Gov. Greg Abbott signs Texas voting bill into law, overcoming Democratic quorum breaks

People vote inside the gym at the Metropolitan Multi-Services Center in Houston on Nov. 3, 2020.
People vote inside the gym at the Metropolitan Multi-Services Center in Houston on Nov. 3, 2020.

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Though delayed by Democratic quorum breaks, Texas has officially joined the slate of Republican states that have enacted new voting restrictions following the 2020 election.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday signed into law Senate Bill 1, sweeping legislation that further tightens state election laws and constrains local control of elections by limiting counties’ ability to expand voting options. The governor’s signature ends months of legislative clashes and standoffs during which Democrats — propelled by concerns that the legislation raises new barriers for marginalized voters — forced Republicans into two extra legislative sessions.

SB 1 is set to take effect three months after the special legislative session, in time for the 2022 primary elections. But it could still be caught up in the federal courts. Abbott’s signature was both preceded and followed by a flurry of legal challenges that generally argue that the law will disproportionately harm voters of color and voters with disabilities.

On top of two federal lawsuits filed last week, three new lawsuits, including one in state district court, were filed Tuesday shortly after it became law.

While SB 1 makes some changes that could expand access — namely increasing early voting hours in smaller, mostly Republican counties — the new law otherwise restricts how and when voters cast ballots. It specifically targets voting initiatives used by diverse, Democratic Harris County, the state’s most populous, by banning overnight early voting hours and drive-thru voting — both of which proved popular among voters of color last year.

The new law also will ratchet up voting-by-mail rules in a state where the option is already significantly limited, give partisan poll watchers increased autonomy inside polling places by granting them free movement, and set new rules — and criminal penalties — for voter assistance. 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.

“One thing that all Texans can agree [on] and that is that we must have trust and confidence in our elections. The bill that I’m about to sign helps to achieve that goal,” Abbott said before signing the bill. “The law does, however, make it harder for fraudulent votes to be cast.”

Abbott signed the bill surrounded by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the bill’s lead authors Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, and Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, as well as other Republican lawmakers.

Texas Republicans began the 2021 legislative session staging a sweeping legislative campaign to pass new voting restrictions and election rules, proposing significant changes to nearly the entire voting process and taking particular aim at local efforts to make voting easier. It was formally touched off by Abbott early this year when he named “election integrity” one of his emergency items for the legislative session despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud. Republican lawmakers framed their push for SB 1 as an effort to safeguard elections from fraud and to standardize election practices.

SB 1 makes up Republicans’ third attempt to pass the far-reaching changes to elections, denounced by advocates for voters with disabilities, voter advocacy groups and civil rights organizations with histories of fighting laws that could harm voters of color. Democrats echoed that opposition as they fled the state this summer and left the Texas House without enough members to conduct business for weeks.

The law already faces two legal challenges from Harris County and a coalition of community and advocacy groups that argue SB 1’s rewrite of Texas voting laws creates new hurdles and restrictions that will suppress voters and violates the U.S. Constitution and numerous federal laws.

Abbott’s signature Tuesday drew three more lawsuits that also argue the changes to elections in SB 1 are unlawful because they will disproportionately burden voters of color and voters with disabilities.

“SB 1 is an arduous law designed to limit Tejanos’ ability to exercise their full citizenship,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, CEO of Voto Latino, which is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed in Austin on Tuesday. “Not only are we filing suit to protect the right to vote for all people of color, and the additional 250,000 young Latino Tejanos who will reach voting age in 2022, but to protect every Texan’s right to vote.”

Another legal challenge was filed in state district court in Harris County and raises claims that the law runs afoul of the the Texas Constitution, including its protection against racial discrimination.

In forcing two special sessions, Democrats gave advocates and local election officials more time to push for fixes to the initial legislation. That included a crucial change to a portion of the law that now requires voters to provide their driver’s license number or, if they don’t have one, the last four digits of their Social Security number on applications to vote by mail and on the envelope used to return their completed ballot.

Those numbers must match the information contained in the individual’s voter record. Originally, the legislation required those numbers to match what a voter included in their voter registration application, which could have been submitted years if not decades before. Earlier this summer, the Texas secretary of state’s office indicated 2 million registered voters lacked one of the two numbers in their voter file despite their efforts to backfill that information.

As it worked toward getting the legislation across the finish line, the House also made changes Democrats had been pushing for, including requiring training for poll watchers. Republicans also ditched controversial provisions that would have restricted Sunday voting hours and made it easier for judges to overturn elections — both of which they tried to walk away from after Democrats first derailed the legislation in May during the regular legislative session.

Even with some of those changes, a group of plaintiffs in another federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in San Antonio, including Houston Justice and the Arc of Texas, say the legal intervention was needed to “ensure that the State does not continue to erect barriers” that have both the “intent and effect” of suppressing the votes of marginalized Texans.

“These provisions will harm all Texas voters, but consistent with Jim Crow era tradition, the burdens will be disproportionately borne by Black and Latino voters and voters with disabilities,” the plaintiffs said in their complaint. “S.B. 1 intentionally targets and burdens methods and opportunities of voting used by and responsive to the needs of voters of color, particularly Black and Latino voters, and other vulnerable voters, as evidenced by the 2020 elections.”

There are also questions on whether the U.S. Department of Justice will sue Texas over the new law, as it did Georgia earlier this year after lawmakers there passed a new law to tighten elections.

It remains unclear what, if any, Congressional action could affect the new law.

House Democrats who ditched the state Capitol decamped to Washington, D.C., to lobby for movement on federal voting rights legislation that could preempt the Texas legislation. That includes a measure known as the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act that would reinstate federal safeguards for voters of color, including federal preapproval of election law changes, in states with histories of discrimination like Texas.

The legislation was voted out of the U.S. House but faces tough odds in the Senate. Still, Texas Democrats are now framing the gap between Abbott’s signature and when SB 1 goes into effect as Congress’ last chance to act to halt the changes.

“What we have left in front of us are 90 days,” state Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, said before a House vote on the bill last month. “We have 90 days from the end of this session to act. The clock is ticking.”

James Barragán contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Texas Secretary of State and Arc of Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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