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Texas Legislature takes up contentious voting bills in special session

Texas Governor Abbott calls special session
Texas governor calls state lawmakers back for special legislative session 07:03

The Texas Legislature is back to work for a special session that's set to tackle key conservative issues and renew the fight over voting rights.

Texas Democrats walked out on a session in May to block a bill that would have overhauled the state's election laws. Governor Greg Abbott and other Republican leaders have said passing an election bill is one of their top priorities during the special session.

Two bills introduced by Republicans are closely aligned with the final version of SB 7, the bill that failed to pass in May. Both chambers will be holding public hearings on their bills on Saturday. For this session, the House bill is HB 3 and the Senate version is SB 1. 

Neither includes two of the most controversial provisions from SB 7. One of those proposals would have pushed the start of early voting on Sundays to 1 p.m., which critics said would hurt Souls to the Polls, a voter mobilization tradition in Black churches. The other provision omitted from the old bill would have lowered the standard for overturning election results based on claims of fraud. 

Here are some of the highlights from the House and Senate election bills:

Ban on drive-thru voting

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill would ban drive-thru voting. The practice was used by Harris County, which is home to Houston, during the November 2020 election and local elections earlier this year. 

On the eve of the general election, a judge dismissed a lawsuit that tried to prevent officials from counting about 127,000 ballots cast at drive-thru voting sites. An analysis by the Texas Civil Rights Project found more than half of the voters who used drive-thru voting in Harris County in November 2020 were Black, Hispanic or Asian. 

Changes to early voting hours

The House and Senate bills propose setting slightly different times for when early voting may begin and end each day. Both bills say 6 a.m. is the earliest start time for early voting. SB 1 would require early voting to end by 9 p.m., while HB 3 would allow voting to go until 10 p.m. In 2020, Harris County offered a handful of 24-hour early voting days before the general election. 

Sunday early voting would be expanded by an hour compared to current law in some counties. HB 3 would require counties with at least 55,000 people to hold at least six hours of voting on the final Sunday of early voting, but it could not start before 9 a.m. SB 1 would require counties with at least 30,000 people to hold at least six hours of early voting on the last Sunday of early voting, and says voting cannot start before 6 a.m. Currently, these counties are required to hold five hours of Sunday voting. 

The two bills would also expand early voting hours in some medium-sized and smaller counties. Currently, counties with at least 100,000 people must offer at least 12 hours of voting on each weekday of the last week of early voting. The House bill would extend that to counties with at least 55,000 people, while the Senate would allow the longer hours for counties with at least 30,000 people. 

Voter ID and other requirements for mail voting

Texas already has some of the strictest mail voting requirements in the country. To cast a ballot by mail, a voter must be 65 years or older, disabled, out of the county on Election Day and early voting period or in jail but otherwise eligible.

The House and Senate versions of the bill both add ID requirements for mail voting applications and returned ballots. The bills would require voters to provide a driver's license or state ID number or the last four digits of their Social Security Number. Voters may also assert that they do not have either of these numbers and may use an expired ID. Both bills also require mail voting applications to be signed using "ink on paper," so electronic or photocopied signatures wouldn't be allowed. 

Currently, Texas uses signature matching to verify an identity for mail voting. Both election bills would allow a signature verification committee to look at any known signatures that a voter has on file, rather than two or more signatures made within the last six years. 

The bills also say that marked ballots must be "received by an election official" when they are delivered. There were expanded options for voters to return ballots in person during the general election due to the pandemic, but normally Texas only allows voters to drop off absentee ballots at a county elections office on Election Day. 

Public officials banned from sending unsolicited absentee ballot applications

Both bills would prohibit public officials from sending unsolicited mail ballot applications to voters. The House version would make this practice a state jail felony. 

Harris County tried to send absentee ballot applications to all voters ahead of the general election, but the Texas Supreme Court blocked it. Harris County noted that the state did not try to stop the county when officials "distributed unsolicited applications to Harris County voters over 65 years of age" earlier in 2020. 

Both versions also say that public officials may not approve spending public money for a third party to distribute unsolicited vote-by-mail applications.

Protections for poll watchers

The bills also provide some protections for poll watchers. They require that poll watchers be allowed to sit or stand close enough to be able to observe what is happening at a polling site. 

The bills also prohibit election officers from refusing to accept a poll watcher and would prevent officers from obstructing the view of a watcher or moving the watcher so far away that it makes "observation not reasonably effective." Poll watchers must also be allowed freedom of movement "where election activity is occurring." The bills also allow poll watchers to observe the transfer of election materials from a polling site to a regional tabulating center.

The bills do require poll watchers to affirm that they will "not disrupt the voting process or harass voters" or they could face prosecution for obstruction. 

Opportunities to correct mail ballot mistakes

If a voter makes a mistake, like forgetting to sign a mail ballot certificate or omitting residency information, or if workers question the voter's signature, then a voter may fix that defect to ensure their ballot counts.

Requirement that judges inform convicted felons of their voting eligibility status

In Texas, those convicted of a felony cannot vote unless their sentence is "fully discharged," including any parole or probation, or if they've been pardoned. Both bills require that people  convicted of a felony must be told that the conviction will affect their right to vote.

The House bill, however, goes a bit further. The House bill also says that no one can be convicted of voting or trying to vote when  ineligible "solely based upon the fact that the person signed a provisional ballot affidavit."  "Other evidence" must corroborate "that the person knowingly committed the offense."

House Democrats previously pushed for this to be included due to the controversial conviction of Crystal Mason, who is facing five years in prison for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed to review her case at the end of March.  

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