The bill would limit mail-in ballots, early voting and drive-in access, and adds to the national debate about voting rights.
Texas joined other Republican-controlled states on Friday in advancing a slew of new voting restrictions, defying opposition from many of the state’s businesses and adding to a fierce national debate over voting rights.
The state House of Representatives in Austin voted largely along party lines to give the legislation approval on Friday after hours of debate, the Reuters news agency reported.
Members of the Texas House and state Senate, which passed its own bill imposing voting limits last month, will now work to reconcile the two bills before sending a finalised version to Republican Governor Greg Abbott.
Abbott has indicated he will sign the legislation and tweeted on his support on Friday.
This bill will help ensure that we have trust & confidence in the outcome of our elections.
One step closer to my desk & making it TX law.
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) May 7, 2021
Texas Democrats have virtually no path to stop the bill in the Republican-controlled legislature and they warned of legal fights ahead, The Associated Press reported.
“You have your vote, you have your majority. But guess what? I look forward to seeing you in federal court,” said Democratic state Representative Trey Martinez Fischer before a final procedural vote Friday afternoon that sent the bill back to the Senate. He added that “history is on our side”.
Other states Georgia, Florida and Iowa have enacted Republican-backed voting curbs after Republican former President Donald Trump falsely claimed his loss to Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 election was the result of massive voter fraud.
Republicans in Ohio and Michigan are also pressing forwards with overhauls of various election procedures.
The Texas House bill gives more access to partisan poll watchers and bars election officials from sending unsolicited mail-in ballot applications to voters, among other restrictions.
The Senate bill includes limits on early voting and would prohibit 24-hour polling sites and drive-through voting, both changes that Harris County – home to Houston, the US’s fourth-largest city – made last year during the coronavirus pandemic.
Republican sponsors of the bills said they are intended to prevent voter fraud while bolstering election integrity and public confidence in balloting.
“This bill is about protecting voters,” Republican Representative Briscoe Cain said during the House floor debate.
Democrats and civil rights groups counter that there is no evidence of widespread ballot tampering, and argue that such legislation disproportionately burdens or discourages voters of colour, as well as the elderly and disabled people.
Voting rights advocates said Texas already has in place some of the highest barriers to voting of any state.
“In short, this bill is nothing but voter suppression,” Jasmine Crockett, a lawyer and first-term Democrat, said on the House floor.
On May 5, dozens of companies – including American Airlines Group Inc, Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co and Microsoft Corp – urged legislators to reject any proposed law that would restrict access to ballots.
Voting by mail, and early voting in general, surged during the 2020 election as voters sought to avoid ballot-box queues in the midst of the pandemic.
The Texas vote came a day after Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, signed a new law making it more difficult for voters to cast ballots by mail or to use ballot drop boxes.
In March, Georgia adopted a Republican-backed law that included sweeping new restrictions, sparking backlash from major US corporations and prompting Major League Baseball to move its All-Star Game from Atlanta in protest. Delta Air Lines blasted the new Georgia law as “unacceptable”.
More than three months after Biden was sworn in, Trump has continued to assert that the election was stolen. Courts have rejected those claims in more than 60 lawsuits challenging the results.
“We are seeing the strong effect of President Trump’s big lie. We are seeing the Republican Party go all-in on supporting him and his lies,” said Sylvia Albert, voting and elections director for Common Cause, which advocates for expanded voter access.