Texas appears to be paying a secretive Republican political operative $120,000 annually to work behind the scenes on redistricting

A Republican redistricting operative whose clandestine work helped drag Wisconsin into a legal morass last decade appears to now be on the payroll of the Texas Legislature as lawmakers work to redraw maps that will determine the distribution of political power for years to come.

The operative, Adam Foltz, was part of the team that helped craft Wisconsin's legislative maps after Republicans took control of that state Legislature in 2010. Foltz played a key role in a tight-lipped and questionable redrawing process that shut out Democrats and drew the condemnation of federal judges who described it as "needlessly secret," according to court records.

Foltz may now be playing a behind-the-scenes role in Texas. The Capitol's internal staff directory, to which The Texas Tribune obtained access, shows Foltz is working for the House Redistricting Committee. His office and phone number in that directory match those of the committee's staff office in the Capitol basement, but at least one Democrat on the committee said they had not been advised of his involvement. Foltz has not been a visible part of the committee's public-facing work.

Though Foltz is assigned to the House Redistricting Committee, state employment records show that Foltz is actually on the payroll of the Texas Legislative Council, a nonpartisan state agency that supports the Legislature in drafting and analyzing proposed legislation — and manages the internal mapping tool lawmakers use to redraw political maps. During the redistricting process, the council also plays a crucial role in providing demographic and election results for lawmakers' proposed maps.

Records show Foltz was hired by the agency under the title of "legislative professional" on May 17 at a $120,000 annual salary. But Kimberly Shields, the council's assistant executive director, said in an email that Foltz reports to state Rep. Todd Hunter, the Corpus Christi Republican who chairs the redistricting committee.

"While Mr. Foltz is on the legislative council payroll, he is considered an employee of the House Redistricting Committee, and his hiring and duties are entirely within the purview of Chairman Hunter," Shields said in an email. "The council provides support on request to the house and senate in many situations, including occasionally covering the salary of a staff member. We don't have any other committee employees on our payroll."

Hunter did not respond to questions about Foltz's involvement in the mapping process.

"The work of redistricting is never easy, but I am fully committed to a fair process and I look forward to working with my fellow members of this committee on the task at hand," Hunter said in a February statement when he was first appointed to chair the committee by House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont.

A request for comment to the staff email assigned to Foltz also went unanswered. A spokesperson for Phelan declined to comment and referred questions to Hunter.

Texas lawmakers are currently in session in Austin to redraw the state's legislative and congressional maps to reflect a decade's worth of population growth. The census showed people of color were behind 95% of the state's growth since 2010 — about 4 million new residents — with Hispanic Texans responsible for half of that growth.

The redistricting process has always been complex and contentious in Texas, requiring repeated federal intervention to protect Hispanic and Black voters. In each of the last four redistricting cycles, either a federal court or the U.S. Department of Justice determined that Texas did not comply with federal protections for those voters. This year's effort will mark the first time in decades that Texas lawmakers — Republicans are again in full control of the process — will be allowed to redraw maps without the federal supervision that prevented states with discriminatory track records from enacting new maps until they were reviewed to ensure they didn't pull back on the voting rights of people of color.

Foltz's involvement in Wisconsin's 2011 redistricting was shrouded in controversy. He was hired as a staff member for the Speaker of the Assembly to help redraw the state's maps following the 2010 census. Though he was an aide to the speaker, Foltz and another staffer worked out of a law firm that was also brought on to help with the process.

He held meetings there under what a federal court called a "cloak of secrecy" with every Republican member of the State Assembly — but no Democrats — who were each required to sign confidentiality agreements that bound them from discussing what was said. Despite Republican efforts to keep them secret, documents released during the litigation over the maps Foltz helped draw showed that he was also asked to help witnesses prepare their public testimony in support of them.

A federal court that considered the state's maps eventually found violations of the Voting Rights Act in two assembly districts where map drawers improperly diluted the vote of Latinos. In that ruling, the court said the drafting of the maps was "needlessly secret, regrettably excluding input from the overwhelming majority of Wisconsin citizens."

As the case dragged on over legal squabbles about emails Republicans had not initially turned over, the court criticized the secretive process in which Foltz was involved while he worked on the maps from the offices of the private law firm.

"Without a doubt, the Legislature made a conscious choice to involve private lawyers in what gives every appearance of an attempt — albeit poorly disguised — to cloak the private machinations of Wisconsin's Republican legislators in the shroud of attorney-client privilege," the court said in a 2012 ruling. "What could have — indeed should have — been accomplished publicly instead took place in private, in an all but shameful attempt to hide the redistricting process from public scrutiny."


