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Texas GOP launches avalanche of bills to curtail voting



TEXAS – Texas Republicans are rolling out a slew of restrictive election bills, taking particular aim at early voting after Democrats enthusiastically embraced the practice last year.

More than two dozen GOP-sponsored elections bills are under consideration in the Legislature as lawmakers seek to tighten ID requirements and voter rolls, limit early voting and up the penalties for errors. The broad interest — and a mandate from the governor to prioritize election legislation — makes changes to Texas’ election law likely this year.

“We must pass laws to prevent election officials from jeopardizing the election process,” Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday, urging lawmakers to get election integrity bills “to my desk so I can sign it.”

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, a Republican who chairs the State Affairs Committee and introduced a 27-page omnibus bill with several new restrictions and penalties, said the 2020 election increased interest in legislation Texas lawmakers were already keen on.

“This was already in process, but then the 2020 election was so in the national spotlight, and so many people have questions, so many people have concerns,” he told NBC News last week. “I would say that has raised the profile of the issue.”

Former President Donald Trump’s stolen election lie has convinced 3 of every 4 Republicans that there was widespread voter fraud in last year’s election, according to a December Quinnipiac University poll, even though there is broad evidence that it is extremely rare.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office spent 22,000 hours looking for voter fraud and uncovered just 16 cases of false addresses on registration forms, according to The Houston Chronicle. Nearly 17 million voters are registered in Texas.

And while Texas already had some of the most restrictive laws on the books, that isn’t stopping state lawmakers from joining their GOP peers across the country to propose new restrictive bills. Republican legislators in Georgia, Arizona, Florida and Wisconsin — many of whom joined with Trump to cast doubt on the system — are legislating to restrict the vote, arguing that new measures are needed to restore trust in the system.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, lawmakers have introduced at least 253 restrictive bills in 43 states.

Democrats in Texas — and across the country — have countered with proposals to expand voting access, but with GOP control in a majority of state legislatures and in key swing states, the restrictions are increasingly more potent.

“It’s important that the system be fair, but it’s equally important that people know it’s fair, so they’ll participate, so they’ll vote,” said Hughes, who was re-elected in November. He said he wasn’t sure whether the presidential race had been stolen.

Many of the provisions would directly address creative ways that Texans voted during the pandemic, like overnight early voting and drive-thru voting, as well as mail-in voting, which Trump particularly protested.

“If you can name an improvement, there’s a bill that’s been filed to try and eliminate it,” said Cinde Weatherby, who works on voting rights issues with the League of Women Voters Texas. The group opposes restrictive voting laws and advocates for modernizing the state’s election system.

Early voting is a frequent target of the GOP bills, with proposed legislation targeting where and when voters cast their ballots before Election Day.

Harris, the nation’s third-largest county and home to Houston, appears to be a particular target. The county offered drive-thru early voting and overnight early voting last year for its 4.7 million residents to make voting during the pandemic safer and more accessible.

Two Senate bills propose barring tents and garages for early voting, potentially targeting Harris County’s drive-thru early voting, which occurred in tents and garages. Republicans repeatedly sued over drive-thru voting last fall, but the courts refused to toss out the more than 127,000 ballots that were cast that way.

Several bills seek to limit early voting to certain hours or to standardize hours across the state, which would expand early voting in smaller counties while limiting it in the largest counties. All would cut early voting hours in urban, Democratic areas.

State Rep. Jared Patterson, a Republican from Denton County, introduced a bill to limit early voting to the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.

“Momma always said nothing good happens after midnight,” he wrote in a tweet. “That includes at polling places.”

Other proposed legislation targets mail voting, which lawmakers say needs additional precautions to prevent fraud.

Republicans have proposed a bill that would shrink the period when voters could return mail ballots, while another bill would ask voters to mail back photocopies of their driver’s licenses or other qualifying identification with their mail ballots.

Democratic voters in the state were more likely to cast mail ballots in the last election than Republicans, The Texas Tribune reported.

Several bills also seek to ensure that noncitizens stay off the voter rolls and urge election officials to aggressively purge the rolls. And a slew of bills would add or increase penalties for fraud or mistakes made by voters or officials in running elections.

Hughes’ election bill, which he said he expects will be the vehicle for any voting legislation coming out of the Senate, would impose civil fines on local officials who don’t purge their voter rolls quickly enough — $100 for every voter the secretary of state’s office identifies as improperly being on the books.

Several of the bills seem aimed at preventing things that happened elsewhere in the U.S.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican from Harris County, has sponsored a bill that would prohibit election officials from waiving signature match requirements on mail ballots, which he said hasn’t happened in Texas.

“We saw it in Atlanta, Pennsylvania — Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee,” he said, pointing to many of the Democratic cities with large populations of Black voters that Trump’s allies baselessly accused of orchestrating a large voter fraud campaign to steal the election.

A court ruling waived Pennsylvania’s signature match requirements in ballot verification last year, but the three other cities verified voters who cast mail ballots. In Wisconsin, voters verified their identities by including copies of their photo IDs on the ballot application, and witnesses were required to sign affidavits on that ballot. Georgia and Michigan also verify signature matches on mail ballots.

Pressed on that, Bettencourt said it didn’t matter.

“Just the fact that we saw it in Pennsylvania for sure is enough,” he said. “We just don’t want election officials going down that path here.”