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Texas Senate passes election bill that is stalled until House Democrats return

Texas Dems meet with Vice President Harris
Texas Democrats discuss voting rights with top White House officials after fleeing state 08:58

The Texas Senate passed its version of a major election bill on Tuesday along party lines, but it can't go anywhere unless Texas House Democrats come back to the state. 

More than 50 Texas House Democrats and nine Senate Democrats left the state on Monday to go to Washington, D.C., to deny a quorum in that chamber. The House cannot take action on bills without enough members present in Austin. 

Even without the nine Senate Democrats, there were 22 state senators present, enough for a quorum. Four Senate Democrats were present in the chamber for the debate. 

The Senate's election bill, SB1, passed 18 to 4 after several hours of debate Tuesday afternoon. Republican State Senator Bryan Hughes, the bill's author, said the bill cracks down on the potential for cheating and touted the expanded early voting hours in some counties and opportunities for voters to fix small issues with their mail-in ballots. 

Democratic Legislators Flee Texas To Stop Votes In Current Special Session
The U.S. and Texas state flags fly outside the state Capitol building on July 12, 2021 in Austin, Texas. Texas Democrats have fled the state in order to prevent a quorum in protest over a Republican voting protection bill that they say is too restrictive. Sergio Flores / Getty Images

"How much fraud's okay? None. How much suppression's okay? None," Hughes said. "That's why this bill makes it easy to vote and hard to cheat."

The four Senate Democrats present pushed back against many of its provisions, including bans on 24-hour and drive-thru voting, powers for poll watchers and potential penalties for people who assist voters. 

"If we see voting as a right, then every person who is eligible to vote should have the same ease of access to vote as they would their ability to freely speak or to go to church," said Democratic Sstate Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. "This body passes bill after bill, making it easier to possess the firearm and harder for the government to take away a firearm. I believe we should do the same for voting."

The Senate bill would eliminate drive-thru and 24-hour early voting that was used in the Houston area last year due to the pandemic. It would also expand early voting hours in some medium-sized counties; add ID requirements for voting by mail; increase criminal penalties for some election officials who don't follow regulations; and give more powers to partisan poll watchers.

The bill was slightly amended on Tuesday. One change removed a provision that required everyone but the voter to exit a car during curbside voting after Democrats raised some concerns about how that may impact disabled voters. Lawmakers also tweaked the oath that someone signs if they assist a voter; clarified the definition of ballot harvesting; and added another form of allowable ID for requesting a mail-in ballot. 

The bill does not include two controversial provisions from a previous election bill that was blocked in May: not allowing Sunday voting to start until 1:00 p.m. and lowering the standard to overturn elections. 

"You can put lipstick on a pig, earrings and perfume, and it's still a pig," said Democratic state Senator John Whitmire. 

While the Senate had enough members for a quorum, some Republicans took shots at their colleagues who left the state. The House on Tuesday voted to track down Democrats who left the state "under warrant of arrest if necessary," but that likely carries little weight if they stay outside of Texas. 

"I appreciate all of our colleagues who came and showed up today to fight for their constituents and for Texas and I am disappointed in our colleagues who did not," Republican Senator Dawn Buckingham said. 

The Texas Senate has previously passed sweeping election bills this year, but those bills have not yet passed the Texas House. At the end of the regular session in May, House Democrats walked out of the Capitol to block a major election law. 

"It's a little like Groundhog Day here, senator," Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said before the bill passed. "Maybe in six more weeks we'll have enough people in the House to pass it on final passage."

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