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In a changing Texas, Republicans will begin redistricting with more freedom to draw their maps

The 2020 census captured a Texas that does not exist in its halls of power: a diverse state that is growing almost exclusively because of people of color and where the Hispanic and white populations are nearly equal in size.

But when the Texas Legislature convenes Monday to do the work of incorporating a decade's worth of population growth into new political maps, the Republicans in charge — nearly all of whom are white — will have a freer hand to cement their power and try to shield themselves from the change that growth represents.

The 2021 redistricting cycle will mark the first time in nearly half a century that a Legislature with a lengthy record of discriminating against voters of color will be able to redraw political districts without federal oversight designed to keep harmful maps from immediately going into effect.

And now, once those maps are enacted, the voters of color and civil rights groups that for decades have fought discrimination in the courts may face a federal judiciary less willing to doubt lawmakers' partisan motivations — even if they come at the expense of Hispanic and Black Texans.

"I hate to be an alarmist. I want to look for the silver lining, but I don't see one," said Jose Garza, a veteran civil rights attorney who has represented the Texas House's Mexican American Legislative Caucus for a decade. "I think that this is a time of great opportunity for the Republicans."

The Legislature's work during this month's special legislative session will include the complex and contentious process of redrawing maps for Congress, the Texas House, the Texas Senate and the State Board of Education to evenly distribute the state's fast-growing population. On the congressional front, lawmakers must also reconfigure the map to incorporate the two additional districts the state earned because of its growth.

Like most other states, Texas leaves this task to the same lawmakers whose individual electoral survival and collective political dominance depend on how district boundaries are set up.

Former President Donald Trump claimed 52% of the vote in last year's election, but Republicans hold 64% of the state's seats in Congress, 58% of seats in the Texas Senate and 55% of seats in the Texas House. The GOP, however, is facing demographic changes that fundamentally work against the party's efforts to maintain or even bolster its majorities in the statehouse and in the state's congressional delegation.

Republicans disproportionately rely on white voters to elect them, but people of color were behind 95% of the state's population growth since 2010. Hispanic Texans alone were responsible for half of that increase. And the 2020 census found that the Hispanic population — 39.3% of the total population — was nearly equal in size to the non-Hispanic white population, which makes up 39.8%.

What's more, population growth over the last decade was largely concentrated in areas where Republicans are faltering. The state's suburbs, many of which have turned blue in recent years or are trending in that direction, grew the fastest. Meanwhile, the state's five most populous counties — Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Travis and Tarrant — became home to roughly 44% of the state's 4 million new residents. Harris, Dallas, Bexar and Travis are decisively blue counties. Tarrant, which is historically red but voted Democratic at the top of the ticket in 2018 and 2020, actually saw its white population decrease by more than 30,000 in the last decade.

Despite the challenging demographic landscape, the U.S. Supreme Court paved an easier road to Republican dominance with two highly consequential rulings in the last decade.

In 2013, the high court scrapped the federal Voting Rights Act's long-standing safeguard, known as preclearance, that prevented states with discriminatory track records like Texas from enacting new voting rules or maps without first getting federal approval to ensure that they didn't pull back on the voting rights of people of color. Years later, the court also ruled that federal judges cannot limit partisan gerrymandering, giving lawmakers even more freedom to justify extreme revisions to their maps by citing political motives.

"They've got a shield that they can discriminate against [people of color] and say it's all about partisanship and there's not going to be any review from Washington, D.C., on what they do," Garza said. "They have this great strength because they control all the seats of power and don't have [preclearance], but they also have this sense of desperation because so many of their districts are severely underpopulated. I think that's a formula for disaster for the minority community and for Democrats."

During the last redistricting cycle, Republicans defended their maps by arguing that they were drawn based on partisan advantage, rather than race. But federal judges eventually ruled that lawmakers intentionally discriminated against Hispanic and Black voters by giving them less say in choosing who represents them in the Texas House and in Congress. In districts where lawmakers supposedly used race in the name of complying with the Voting Rights Act, which is allowed, the judges found they instead "turned the VRA on its head" by unnecessarily crowding Hispanic voters into certain districts.

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Texas GOP doubles down on voter suppression push -- targeting veterans, the elderly and voters with disabilities

Texas GOP doubles down on voter suppression push -- targeting veterans, the elderly and voters with disabilities

For decades and in that round of mapmaking, preclearance — which was granted by the U.S. Department of Justice or a Washington federal court — served as a critical safeguard to political redistricting in a state with a tradition of suppressing Hispanic and Black voters by blocking the Legislature's initial maps from being used.

