Texas House OK's controversial new voting bill that would impose criminal penalties

Texas lawmakers are moving forward on a Republican-sponsored bill to overhaul election laws. CBS News senior White House and political correspondent Ed O'Keefe has details on the proposal, and CBS News political reporter Adam Brewster joins CBSN with more on the voting controversy in Texas and other states.

Video Transcript

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Texas lawmakers have voted to approve a new Republican-sponsored voting bill. They debated the matter well into the night before passing the legislation at 3:00 AM. The legislation still needs a final vote in the House before it goes back to the state senate. Ed O'Keefe reports from Washington.

ED O'KEEFE: One of the reasons debate in Texas stretched into the early morning hours of Friday is that Democrats had threatened to propose hundreds of amendments, and ended up cutting a deal with Republicans that watered down some of the more controversial provisions of the proposed law. But make no mistake, Texas is now on the verge of being the biggest state to enact changes to its election laws that critics say amount to voter suppression and simply aren't necessary.

- There being 81 yeas, 64 nays, HSB7 has passed the third reading.

ED O'KEEFE: Hours before sunrise Friday, Texas Republicans advanced legislation imposing new voting restrictions on the Lone Star State. The new bill lowers initially proposed criminal penalties for voting errors, gives partisan poll watchers some more power, but makes it easier to remove them for disruptions, and bans election officials from sending unsolicited absentee ballot applications. The bill's likely headed for final passage early next week.

- (CHANTING) --hey, ho ho, voter suppression has got to go!

ED O'KEEFE: Protesters rallied against the legislation as House lawmakers debated for hours.

BRISCOE CAIN: Reforms are needed to the election laws of this state to ensure that fraud does not undermine the public confidence in the electoral process.

- It's going to disproportionately impact people of color. You have to understand the damage that you're causing.

ED O'KEEFE: Republicans claim their plan will increase election security.

BRISCOE CAIN: What this bill seeks to do is to make them safer and more secure.

ED O'KEEFE: But lead Republican sponsor Briscoe Cain struggled at times to answer questions about the bill.

- What fraud is it designed to stop?

BRISCOE CAIN: OK, yeah. Well, you know, we've got-- we're trying to maybe stop the-- we'll call it ballot harvesting.

ED O'KEEFE: Democrats say it's voter suppression, all based on a falsehood.

- Is this bill simply a part and a continuation of the big lie perpetrated by Donald Trump that somehow he really actually won the presidential-- is that really what this is all about? Is this to validate--

BRISCOE CAIN: No, no, this bill is not about 2020.

- --the former president?

RON DESANTIS: I have what we think is the strongest election integrity measures in the country. I'm actually going to sign it right here. It's going to take effect.

[CHEERING]

ED O'KEEFE: Earlier Thursday in Florida, Republican governor Ron DeSantis signed a similar law at a bill signing aired live only on Fox News. That law limits mail-in voting, restricts ballot drop boxes, and requires Floridians to show ID for new mail-in ballot requests, prompting several lawsuits from civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, which called the new law a horrifying reminder at the fragility of democracy.

For those of you keeping score at home, Florida now has signed its new election law, Texas is on the verge of doing so, and Ohio Republicans have now introduced similar legislation that would limit the number of ballot drop boxes, make changes in how you request an absentee ballot, and reduce the number of early voting hours. All of these states predominantly Republican, easily won by former President Trump last year, and election observers say there were no examples of the widespread fraud that Republicans claim they're trying to address. Anne-Marie and Vlad?

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: All right, Ed, thank you. So for more on this, we want to bring in CBS News political reporter Adam Brewster. Adam, let's start off with this Texas voting bill. How does it compare to Florida's, and could there be revisions before it lands on the governor's desk?

ADAM BREWSTER: So on its basis, Anne-Marie, it's a little different bill than we've seen other states pass in the sense that a lot of the provisions, which there were changes to last night, sought to impose criminal penalties at various steps of the elections process. That was one of the things that Democrats and voting rights experts warned about, that they said that this could potentially hurt people who are helping people to vote or election officials who just make a mistake.

