must be 65 years or older, disabled, out of the county on Election Day and early voting period or in jail but otherwise eligible.
The bill would have required voters who applied for a mail ballot to provide either their driver’s license number, state ID number, Social Security number or a statement asserting that they do not have one of the required forms of identification. Currently, Texas uses signature matching to verify identities on absentee ballot applications. Under the proposal, a signature verification committee would be able to look at any known signature the voter has on file with the county clerk, rather than two or more signatures made within the last six years.
Voters with a disability asking for a mail ballot would be eligible if they are “not capable of” appearing at the polling place without “needing personal assistance or injuring the voter’s health.” A voter would have to disclose if that is due to an illness, injury, medical issue or mental or physical disability. The current requirement for disabled voters is that they must have a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents them from appearing at a polling place “without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or injuring the voter’s health.”
The proposed bill also said ballots returned by hand had to be “received by an election official at the time of delivery.” There were expanded in-person return options in 2020 due to the pandemic, but normally Texas only allows voters to drop off absentee ballots at a county elections office on Election Day.
Bans public officials from sending unsolicited absentee ballot applications
The bill would make it a felony for a public official to send out applications to vote by mail to voters who did not request one. Harris County tried to send absentee ballot applications to all voters ahead of the general election, but the Texas Supreme Court blocked that. Harris County noted that the state did not try to stop the county when officials “distributed unsolicited applications to Harris County voters over 65 years of age” earlier in 2020.
The bill also made it a crime for public officials to solicit mail ballot applications, provide public funding for third parties to distribute mail ballot applications or pre-fill any part of the application. The bill explicitly allows for absentee ballot applications to be posted online.
Lowers the standard for overturning an election based on fraud
The bill had a provision that said if the number of “illegally cast” votes in an election is “equal to or greater than the number of votes necessary to change the outcome of the election, the court may declare the election void without attempting to determine how individual voters voted.” The bill says that someone challenging the results would have to prove the allegation by a “preponderance of the evidence,” which means there’s a greater than 50% chance that the claim is true.
This would lower the standard for overturning an election in the state. Courts in Texas previously found that a contestant challenging the results of an election had the burden of “proving by clear and convincing evidence that voting irregularities were present and that they materially affected the election’s results.”
Adds requirements for people who assist voters
The bill added requirements for people who help disabled voters or a voter who can’t read the language that the ballot is printed in. People who provide that assistance would be required to fill out a form with their contact information, relationship to the voter and whether the person providing assistance received any compensation or benefit from a candidate or campaign.
Those who provide assistance would also have to take an enhanced oath to affirm that a voter is eligible to receive assistance and that the person helping the voter “did not encourage, pressure or coerce” the voter into choosing them to provide assistance. That oath would now be taken under the penalty of perjury.
If someone drives voters to the polls, the bill said that a person could only remain in the car with a voter if that person would otherwise be able to provide assistance to the voter. If someone drives three or more voters, they have to fill out a form with their contact information and whether they assisted the voter. There are some exceptions for close relatives. The bill did allow poll watchers to observe people voting in cars.
Creates a new “vote harvesting” provision
The bill created a new felony for someone who knowingly provides or offers “vote harvesting services” in exchange for a benefit or compensation. “Vote harvesting services” is defined as interacting with at least one voter “involving an official ballot, a ballot voted by mail, or an application for ballot by mail, intended to deliver votes for a specific candidate or measure.”
Republicans have said this measure is designed to prevent potential fraud, but civil rights groups, including the ACLU of Texas, have said it could impact normal campaign activities.
Other criminal penalties
There are other criminal penalties for failing to count valid votes, preventing a voter from casting a legal ballot or providing false information to a voter with the intent of preventing an eligible voter from casting a ballot. It would also be a crime to alter the ballot so that it does not “reflect the intent of the voter.” These penalties would be misdemeanors, but would be a felony if committed by someone acting in an official capacity as an election officer.
The bill gave poll watchers some new powers. Poll watchers cannot be “denied free movement” where election activity is happening and have to be able to sit or stand “near enough to see and hear” election officers.
It would be a misdemeanor for an election officer to knowingly refuse to allow a poll watcher at a voting site. The bill also made it a crime to “obstruct the view of the watcher” or place the watcher far enough from an activity that would “make observation not reasonably effective.” If a watcher believes they were unlawfully obstructed, they could ask the courts for help. The bill also would have required poll watchers to take an oath that they will not “disrupt the voting process or harass voters.”
The bill also allowed poll watchers to observe all of the activities related to closing a polling place and to follow the transfer of election materials from a polling site to a regional tabulation center.
Earlier versions of the legislature’s election bills made it more difficult to remove poll watchers who were being disruptive and allowed poll watchers to record voters. Those weren’t included in the final version of SB7, but it’s not clear whether those will return in a special session.
Requires video surveillance systems for large counties
Counties with at least 100,000 people would have to implement a video surveillance system that records all areas where voted ballots are stored from the time voted ballots are delivered until precinct election returns are canvassed. There would also need to be a public livestream of the cameras. Counties with fewer than 100,000 people would have the option to set up these systems.
Requires judges to inform convicted felons of their voting eligibility status
The bill also required judges to tell any adult convicted of a felony about how that will impact their right to vote. A person convicted of a felony cannot vote unless the person’s sentence is “fully discharged,” including parole or probation, or if the person has been pardoned. This provision was added in response to the conviction of Crystal Mason, who is facing five years in prison for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed to review her case at the end of March.