By PAUL J. WEBER and ACACIA CORONADO Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas Republicans on Thursday pressed forward on a third try at passing new voting restrictions after Democrats returned from a 38-day walkout with little ability now to stop the bill from reaching Gov. Greg Abbott.
A nearly 50-page bill was headed for early passage in the Texas House, where some but not all of the more than 50 Democrats who fled to Washington D.C. last month to temporarily block the legislation remained absent.
With enough Democrats back to secure a quorum and allow business to resume in the Texas Capitol, Republicans were racing to get the elections bill across the finish line before a Labor Day weekend deadline.
The atmosphere was charged. The GOP says the bill will ensure election integrity, but Democrats say it amounts to voter suppression for minorities and people with disabilities.
During debate Thursday, Republican Dade Phelan, the House speaker, interrupted lawmakers to tell them not to accuse each other of racism — or even say the word.
Texas is set to become the latest big GOP state to pass tighter voting laws in response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. On Wednesday, the U.S. House passed federal voting rights legislation that congressional Democrats say is progress in their quest to fight back against voting restrictions advanced in states such as Texas. But Democrats do not have the votes to overcome opposition from Senate Republicans.
“As much as you might decry our need to go to Washington, I really beg for federal protection,” Democratic state Rep. Rafael Anchia said.
Some Republicans did not hide their frustration with Democrats’ refusal to return until now.
“I think you could care a little more, and should have been here,” Republican J.M. Lozano said during one exchange with Anchia.
The bill closely resembled the same one Democrats walked out on more than a month ago. It includes a raft of tweaks and changes to the state’s election code, which when taken as a whole would make it harder to cast a ballot in Texas.
Among other things, it prohibits drive-thru voting and threatens local elections officials with felony charges if they send mail-in voting applications to voters who don’t request one.
Many of the provisions take aim at Harris County — which includes Houston and is a major Democratic stronghold — after leaders there expanded ways to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Texas Republicans accuse Democrats of exaggerating the bill’s impact and maintain it’s not driven by Trump’s loss, even as some have dodged questions about whether they believe the election was stolen. Republicans point out that the latest version would require another extra hour daily of early voting, and result in more counties offering at least 12 hours of early voting on weekdays.