By Reid Wilson
Texas lawmakers return to the state Capitol in Austin on Thursday to tackle a host of conservative priorities in a special session that is almost certain to devolve into a partisan cage match.
Front and center among legislative priorities outlined by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) is one of the few bills that minority Democrats successfully blocked during the regular legislative session earlier this year: an overhaul of the state’s election rules.
Late Wednesday, House Republicans released their version of a bill negotiated in part with House Democrats who had blocked the earlier version. Here’s what’s in the bill, and the controversial provisions that were left on the drafting room floor.
A uniform code
House lawmakers want elections to be run under a consistent set of rules across the state, “to reduce the likelihood of fraud in the conduct of elections.” Elections officials would be ordered to administer their contests under a uniform set of procedures, whether they are running an election in Harris County, population 4.6 million, or Loving County, population 169.
The provision is a response to officials in and around Houston, which makes up the bulk of Harris County. In 2020, election officials there opened around-the-clock early voting centers and drive-thru centers to help alleviate the strain of long lines amid a global pandemic.
A later provision specifically bars election officials from creating, altering, modifying, waiving or suspending any election rule mandated by state law. That would limit the authority some clerks and county judges used last year to alter rules in the midst of a crisis like, say, a global pandemic.
Requirements for reporting ineligible voters
The bill requires county elections officials to report to the attorney general, the secretary of state, and local district or county attorneys anyone who registers to vote or actually casts a ballot in an election in which they are not eligible.
Current state law only applies to those who vote illegally – of which there have only been a handful of cases in recent years. The new bill would apply to those who register illegally, as well.
Banning curbside voting
The bill bans voters from casting a ballot from the inside of a motor vehicle, with a few exceptions: Voters who are physically unable to enter a polling place, at the risk of their health, can still vote at the curbside.
The provision targets Harris County, and others, that operated drive-thru voting locations during the 2020 elections.
Ending straight-ticket voting
Republicans have increasingly turned against straight-ticket voting, an option by which a voter checks just one box to cast a ballot for all of their chosen party’s candidates. Texas has long given voters the option to vote a straight ticket, and Democratic voters have tended to use the option more than have Republicans.
The House version of the bill would end straight-ticket voting.
New powers for poll watchers
Several sections of the bill give new powers to poll watchers, or limit the authority of local elections officials to sanction those who have been sent to observe by a political party.
Article 4 of the bill takes away the authority of a presiding judge to remove a poll watcher who commits any violation that was not observed by the judge or a county clerk. The watchers must be given a warning that they are violating the law before committing a second violation that then gets them the boot.
A section of that article makes it a misdemeanor for an election officer to refuse to accept a poll watcher. Poll watchers will be required to swear an oath not to disrupt the voting process or harass voters. Obstructing a poll watcher’s view would also become an offense.
Poll watchers are given the explicit permission to move freely about a polling location, and to stand near enough to see and hear election officers. They may observe election activities related to closing a polling place, including the sealing and transfer of memory cards and other electronic devices that deliver election results from a polling place to a county election office.
Limits on drop boxes
The new bill requires voters who return their early ballots in person to hand those ballots to an election official, who would record their name and the type of identification they show. That’s a provision meant to limit the use of drop boxes, which larger counties used to collect ballots last year.
New requirements for early voting
Texas already had one of the strictest set of rules in the country for obtaining an absentee ballot. The new measure would put new restrictions on those who want to cast a ballot early.
Under current law, someone who casts an early vote must provide their name and address under which they are registered to vote. The proposed bill also requires those voters to show their driver’s license or personal identification card, or, if they don’t have one of those documents, the last four digits of their Social Security number.
Voters can use an expired license or identification card if they do not have a current document.
Voters voting by absentee must also enter their driver’s license number, identity card number or Social Security digits on the envelope they use to submit absentee ballots.
If voters forget, or neglect, to include all the relevant information on their absentee ballots or early ballots, the new bill would give them at least a partial remedy: They can correct, or “cure,” ballots after being notified of errors by telephone or email, within seven days of an election.
That provision extends to voters who forget to sign outer envelopes or who neglect to include a witness signature.
The bill also gives election administrators wider latitude to accept signatures that might not match those they have on file. Current state law requires an election board to match a signature on a ballot with two or more signatures on file; the new version would drop that to one signature on file with a government agency.
New rules for voting assistance
The bill would place new restrictions on voters who need assistance casting their ballots, and on those who offer that help. Anyone assisting a voter in need must complete a form identifying themselves, their relationship to the voter and whether they accepted any compensation for their assistance from a political candidate or party.
Those who offer assistance must affirm under penalty of perjury that the voter they are helping told them they had a physical disability making them unable to see or write on the ballot. Helpers have to affirm that they limited their assistance to reading the ballot to the voter and marking the voter’s response, and that they did not pressure or coerce the voter they are assisting.
The bill makes it a jailable felony offense to compensate or offer to compensate someone for assisting voters, to accept compensation for assisting voters.
Ban on vote harvesting
A wholly new section of the bill would ban “vote harvesting,” a common practice among political groups of collecting completed absentee ballots from voters to drop off at an election center. Several other states have banned or tried to ban those ballot-collecting measures.
The bill defines vote harvesting services as “in-person interaction with one or more voters, in the presence of the ballot or during the voting process, intended to deliver votes for a specific candidate or measure.”
Bans on unsolicited vote-by-mail applications
Several Texas counties last year sent tens of thousands of voters applications to cast their ballots by mail. Those actions would be barred under the new law unless a voter requests an application to vote by mail.
County election administrators would be barred from spending public money to help a third-party group distribute applications to vote by mail. They would also be barred from distributing early voting ballots to anyone who did not specifically request a ballot by mail.
What’s not in the bill
An earlier version of the bill blocked by House Democrats would have barred some Sunday voting, a tradition that church groups – and especially predominantly Black church groups – use to drive their congregants to the polls. Those “Souls to the Polls” drives would still be allowed under the current bill.
It also leaves out provisions that would have made it easier for challengers to throw out the results of an election.