And so a lot of those changes we saw last night, when Democrats brought up the procedural issue and sort of stalled this thing, those provisions were some of the things that were watered down, along with the protections for pollwatchers. You know, Democrats said these people, there's no real way to remove them based on the way the law was written. And so there were changes made along those lines, too. So it targets some different aspects of voting than we've seen in other bills. Whereas in Florida there were some ID requirements added, we've seen that done in other states, issues of drop boxes and the frequency in which you request mail ballots, on the Texas side of things, there certainly can be revisions.

In Florida, in Georgia, when the House and the Senate were kind of reconciling their differences between what lawmakers in each chamber wanted, we saw all sorts of changes. In Florida just last week, the Senate passed something on Tuesday night, the House passed something different on Wednesday night, the Senate passed something different on Thursday that the House ultimately signed off on. And so that was a lot of changes just in the final days. Lawmakers in Texas, this Senate bill that passed-- that is poised to formally pass the House is different than what the Senate passed last week. So we could possibly see the Senate want to insert some of those provisions back in. The lawmakers have until the end of the month before their session is done.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: All right, Adam, help our audience understand something. President Trump carried Texas and Florida with comfortable margins in the 2020 election. There has been no evidence of voting fraud. In fact, Governor DeSantis has bragged about how fair and transparent the voting process was in Florida, how well it worked. So why are Republican lawmakers in Texas and in Florida and other states-- Ohio is coming up, as Ed O'Keefe reports-- determined to change these voting requirements?

ADAM BREWSTER: Well, this is something that's animated the Republican Party's base because it's something. former president Trump has talked about so frequently. I mean, as recently as this week, he's repeated the false claim that the election was stolen or rigged. And that has just seeped into the grassroots of the party. Caitlin Huey-Burns and I reported back in March about how that-- election integrity in the Republican Party was sort of grappling with some of the divisions within it.

Election integrity was one of the issues that Republicans were sort of rallying around at all sorts of levels-- at the national level, at the state level, down in the grassroots activist level. So you know, whether-- we've seen this done in battleground states, like Georgia. There are bills being considered in Arizona, a state that President Biden won, and in Michigan, another state that President Biden won. And then we've seen it also, though, in states that the former president won easily, all the way back to Iowa was one of the first states to pass a major bill to overhaul its elections.

And you know, the governors in these states have said we're proud of the way we ran the election last time, but that doesn't mean we can't make improvements and we can't make things better. That's been one of the talking points we've heard from lawmakers and from these Republican governors in the states where President Trump, and quite frankly Republicans up and down the ticket, did well in 2020.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So meanwhile, they're having a recount in Arizona. I should say, another recount of votes there in Maricopa County. It's actually gotten the attention of the Justice Department, raising some concerns about how that process is going. Of course, this is a Republican-backed endeavor. Walk us through what's happening there, who's responsible for this, how is it being done, and why.

ADAM BREWSTER: So this is the Arizona Senate Republicans. They subpoenaed for these ballots, about 2.1 million ballots in Maricopa County. That's the largest county in Arizona. It's the home to Phoenix and its surrounding area. And you know, the first thing I think worth noting about this audit they're doing is it's not going to change the results. And even some of the people who are at the top of the audit say this isn't about changing the results, it's about showing, you know, people what's happened, what's going on. Arizona has already done a review of its ballot.

They have done other audits. All of them affirmed that President Biden won the state, you know, by a narrow margin. It was a tight election, like we saw some tight elections in states in 2016. And you know, there have been questions raised about the procedures, about some of the firms involved and whether they're doing best practices. Election experts have raised issues. Arizona Secretary of State wrote a very long letter to the person who's representing the Senate, sort of acting as a spokesperson, a liaison between the auditors and the Senate side of things, outlining all of her concerns with the procedures.