Under that regime, the Department of Justice lodged objections to Texas' maps at least eight times in less than three decades. In total, the department objected to 207 voting changes made in Texas in that time period — more than in any other state subject to preclearance.

The last time a Washington federal court refused to clear the Legislature's maps in 2012, it noted the case against the state included "more evidence of discriminatory intent than we have space, or need, to address here."

Republicans in charge of the process in the House and Senate, whose offices did not respond to interview requests for this article, have so far said they are taking a transparent and cordial approach to what's often a contentious process.

"As you know, the legal issues around redistricting are complex and continually evolving," state Sen. Joan Huffman recently told other senators on the chamber's redistricting committee, which she chairs. "Please know that I continue to be committed to a fair, transparent and legal process, and I encourage participation and input from each of you as we work together toward this goal."

When he was appointed to chair the House's committee, state Rep. Todd Hunter acknowledged in a statement that redistricting "is never easy" but promised he was "fully committed to a fair process."

But since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Texas has not made it through a single decade without a federal court ruling that it violated that federal law or the U.S. Constitution and ordering it to correct its legal mistakes.

"Certainly is it the case that the Legislature has demonstrated it has zero institutional memory when it comes to redistricting — and that could be a willful ignorance on its part," said Nina Perales, the vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who has challenged the state's maps in the last two redistricting cycles. "If the past can tell us anything about the future, it would be that Texas turns a blind eye to the court rulings of the past that found discrimination."

Though lawmakers this year will be deciphering how the future of representation and political control will shape up, the echoes of legislative work from a decade ago are ringing loudly. Ten years ago, Republicans also controlled the entire process, had a roster of nearly all white lawmakers and were confronting census numbers that showed people of color had accounted for nearly all of the state's population gains.

At a committee hearing in 2011, a lawmaker asked Perales what lawmakers should keep in mind in that year's redistricting effort given the state's previous missteps. The lesson, she told them at the time, is that we should not repeat past mistakes.

Those dynamics are reverberating so profoundly that Perales unintentionally quoted herself in imploring today's lawmakers to not extend the state's long-running practice of violating the voting rights of people of color in redistricting.

"Redistricting plans should avoid the mistakes of the past," Perales told the Texas Senate's committee on redistricting in a public hearing last week.

As in 2011, this year's deliberations will be backdropped by months of debates over whether the Legislature is sufficiently acknowledging the different lived realities of Texans based on their race.

A decade ago, lawmakers were fighting over Republican legislation to allow law enforcement to ask about the immigration status of people they detained, as well as a new stringent voter ID law that was later found to have discriminated against Hispanic and Black voters. Democrats repeatedly warned those proposals would disproportionately burden people of color; Republicans dismissed those concerns.

This spring, the regular legislative session was dominated by clashes over legislation to restrict how the legacy of racism can be taught in Texas schools, plus sweeping legislation to create new restrictions on voting that Democrats said would raise new barriers for marginalized voters, especially voters of color.

Debates on the former featured tense exchanges between Democrats of color and white Republicans who appeared to reject the idea that some of the country's founding principles, including the three-fifths clause of the U.S. Constitution, were racist, instead describing slavery as a "deviation" from those principles.

At one point, House Speaker Dade Phelan asked lawmakers to avoid even using the word "racism" during a floor debate on the voting bill.

"The level of anti-minority legislation that came out of this session of the Legislature, in my mind, far exceeds anything we've seen in recent memory," said Gary Bledsoe, the longtime president of the Texas chapter of the NAACP, which has previously challenged the state's redistricting work. "This session is a throwback. It seems like the idea of turning back the hands of time to go back to another era seems to be motivating individuals."

With redistricting up next on the docket, Bledsoe said he anticipated for the state's new maps to be built on the suppressed votes he believes will result from the state's new voting restrictions.

"All of this works together," Bledsoe said. "All that fits hand in hand so when you come out with marginal seats or seats that may be more at risk because you're trying to take too many seats, that gives you your chance."

Texas House advances voting restrictions as Democratic hopes of killing the legislation wane

After months of drama and political resistance, the curtain lowered Thursday on Democratic attempts to stave off a far-reaching rewrite of the state's voting laws coveted by Republicans seeking to retain their hold on power in a changing Texas.

One week after finally regaining enough members to conduct business, the Texas House slogged through a 12-hour floor debate before signing off on a slightly revised version of the Republican legislation that first prompted Democrats to stage a nearly six-week absence from the Capitol. The late night 79-37 vote on Senate Bill 1 moves the state closer to enacting new voting restrictions, including limits on early voting hours and other measures opponents say will raise new barriers for marginalized voters, especially voters of color, who tend to vote Democratic, and those with disabilities.

