Gov. Abbott signs controversial Texas election reform bill into law
Do you support or oppose Texas's reforms to its election laws?
By Eric Revell, Countable News
What’s the story?
- Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) on Tuesday signed a controversial election reform bill into law that advocates say contains common-sense election reforms while detractors argue it unfairly restricts voting options used by minority groups.
- Republicans in the legislature passed the bill along party-line votes of 80-41, 1 present in the House; and 18-13 in the Senate. Abbott released the following statement about the enactment of Senate Bill 1:
"Senate Bill 1 ensures trust and confidence in our elections system — and most importantly, it makes it easier to vote and harder to cheat. Safe and secure elections are critical to the foundation of our state, and I thank Senator Hughes and Representative Murr for their leadership on this important issue. I am proud to sign Senate Bill 1 into law to uphold the integrity of our elections in Texas."
- Texas Democrats in the legislature blocked the bill by breaking quorum in June and July. On the latter occasion, a number of lawmakers fled the state to go to Washington, D.C. and Portugal to stall the bill. Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa (D) offered the following statement on the bill:
“S.B. 1 is a racist, anti-democracy bill that will cement Texas’s ranking as the hardest state in the country to vote in. Abbott has signed into law a bill that will make it harder to vote by mail, embolden partisan poll watchers and pave the way for voter intimidation, put up additional barriers to voting for Texans with disabilities, limit voting options by banning drive-thru voting — overwhelmingly used by working people and voters of color — and slashing the early voting window, and make election workers vulnerable to lawsuits.”
What’s in the Texas election reform law?
- The new Texas law standardizes early voting hours across the state by requiring counties to offer early voting during certain timeframes, as prior law required early voting to be held during “regular business hours” which were variable between counties.
- Counties will be required to hold at least 9 hours of voting per day in the first week of early voting, starting as early as 6am and ending as late as 10pm local time; and requires at least 12 hours of early voting per day in the last week of early voting in larger counties.
- During the final week of early voting in larger counties, 12 hours of voting will be mandated on Saturday and six hours on Sunday. Smaller counties with fewer than 1,000 voters will be permitted to hold fewer early voting hours during the final week.
- County officials are prohibited from offering early voting for 24 hours a day; and from offering drive-thru voting or early voting in a “moveable structure.” (Harris County offered both in 2020 for the first time due to COVID-19.)
- Employers are required to permit a person under their authority to be absent from work on election day or while early voting is in progress to allow them to attend their polling place to vote.
ABSENTEE / MAIL VOTING
- Voters will be required to provide the number on their driver’s license, other state-issued ID (including an expired ID), or the last four digits of their Social Security number when they request an absentee ballot. (Texas will also continue to use its signature matching process under current law to verify absentee ballots.)
- The new law makes it a felony for an elections official to solicit the submission of a vote by mail application from a person who didn’t request an application; distribute a vote by mail application to a person who didn’t request it unless they were expressly authorized by another part of the election code; authorize the use of public funds to allow a third-party to distribute vote by mail applications; or complete any portion of a vote by mail application distributed to an applicant unless they’re providing lawful assistance.
- The above restrictions apply to both absentee and vote by mail applications sent to voters who are either eligible or ineligible to vote absentee or by mail.
- Officials will be required to notify voters if their absentee ballot is missing a signature, has a mismatched signature, or contains other incomplete information to give them an opportunity to fix (or “cure”) the ballot so their vote counts.
- Within two days of discovering a ballot defect and before the committee decides whether to accept or reject a timely delivered ballot, the signature verification committee will be required to determine if it’s possible for the voter to correct the defect and return the envelope before polls close on election day and return it to the voter by mail.
- If the committee determines that it wouldn’t be possible for the voter to correct the defect and return it before polls close on election day, the committee can notify the voter of the defect by telephone or e-mail and inform the voter that they can cancel their vote by mail request or come to the early voting clerk’s office in person within six days of election day to correct the defect.
- Poll watchers entitled to observe an activity will also be entitled to sit or stand “near enough to see and hear” the election activity or procedure.
- Poll watchers are allowed to observe the sealing and transfer of a memory card, flash drive, hard drive, data storage device, or another medium now existing or later developed and used by voting system equipment.
- They’re also entitled to observe the delivery of ballots in a manner that allows them to determine how the ballots are delivered and potentially how election officials are making decisions about the delivery of ballots. A poll watcher is not allowed to disrupt the process of delivering ballots.
- An elections official would commit a Class A misdemeanor if they intentionally or knowingly refuse to accept a poll watcher for service who is required to be accepted by law. Obstructing a poll watcher’s ability to observe activities and procedures they’re lawfully permitted to view in a manner that makes observation not reasonably effective (including by distancing them from the activity) is a violation of the election code under the new law. Poll watchers and their appointing authority could seek injunctive relief for violations of this provision.
