Republican lawmakers in Texas have advanced a sweeping bill to restrict ballot access by cutting early voting hours and banning drive-through voting sites that proved popular in 2020 elections for one of the largest counties in the US.
If signed into law, the measure would also make it illegal for local elections officials to mail out absentee ballots to voters who did not request them, even if they qualify, and would give partisan poll watchers more power to potentially intimidate voters at the ballot box.
The Texas Senate passed the bill by a vote of 18-13 after roughly seven hours of debate, including objections from Democrats who repeatedly warned lawmakers that the measure – among several similar proposals in state houses across the US – revives and enshrines the legacy of Jim Crow-era voter suppression that disproportionately targets voters of colour.
“I hope that one day you hear us – not only hear us but listen to us,” said state Sen Royce West, who is Black. “Passage of this bill tonight makes clear that on these issues you have not understood our plight in this country.”
The bill heads to the Texas House and has the support of Governor Greg Abbott.
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Restrictions would target Harris County, the third-most populous county in the US and one of the largest. The county – covering the greater Houston area – spans more than 1,700 square miles, with more than 2.4 million registered voters.
In 2020, elections officials set up 24-hour voting and 10 drive-through sites during 2020 elections to improve turnout in the sprawling county, hamstrung by US Postal Service cuts and fears of packed polling places during the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans’ latest bill would ban those sites.
Last year, Republicans repeatedly targeted early voting sites in lawsuits and in an executive order from the governor.
Harris County elections officials found that Black and Hispanic voters likely cast more than half of the votes during extended polling hours and at drive-through sites.
Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement that the latest GOP measure will “gut the foundations of our democracy: Texans’ constitutional right to vote.”
“Texas Republicans are delusional if they expect anyone to accept this legislation without a fight,” he said. “We will fight tooth and nail to stop this bill from being signed into law, and if it is, we will see Republicans in court. An attack on our right to vote is an attack on our communities and our future. We will not be silenced.”
It follows passage of another sweeping set of election laws in Georgia that will make it harder to vote in the state. Dozens of GOP-sponsored proposals in state legislatures across the US are pushing similar restrictions on mail-in voting and cuts to early voting.
In an interview with ESPN on Tuesday night, President Joe Biden said he would “strongly support” Major League Baseball’s decision to move its All-Star Game from Atlanta in the wake of the law’s passage.
“This is Jim Crow on steroids, what they’re doing in Georgia and 40 other states,” he said.
Atlanta-area employers like Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola have also condemned Georgia’s new restrictions, signed into law by Governor Brian Kemp last week.
Voting rights advocates and civil rights groups say the former president Donald Trump’s persistent lie that the election was stolen from him, and his legal team’s attempts to overturn millions of Americans’ votes, has emboldened Republican state lawmakers across the US to do what Mr Trump and his attorneys could not.
Lawmakers have repeatedly invoked “election integrity” and “voter confidence” to defend their bills, despite assurance from election officials across the US defending 2020 results. The former president’s Justice Department and his own campaign found no evidence of widespread voter fraud, and nearly all of the more than 60 lawsuits filed by his campaign were withdrawn, dismissed or dropped entirely by the campaign itself.
Following the US House of Representatives passage of the For The People Act, a major piece of voting rights legislation, Governor Abbott accused Democratic lawmakers in Congress of “trying to institutionalise voter fraud” in the US.
“Everyone knows, including Democrats in Texas … that one of the easiest ways to cheat in elections is through these mail-in ballots,” he told Fox News, without providing any evidence.
The following day, he said: “Right now, I don’t know how many, or if any, elections in the state of Texas in 2020 were altered because of voter fraud.”
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