What’s in the compromise version of the controversial Texas voting-regulations bill?

·6 min read

A controversial Texas elections bill that has been criticized for restricting access to the polls includes measures that would protect poll watchers, prohibit drive-thru voting and 24-hour-voting sites, and penalize public officials who send a vote-by-mail application to a person who didn’t request one, as it heads to the full Senate and House for consideration.

A group of 10 lawmakers made up of members of the Texas House of Representatives and Senate were tasked with coming up with a compromise version of Senate Bill 7, an omnibus election bill that supporters say is necessary to preserve election integrity in the state. Opponents of the legislation have said it would suppress voters of color and voters with disabilities. The bill could also cost Texas and Tarrant County billions, according to a recent report.

“SB 7 is one of the most comprehensive and sensible election-reform bills in Texas history,” a joint Friday statement from Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Tyler, and Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, reads. “There is nothing more foundational to this democracy and our state than the integrity of our elections.”

The latest iteration of the bill circulated the Capitol late Friday night and Saturday, and was posted online late Saturday afternoon.

The language varies from both the House and Senate versions. Included in the bill are measures that would:

  • Prohibit temporary polling places in a tent or other movable structures that were designed for cars.

  • Set times dictating when polling places can be open.

  • Make it a Class B misdemeanor for an election officer to “knowingly refuse to accept a (poll) watcher for service.” Poll watchers would have to sign an oath attesting they won’t disrupt the voting process or harass voters.

  • Require a paper audit trail for votes.

  • Require those seeking an application to vote by mail because of a disability to provide the “specific grounds on which the voter is eligible for a ballot to be voted by mail on the ground of disability.”

  • Would make it a state jail felony for a public official to solicit “the submission of an application to vote by mail from a person who did not request an application.”

The ACLU of Texas on Twitter Saturday said the legislation will “make it much harder and scarier to vote — in a state that’s already the most difficult place to vote in the country.”

“Yet again, instead of fixing the electrical grid or providing pandemic relief, political leaders at (the Texas Legislature) are punishing their constituents,” the group said. “We’ll continue to hold these legislators accountable.”

The bill must pass out of the House and Senate before heading to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. Sunday is the last day for both chambers to adopt conference committee reports. The legislature adjourns Monday.

What’s not in Senate Bill 7?

One provision that didn’t make it into bill would have resulted in the closing of polling locations in Tarrant County, according to an analysis by the Texas Tribune.

The Senate version set a formula for counties with population over 1 million to determine the number of polling places in a Texas House of Representatives district. The measure would have applied to five counties: Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Tarrant and Travis. Collin County is also expected to have a population of over 1 million after the official census count.

According to an analysis by the Texas Tribune, four of Tarrant County’s 11 House districts would have seen a reduction in polling places. Two of those are represented by Republicans and two by Democrats.

However, the nonprofit news outlet found that Democratic districts would have been more affected. House District 90 would have lost 18 of its polling sites and House District 95 would have lost 13. Only two of eight districts held by Republicans would have lost polling places, the Texas Tribune reported.

The bill also didn’t include measures that would have allowed partisan poll watchers to record video at polling places, which opponents said could lead to voter intimidation.

A confusing rollout, Democrats left out

The author and Senate sponsor of the bill announced the deal Friday evening, but it was quickly met with backlash from Democrats who said they hadn’t seen it.

State Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, and State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, two of three Democrats on the 10-person committee tasked with coming up with the compromise bill, pushed back against the idea a deal had been reached — at least one they’re part of.

“I am hearing news that a Senate Bill 7 agreement has been reached. Even as a member of this conference committee, I have not been provided any details regarding this bill,” Powell said in a tweet. “Once we receive a copy, my team and I will start working through this bill to ensure the voting rights of African Americans, Hispanics, Texans with disabilities, veterans, and all Texans are protected.”

Canales, in the hours leading up to the announcement, said on Twitter, “I’m on the conference committee, and this is NOT True,” in response to a tweet from a reporter suggesting a deal had been struck.

“Your sources are wrong as it pertains to the Democratic Caucus, (Mexican American Legislative Caucus), and (Texas Black Caucus),” he said.

He later tweeted that, “The House Democrat Conferees have NOT even seen a Legislative Counsel Draft! This is egregious!” Ultimately, it seems the deal may have been announced early, according to Canales.

“UPDATE: I have been advised, that the announcement that there has been an agreement was prematurely released, and we are scheduled to receive an official draft shortly,” he tweeted.

Powell told the Star-Telegram on Tuesday that she wasn’t aware of any formal meetings having been held to negotiate on the bill and as of Friday evening, she hadn’t participated in formal negotiations.

“I was very gratified by having been appointed to the conference committee, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be allowed to participate in the process so that we can continue to fight for equal access to the ballot box,” Powell said Tuesday.

Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, said she was involved in conversations as the compromise version of the bill was crafted, but described a piecemeal approach, where lawmakers weren’t meeting all together at the same time.

There were some steps taken to reduce harmful impacts as the bill was debated, but the bill is still harmful, Collier said. She noted that it doesn’t protect the secrecy of the ballot or increase voter participation.

“But I wouldn’t call it negotiations,” Collier said. “I think it was more of an explanation, instead of a negotiation.”