While the state legislature can only meet for 140 days every other year without a call from the governor, Gov. Greg Abbott said he would bring the legislature back for lawmakers to revive and finally pass the election reform.
That special session began on Thursday when both the state House and Senate gaveled in for the first time since May.
Like in the regular session, each chamber has filed its own new omnibus election bills.
Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), the chair of the Senate State Affairs committee where election bills are typically referred, filed Senate Bill (SB) 1.
SB 1 was referred to Hughes’ committee and scheduled for a hearing on Saturday at 11:00 a.m.
In the House, while Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) authored the version during the regular session and chairs the Elections Committee, Rep. Andrew Murr (R-Junction) filed the new omnibus bill, House Bill (HB) 3.
Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) also created a new “House Select Committee on Constitutional Rights and Remedies,” which has jurisdiction over “all matters pertaining to [. . .] the design, stability, and integrity of democratic institutions responsible for the enforcement and protection of constitutional rights and their statutory guarantees.”
HB 3 was read and referred to Phelan’s new committee, which is chaired by Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) and vice-chaired by Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston), and a hearing has also been scheduled for Saturday at 8:00 a.m.
While the 52-page Senate bill and 47-page House bill are similar with many identical sections, there are some key differences between the two versions that will ultimately need to be worked out between the two chambers if a single bill is to reach Abbott’s desk.
Some of the differences are smaller, such as the Senate’s restriction of the minimum nine or 12 hours of early voting — depending on the size of the county, which is also different in the two versions — to between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. instead of the House’s time frame between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Other differences are more significant, such as the House’s lack of a required livestream feed of a central counting station in large counties and a clarification that communications between government officials and voting systems vendors are subject to open record requests.
Policies that were intended to push back against policies that Harris County experimented with in the 2020 election — such as drive-through voting and soliciting mail ballot applications — are also more tempered in the House version.
SB 1 explicitly prohibits polling places in “a tent or similar temporary movable structure or a parking garage, parking lot, or similar facility designed primarily for motor vehicles,” while HB 3 states that a polling place “may not be located in a movable structure” — text identical to another portion of the Senate bill.
Although both bills contain text to crack down on vote harvesting, the House version differs from the bill that nearly passed in May and the Senate version in that it does not contain a provision to allow candidates or political parties to sue for compensation.
Notably, both chambers took out a previously included provision to limit voting hours to later on certain Sundays, which Democrats had criticized as targeting “souls to the polls” traditions common in African American churches.
Requiring voter identification for voting by mail was kept in both versions.
SB 1 and HB 3 are not the only election bills put forward by Republicans, though.
Phelan had floated an idea for the Texas Legislature to pass election reform priorities through a piecemeal approach instead of a single omnibus bill and that could still happen.
Other election bills filed by Republicans include:
- SB 22 from Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) relating to identification requirements for early voting by mail.
- SB 25 from Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) relating to procedures for early voting by mail or voting by mail.
- SB 27 from Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) relating to the management of polling place locations during a continuous period for voting.
- SB 31 from Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) relating to the use of certain information regarding voter qualification.
- HB 88 from Rep. Dennis Paul (R-Houston) relating to hours of service by an election watcher.
- HB 94 from Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) relating to ineligibility to serve as a poll watcher.
- HB 100 from Paul relating to practices and procedures for an early voting ballot voted by mail.
- HB 101 from Rep. Mike Schofield (R-Katy) relating to the creation, alteration, or suspension of any voting standard, practice, or procedure authorized or required by the Election Code.
- HB 102 from Schofield relating to the creation, suspension, or alteration of voting standards, practices, or procedures.
- HB 123 from Rep. Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound) relating to the security of voted ballots.
- HB 125 from Parker relating to the security of electronic voting system media.
- HB 162 from Rep. Stephanie Klick (R-Fort Worth) relating to the use of information from the lists of noncitizens and nonresidents excused or disqualified from jury service.
Regardless of Republican lawmakers’ strategy in reforming the state’s election code, the issue is expected to continue to be a lightning rod.
The Texas House Democratic Caucus held a press conference after the opening of the special session and its members were sharply critical of the new legislation.
Rep. Chris Turner (R-Grand Prairie), the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said that HB 3 “is based on a lie.”
“It’s based on a lie that there’s rampant problems in our elections, and the big lie that Donald Trump actually won the last election,” said Turner. “That’s what this is about. All across the country, you see Republicans clamoring to pass these anti-voter bills so they can curry favor with Donald Trump and his supporters.”
“So that bill — whatever it says in it — is inherently flawed,” said Turner. He said that HB 3 contains “a number of problematic provisions” that would be addressed at other times.
Turner was also sharply critical of the governor, who he said is “focused on 2022, perhaps focused on 2024” because of the agenda of the special session and his veto of the portion of the state budget that funds the legislative branch.
Abbott vetoed the legislative funding in response to the Democrats’ walkout.
Though Abbott previously said that if he called a special session, he would place items on the agenda “one item at a time” as each item is passed, he reversed course on that strategy and issued 11 items at once — including both election reform and the legislative funding.
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Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.