- A county’s election records custodian will be required to post a licensed peace officer at the central counting station. A video surveillance system is required in all areas where voted ballots are held in counties with a population of at least 100,000 people. The video surveillance is to be made available to the public through a livestream.
- Judges are prohibited from having a duly accepted poll watcher removed from a polling place unless they violate the penal code or an election judge or clerk observed a violation of election. A presiding judge can call law enforcement to remove a poll watcher who commits a breach of the peace or violates the law.
- The law prohibits paid vote harvesting (also known as ballot harvesting) in which a person collects the ballots of others and receives a benefit or payment for their services from a candidate, campaign, or third party. "Benefit" is defined by the bill as a promise or offer of employment, a favorable discretionary official act, or a benefit to any person in whose welfare the beneficiary has an interest.
- The law will clarify that the paid vote harvesting prohibition doesn’t include political speech or other acts that merely involve promotion of a candidate or measure; interactions that don’t occur in the presence of the ballot, directly don’t involve an official ballot, or aren’t conducted in-person with a voter; or any activity that isn’t designed to deliver votes for or against a specific candidate or measure.
- It will be a third-degree felony to knowingly provide paid vote harvesting services or to possess a mail ballot in connection with vote harvesting services.
- Existing Texas law allows an assistant to help a voter with marking or reading a ballot due to physical disabilities or language barriers, and the new election reforms modify some of the certifications and attestations required under the process.
- Under the new law, a person who assists a voter and isn’t an elections official will be required to complete a form stating the name and address of the person assisting the voter; their relationship to the voter; and whether the assistant received or accepted any form of compensation from a candidate, campaign, or political committee. The form will be submitted along with an early voting ballot by mail or to an elections officer at a polling place.
- The assistant will be required to swear under penalty of perjury that the voter represented to the assistant that they’re eligible for assistance; that the assistant confined their help to reading, marking, or directing the marking of the ballot; did not pressure or coerce the voter into choosing them; will not communicate information about how the person voted to anyone else; and that the assistant knows a ballot may not be counted if they provide assistance to someone who isn’t eligible.
- Violations of the certification requirement would not apply if the voter is an assistant’s parent or child (first-degree relatives); brother, sister, grandparent, or grandchild (second-degree relatives); great-grandparent, great-grandchild, or other third-degree relatives; or they’re married to a second-degree relative. An additional exemption would be granted if the person assisting a voter is an attendant or caregiver previously known to the voter.
- The law revises criminal definitions related to providing unlawful election assistance to a voter by clarifying that it’s a crime to offer to compensate a person for providing unlawful assistance to voters, or to solicit or receive compensation for providing unlawful assistance (compensation defined as an economic benefit). It will be a third-degree felony to offer or provide unlawful assistance to a voter.
- The bill would make it a felony to alter another voter’s ballot to not reflect the voter’s intent; prevent an eligible voter from casting a legal ballot; provide false information to a voter to prevent them from voting; cause a ballot to be voted for another person known to be deceased or not a qualified voter; cause or enable a vote to be cast more than once in the same election; or discard or destroy a voter’s completed ballot without the voter’s consent.
- Public officials and election officials are prohibited from creating, altering, modifying, waiving, or suspending any election standard, practice, or procedure mandated by law or rule in a manner not expressly authorized by the Texas election code.
- The Texas Supreme Court and appellate courts will be required to prioritize proceedings related to injunctive relief under the election code for alleged offenses if the claim is filed on or after the 70th day before a general or special election. If an oral argument for a proceeding is granted it may be given in person or through electronic means as determined by the court.
POLLING PLACE PROCEDURES
- The secretary of state is required to create and distribute a checklist for procedures related to opening and closing a polling place each day to assist a presiding judge in processing forms and conducting procedures required by the Texas election code.
- A voter who hasn’t voted before the scheduled time for closing a polling place will be entitled to vote if they’re in line at the polling place by closing time. The secretary of state will provide materials and any necessary training presiding judges necessary to properly process voters.
- Polling places are required to maintain a register of spoiled ballots at the location. The secretary of state will create and distribute a form to be used for the purpose of registering the name of a voter who returns a spoiled ballot and the spoiled ballot’s number.
- Courts are required to inform individuals convicted of felonies in Texas about how their conviction affects their right to vote.
- The new law precludes individuals from being convicted of a crime “solely” for voting a provisional ballot while unknowingly ineligible to vote.
- Texas Democrats Break Quorum, Flee Austin to Stop Republicans’ Election Bill (7/12/21)
- Texas Democrats Stage Walkout to Deny GOP Majority's Quorum & Block Election Bill (6/1/21)
(Photo Credit: Abbott: Gage Skidmore via Flickr / Creative Commons)
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