Republican bill tightening Texas election laws is headed to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk

Day one of early voting in El Paso at the Sunland Park Mall indoor voting site on Oct. 13, 2020.

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A wave of changes to Texas elections, including new voting restrictions, is headed to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

Three months after House Democrats first broke quorum to stymie a previous iteration of the legislation, Republicans in the House and Senate on Tuesday signed off on the final version of Senate Bill 1 to further tighten the state’s voting rules and rein in local efforts to widen voting access. Abbott, a Republican, said he will sign it into law.

The bill was delayed one more time as its Republican author, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, disapproved of language added by the House to address the controversial conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year sentence for a ballot she has said she did not know she was ineligible to cast. Hughes’ objection triggered an additional legislative step, known as a conference committee, to strip the Mason amendment before the bill could come up for a final vote.

The votes mark the end of a legislative saga that encompassed two sessions of legislative overtime and featured marathon hearings, a dramatic decampment to Washington, D.C., and escalating tensions between the Democrats who fled in protest of what they saw as a danger to their constituents’ votes and the Republicans left behind unable to conduct business.

Republicans pushed for SB 1 citing their desire to further safeguard elections from fraud — for which there is no evidence of a widespread problem — and to standardize election procedures. The legislation establishes new ID requirements for voting by mail, enhances protections for partisan poll watchers and sets new rules, and possible criminal penalties, for those who assist voters.

It also makes it a state jail felony for local election officials to proactively distribute applications for mail-in ballots, even if they are providing them to voters who automatically qualify to vote by mail or groups helping get out the vote.

Throughout the last few months, Republicans also strived to leave intact provisions of the bill that will ban drive-thru voting and set new limits on early voting hours to outlaw overnight voting. They were clear they were targeting initiatives carried out by Harris County last year, which county officials have said were disproportionately used by voters of color.

“We don’t do 24-hour voting in Texas, but we do have a lot of opportunities to vote. We don’t do drive-thru voting, but we do make sure that folks who have disabilities have access to curbside voting,” Hughes said ahead of the Senate’s vote.

For Democrats, the risk the measure carried in raising new barriers for voters of color and those with disabilities were justification enough to bring the Legislature to a standstill for nearly six weeks. But the return of enough Democrats to the House chamber earlier this month put SB 1 back on the path to finally make it across the finish line.

“This bill is not good enough for me to vote for. I think it still has major flaws that will create problems down the road,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat whose return to the chamber helped Republicans reach quorum. “And all I can hope is that if those problems occur … that we come back here in two years and fix it. Because the worst thing we could ever do is prevent someone from exercising their constitutional right to vote.”

Republicans in the House and Senate began the special sessions fairly aligned in their proposals after using as a blueprint the massive voting bill, then known as Senate Bill 7, that Democrats doomed in May when they first broke quorum.

The two special sessions Democrats forced Abbott to call gave advocates more time to push for fixes to the legislation that would have otherwise become law. Last week, the House further amended its legislation to match the relatively few differences in the Senate’s bill and include a few changes Democrats and advocates had called for, including training for poll watchers. Left off were controversial provisions from the spring that would’ve restricted Sunday voting hours and made it easier for judges to overturn elections.

“Our collective fight for a better future was not fought in vain,” said Claudia Yoli Ferla, the executive director of MOVE Texas Action Fund. “With a broad coalition of activists, organizers, attorneys, artists, business leaders, and voters speaking out — many of the most dangerous provisions of this anti-voter legislation were defeated.”

On Tuesday, Democrats decried the Senate’s objection to the Mason amendment, with state Rep. John Turner, D-Dallas, stating he hoped it was “not because they believe that more people in situations like that of Crystal Mason should be prosecuted or imprisoned.”

Coleman and Turner were assigned to the panel of lawmakers that was supposed to work out the final version of the legislation though neither of them signed off on the bill the House voted on. Despite their support for the amendment, House Republicans on that panel also signed off on removing it.

The amendment — offered by state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, but worked on as a bipartisan effort — was meant to prevent voter mistakes from being prosecuted as fraud.

“We’re just ensuring that people who do innocent things are not harmed from their past mistakes,” Cain said before it was quickly adopted by the House last Thursday.

Mason was convicted of illegal voting for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release for a federal tax fraud conviction. Her vote was never counted, and Mason has said she had no idea she was ineligible to vote under Texas law and wouldn’t have knowingly risked her freedom.

Tarrant County prosecutors pressed forward to land the conviction, which was upheld by a state appeals court that ruled that the fact Mason did not know she was ineligible was “irrelevant to her prosecution.” Her case is currently under review by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s court of last resort for criminal matters.

Cain’s amendment would have clarified existing law that currently defines illegal voting as an instance in which a person “votes or attempts to vote in an election in which the person knows the person is not eligible to vote” by emphasizing that a person must be aware of the “particular circumstances that make the person not eligible” and also that “those circumstances make the person not eligible” to vote.

Mason’s case has played out as Republicans’ baseless claims of rampant illegal voting have intensified. But with lack of widespread evidence, her case has landed among the handful of high-profile prosecutions of people of color.

Mason, who is Black, is appealing her case as the Texas attorney general’s office prosecutes Hervis Rogers, who is also Black, after he was featured in news coverage of the March 2020 primaries for being the last person to vote at Texas Southern University in Houston at 1 a.m. His registration was active even though he was a few months away from completing his parole as part of a 25-year prison sentence for burglary and intent to commit theft in 1995.

Hughes on Thursday said the amendment raised concerns for "people in the building" and "outside the building" that the language could go further than intended, and noted he believed non-citizens who vote in elections should be prosecuted even if they were not aware they were ineligible. Notably, the Mason amendment could have also affected the state’s prosecution of Rogers, who was charged with two counts of illegal voting.

Hughes also noted the bill still includes language that would require proof beyond a provisional ballot for an attempt to cast an illegal vote to count as a crime.

Following the House’s final vote on SB 1, Republican state Rep. Dustin Burrows offered a resolution addressing the appeals court’s ruling in Mason’s case to “reaffirm” the House’s position that mistakes should not be prosecuted as illegal voting.

“The Cain amendment, which was adopted, in all honesty, it may not have been necessary in the first place because the law as written, if interpreted correctly, should have already provided for this,” Burrows said. “If you make an honest mistake … you should not be put in jail for five years under those circumstances.”

Though it is expected to draw the state into federal court, SB 1 is set to go into effect three months after the special legislative session, kicking in before the 2022 primary elections.

The Democrats who used their Washington protest to lobby Congress for action on federal voting rights legislation have since turned to that impending date as a new deadline for the U.S. Senate to move on a pair of bills that could preempt the Texas legislation.

“We knew we wouldn’t be able to hold off this day forever,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, the Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs the party's caucus in the House. “Now that it has come, we need the U.S. Senate to act immediately to pass federal legislation to protect Texas voters from Republicans’ assault on our democracy.”

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