There's concerns about the integrity of the ballots and chain of custody that's been broken, because these are records that are required to be kept under federal law for 22 months and election experts have said there's sometimes no way to know now, because of the procedures that have been used, whether these ballots are any good for record-keeping anymore just because there's been enough doubt sewn in the process. The Justice Department, as you mentioned, also had sent a letter raising concerns about voter intimidation, about ballot security, and whether this may have a disproportionate impact on minority voters. The Senate president's office told us yesterday that her attorneys were working on a response to those claims.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: All right, Ohio, they also introduced a new election bill yesterday. Explain some of those provisions, and what are you hearing about more states drafting similar legislation?

ADAM BREWSTER: On the Ohio front, you know, this does make some changes to the way drop boxes were used. In 2020, it was the first election they were used. The bill as written-- and in its infancy, right? And we always-- we've seen these bills-- I talked about how there might be changes in Texas when it's passed both chambers of the House. In Georgia, the bill that Governor Kemp signed was far different than what was initially introduced. The bill in Florida that Governor DeSantis signed yesterday was far different than what was introduced. So this is-- that's the context with which we're discussing this Ohio bill.

So it does have drop boxes in place. It allows three of them to be at the county election boards. That's only one site per county. That's essentially how they ran things in 2020. But there's fewer days to access those drop boxes under this bill than there were last year. It does take away one day of early voting, but the Republicans who put forward the bill said this is something our election administrators want because they would be getting rid of early voting on the Monday before election day. And there's a chance that they could spread hours, those hours out around through-- that they already have another 20 days of early voting.

So it does get rid of one day, but something that election administrators have asked for, and certainly there's still plenty of early voting days in Ohio. And then it does-- you have to request your absentee ballot a week earlier. It was previously the Friday before an election, now it would be about 10 days before. You know, and voting rights groups have raised some concerns about that, and whether that could impact certain people. Of course, also recall last year the post office had all of the issues, and there were warnings about if you're going to request a ballot to come to you by mail, you need to do it 14 days before an election.

And there were all these states the post office put out-- I covered Michigan and Wisconsin, they were on that list-- saying, you know, we not may be able to get your ballot in time to you, let alone time for you to put it back in the mail. And so that's been one of the arguments for sliding that out that we've seen other states do when they've moved up their absentee ballot request deadline, is to give more time for the post office. But there have been concerns raised. We don't know that the post office will have the issues in future elections that it did in the 2020 election.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So you mentioned Florida governor Ron DeSantis. He signed his state's new voting bill into law on Thursday live on Fox News. Governor Abbott is set to sign Texas bill-- Texas's bill as early as next week. But of course, just because the bills are signed into law doesn't mean that there isn't continued pushback, challenges. So what are opponents looking to do to stall these efforts?

ADAM BREWSTER: Well, it's-- the courts are the one remedy that opponents have for these bills. We saw two lawsuits filed yesterday in Florida, one just minutes after Governor DeSantis signed his election bill. There's been a half dozen at least filed in Georgia. Iowa and Montana have seen lawsuits filed against some of the proposals that have been-- or some-- excuse me, some of the laws that have been put in place in-- in those states. So that's really the only way to go. And there are claims that they can-- you know, opponents can make, you know, based on whether it violates equal protection or whether it violates section two of the Voting Rights Act and has a disproportionate impact on minority voters.

Of course, recall, you know, in 2013, Shelby versus Holder, the Justice Department essentially got rid of that preclearance provision in the Voting Rights Act that Democrats have said needs to be restored, which would have required certain communities with a history of voter suppression to get the OK from the Justice Department before they make changes to their voting laws. We saw Virginia do a state-level version of that, putting in a state-level Voting Rights Act. But that was one of the main tools that was used to challenge election laws that people said could have a disproportionate impact on minority voters, on older voters, on disabled voters. So that is one of the tools that's not currently there. That will certainly be a big fight in Congress, that John Lewis Voting Rights Act, as we head into the summer and into the fall, and as those midterm elections get ever so closer.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: All right, Adam Brewster, always great to have you, my friend. Thank you very much for your reporting.

ADAM BREWSTER: Thanks, Vlad and Anne-Marie.