The House is expected to give the bill final approval on Friday, leaving the House and Senate to resolve their differences before the legislation heads to Gov. Greg Abbott.

Unlike in the spring regular legislative session, the two chambers are much more aligned in their proposals, with the House legislation embracing proposed restrictions it had not included in its previous version of the bill. On Thursday, it further amended various sections of the bill to more closely match the Senate's version.

Republicans have pitched the legislation as a benign effort to secure elections from fraud, though they have been unable to find significant evidence of it, and to standardize election processes across the state, pressing forward despite a chorus of opposition from Democrats, civil rights groups, voting rights organizers and advocates for people with disabilities.

"The point that I make to you today is that Texas has consistently reviewed its election law policy over time, making changes and updates as needed," state Rep. Andrew Murr, the Junction Republican who authored the legislation, said at the start of the House's debate. "SB 1 continues this process."

The partisan tensions underscoring the ongoing fight were perhaps best illustrated by lawmakers' debate over how the bill takes aim at diverse, Democratic Harris County, the state's most populous, where officials last year instituted a series of voting initiatives meant to widen access to the ballot. That included creating overnight early voting to accommodate voters for whom regular hours don't work, and drive-thru voting that was used by 1 in 10 of those who voted early in person in the 2020 election.

Republican efforts to pull back on those voting options have been decried by Democrats and voting rights advocates as voter suppression targeting voters of color, who county officials have said disproportionately used those methods.

Seeking to head off heated discussions about discrimination, House Speaker Dade Phelan made an out-of-the-ordinary request to lawmakers at the start of their debate, urging them to avoid using the word "racism."

His directive instead set up a tense exchange when Democrats speaking against the legislation invoked the Legislature's recent history of intentionally discriminating against voters of color.

"I am convinced that because our elections were safe, secure and successful that we are not here really to deal with what I termed the pretext of the policy goals — incidents of fraud or likelihood of fraud," said state Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas.

Anchía listed off past federal court rulings that found lawmakers engaged in intentional discrimination when they drew up a strict voter ID law that disproprtionately burdened Hispanic and Black voters, and devised political maps the courts found illegally undermined the strength of their votes. That, Anchía argued, was the "backdrop" against which Republicans were pushing for this legislation.

"I know people bristle at certain terms that are used so I'll just say [the Legislature has] been intentionally discriminatory," Anchía said.

Shortly after, state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, approached the chamber's back microphone to pose a question to Anchía: "Intentional discrimination against people of a certain race — is that racism?"

Her query prompted gasps and groans among other members and an admonition from Phelan who interrupted the exchange.

"We can talk about racial impacts of this legislation without accusing members of this body of being racist," Phelan said.

"Respectfully, I'm not accusing members of this body," Hinojosa replied.

Defending the ban on drive-thru voting, Murr indicated moving voting outside of the polling place opens up what is supposed to be a private and secure process. Upon Democratic questioning, though, he indicated he was unaware of any instances of fraud or in which a voter felt their privacy was undermined.

Aside from Phelan's unusual request, Thursday marked a return to familiarity in the chamber, which stood at a standstill for nearly six weeks after Democrats decamped to Washington, D.C., to protest the bill and lobby for congressional action on federal legislation that would have preempted it.

They were always going to be outnumbered back at the state Capitol, though. And with Abbott vowing to continue calling lawmakers back for special legislative sessions until the Legislature passed the new restrictions, Democrats were destined to face a losing vote.

On Thursday, Democrats lined up to speak against the bill and question Murr on whether he looked into the possibility of disparate racial impact from the proposals. Over 12 hours, the Democrats offered more than three dozen amendments — trying to scrap portions of the bill, establish automatic voter registration and require a state study on the impact of voting law changes to different demographic groups, among several others — that were pushed to a pile of failed long-shot proposals.

As she braced for her amendment calling for the study to go down on a party-line vote, state Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, lambasted Republicans for their unwillingness to consider Democratic proposals, pointing to Murr's previous comments that he would reject amendments while the legislation was considered in committee in favor of floor debate.

"It's so disingenuous to me for you to make those comments [when] you have no intention to work with your colleagues," Rose said. "And then you wonder why someone takes the position that they take."

During his initial presentation on the legislation, Murr defended the bill by noting that it incorporated proposals championed by Democrats, including a new correction process for mail-in ballots.

"It contains language offered by both Republicans and Democrats, both senators and representatives during that process," Murr said. "It demonstrates that all viewpoints have been and are being considered regardless of party affiliation in an effort to draft sound and thoughtful policy."

