87th LegislatureState HouseState SenateHere’s What’s Inside the Latest Version of Texas’ GOP Election Reform Bill

From clarifying when polling locations can be opened to clamping down on vote harvesting, here are some of the major provisions in the Texas election reform bill.
August 23, 2021
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With the return of a quorum in the Texas House, Republicans in the lower chamber are expected to be quick to consider Senate Bill (SB) 1, the omnibus GOP election reform bill authored by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) that was already approved by the Senate.

Lawmakers have until September 5 to pass the legislation before the end of the 30-day special session.

If the House approves the legislation as sent to them by the Senate, then the bill will go straight to Gov. Abbott’s desk.

However, if any changes are made to the bill, then the Senate will need to either agree to those amendments or send SB 1 to a conference committee to work out the differences.

While hyperbolic rhetoric from some Democrats purports that SB 1 will drastically suppress votes, Republicans point out that the bill does not contain any provisions that would prevent legal voters from casting their ballot and could even make voting easier.

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The following is a look at some of the most contested — or touted, depending on who you ask — provisions of the legislation.

Drive-Thru Voting

One of the main areas of contention has been clarified restrictions on how county officials can conduct elections, particularly as related to drive-thru voting, 24-hour voting, and distributing unsolicited mail ballot applications — all policies that Harris County experimented with in some precincts for the 2020 general election.

While curbside voting has been permitted for individuals with disabilities who may not easily be able to enter a polling place, a wide-scale operation of drive-thru voting had not been implemented until last year.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton warned that the practice was in violation of state law, and a lawsuit was filed against the county for the sites. The judge dismissed it on the grounds that the plaintiffs did not have standing but indicated he otherwise might have had to shut down the 10 drive-thru sites.

SB 1 would update the election code to clearly prohibit most uses of temporary structures in early voting and clarify that only curbside voting for disabled individuals is permitted.

24-Hour Voting

Similarly, Harris County implemented 24-hour voting at some polling locations for a short period during early voting in November. Voting hours in previous elections typically went no later than 7:00 p.m. 

Under current state code, hours for early voting are supposed to be limited to the “hours that the county clerk’s or city secretary’s main business office is regularly open for business.”

The change proposed by SB 1 would strike that language and state more specifically that “voting may not be conducted earlier than 6 a.m. or later than 9 p.m.” Furthermore, it would increase the minimum amount of hours the polls are legally required to be open by one hour.

Voting would also be expanded under the legislation by requiring employers to allow employees to time off to vote during early voting and not just on election day.

Unsolicited Mail Ballot Applications

Again in Harris County, the interim clerk during the 2020 general election planned to send unsolicited mail ballot applications to all of the county’s voters, but the effort was halted by the Texas Supreme Court.

SB 1 would codify a prohibition on early voting clerks from soliciting anyone to complete a mail ballot application.

The bill does not prohibit early voting clerks from sending out other election information to individuals, but voters themselves would need to request mail ballot applications.

Poll Watchers

One of the common concerns raised about SB 1 has been that it would empower “partisan poll watchers” to intimidate voters at polling places.

Republicans contend that the provisions that increase poll watchers’ ability to monitor elections will ensure that election officers are held accountable for properly conducting the election process.

SB 1 would create an offense for election officers who refuse the service of lawfully present poll watchers, require watchers to be allowed free movement to perform their responsibilities, and create a relief process in case watchers are obstructed.

However, watchers are still prohibited from seeing how a person votes and the bill also creates a provision requiring watchers to take an oath to not disrupt the process or harass voters.

Despite the concerns expressed by Democrats, there is no evidence of widespread voter intimidation by poll watchers.

Though there is no central location to report concerns about voter intimidation, the Texas Civil Rights Project published a report on instances of voter intimidation based on calls to a hotline.

That report noted instances of bombastic individuals driving around polling places and even indicated that “law enforcement presence at polling locations” — such as a border patrol agent parked outside a polling location in El Paso — can “be intimidating to voters.”

However, the report contains no mention of partisan poll watchers causing disruption or intimidating voters at the polls.

Mail Ballot Application ID

As passed by the Senate, SB 1 would extend the voting ID requirement for in-person voting in Texas to also apply to mail ballot applications.

Individuals would be required to list either their driver’s license number, the last four digits of their social security number, or swear that they have not been assigned either identifying number.

After concern was raised about the possible rejection of ballots if one ID number is used with registration and a different number is used with the application, Hughes accepted a floor amendment from Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) to allow a cure process for corrections in this scenario.

Vote Harvesting Restrictions

One of the key portions of the bill emphasized by Republicans is its attempt at clamping down on vote harvesting schemes.

“Voters are trying to get it right [. . .] but there are paid political operatives and criminals who are getting in between the voter and her ballot. And we’re not going to let that happen,” said Hughes at a rally outside of the Capitol earlier in August.

“We’re talking about ballot harvesters, we’re talking about cheaters who mislead voters, make voters think they’re helping them and they’re really not. That’s what this bill is about.”

At events such as that one, Hughes has frequently cited sworn court testimony from a voter in the Rio Grande Valley who was not familiar with the voting process and was manipulated into voting by a ballot harvester.

“By the time I told her, ‘Okay, let me [. . .] vote on my own,’ she said, ‘No, you already voted,’” Hughes read of the testimony.

The legislation approved by the Senate would create a third-degree felony for exchanging “vote harvesting services” for any benefit.

Under SB 1, vote harvesting would include “in-person interaction with one or more voters, in the physical presence” of a ballot or mail ballot application that is “intended to deliver votes for a specific candidate or measure.”

In addition to the criminal penalty, the legislation would also open up the door to civil liability for candidates or political parties that can demonstrate vote harvesting took place to file a lawsuit for compensation — even if the vote harvesting was unsuccessful in swaying the election.

Voting Assistant Regulations

Along the lines of adding safeguards against vote harvesting, the election bill would establish some new regulations relating to individuals who assist voters at the polls.

Under the legislation, if someone simultaneously transports three or more non-relatives to the polls to vote, they must fill out a form containing their name and address.

A similar form is also needed to be completed with the name, address, and relationship to the voter for any individual providing assistance to someone in the actual act of voting.

People who assist voters are already required to take an oath, but SB 1 would add some revisions to that oath so that they swear they “did not encourage, pressure, or coerce the voter into choosing” them as an assistant.

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Daniel Friend

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.