House Republicans proved unwilling to move on all but one of the main tenets of the legislation.

They entertained some of the changes Democrats have been pushing for over the last few months to the portion of the bill that bolsters access for partisan poll watchers inside polling places, granting them "free movement" and heightening criminal penalties for election officials who interfere with their ability to observe elections.

On Thursday, they approved amendments offered by members of their own party to require training for poll watchers, and to revise a portion of the bill that protected poll watchers from being removed from a polling place for violating the law or the election code unless they were previously warned their behavior was illegal. The final House bill now allows them to be removed without warning if they violate the state Penal Code.

Over several hours of debate, Murr kept intact other parts of the bill that clamp down on the state's already restrictive voting-by-mail process by creating new ID requirements and making it a state jail felony for election officials to proactively distribute applications to request mail-in ballots, even to those who are eligible. The bill also still sets new rules — and possible criminal penalties — for those who assist voters, including those with disabilities, in casting their ballots.

Murr did allow for a series of Republican amendments, including increased penalties for election offenses. But Republicans faced their own failed efforts to further bulk up the bill, pulling down an amendment to require a forensic audit of the 2020 election in only the state's biggest counties facing a Democratic challenge to its relevance to the bill.

Democrats also defeated a Republican effort to wall off federal and state elections. That could have allowed Texas to circumvent new, sweeping federal requirements for elections contained in the For the People Act currently under consideration in Congress.

After the House gives the bill final approval, it will be up to the Senate to decide whether to accept the House's version or request a panel of lawmakers from both chambers, known as a conference committee, to resolve the relatively few differences between the bills.

That's the point in the legislative process at which the controversial version of the legislation that prompted Democrats' first quorum break in May, Senate Bill 7, was reshaped behind closed doors so that it swelled far beyond the legislation the House had initially approved.

On Thursday, Democrats sought assurances from Murr that some of the last-minute additions would not return if the current bill was also finalized out of the public eye, namely new restrictions to Sunday early voting hours that were criticized for targeting the "souls to the polls" efforts focused on Black churchgoers and a provision that would've made it easier for judges to overturn elections — both of which Republicans tried to walk away from after Democrats stymied the legislation.

"I have no desire for those provisions to be contained in this document," Murr said. "You asked how can we have assurance they won't show up later and I say one really strong way to do that is for us not to have a conference committee and we pass quality legislation off the House floor."

Texas House advances new voting restrictions as Democratic hopes of killing the legislation wane

After months of drama and political resistance, the curtain lowered Thursday on Democratic attempts to stave off a far-reaching rewrite of the state's voting laws coveted by Republicans seeking to retain their hold on power in a changing Texas.

One week after finally regaining enough members to conduct business, the Texas House slogged through a 12-hour floor debate before signing off on a slightly revised version of the Republican legislation that first prompted Democrats to stage a nearly six-week absence from the Capitol. The late night 79-37 vote on Senate Bill 1 moves the state closer to enacting new voting restrictions, including limits on early voting hours and other measures opponents say will raise new barriers for marginalized voters, especially voters of color, who tend to vote Democratic, and those with disabilities.

The House is expected to give the bill final approval on Friday, leaving the House and Senate to resolve their differences before the legislation heads to Gov. Greg Abbott.

Unlike in the spring regular legislative session, the two chambers are much more aligned in their proposals, with the House legislation embracing proposed restrictions it had not included in its previous version of the bill. On Thursday, it further amended various sections of the bill to more closely match the Senate's version.

Republicans have pitched the legislation as a benign effort to secure elections from fraud, though they have been unable to find significant evidence of it, and to standardize election processes across the state, pressing forward despite a chorus of opposition from Democrats, civil rights groups, voting rights organizers and advocates for people with disabilities.

"The point that I make to you today is that Texas has consistently reviewed its election law policy over time, making changes and updates as needed," state Rep. Andrew Murr, the Junction Republican who authored the legislation, said at the start of the House's debate. "SB 1 continues this process."

The partisan tensions underscoring the ongoing fight were perhaps best illustrated by lawmakers' debate over how the bill takes aim at diverse, Democratic Harris County, the state's most populous, where officials last year instituted a series of voting initiatives meant to widen access to the ballot. That included creating overnight early voting to accommodate voters for whom regular hours don't work, and drive-thru voting that was used by 1 in 10 of those who voted early in person in the 2020 election.

Republican efforts to pull back on those voting options have been decried by Democrats and voting rights advocates as voter suppression targeting voters of color, who county officials have said disproportionately used those methods.

Seeking to head off heated discussions about discrimination, House Speaker Dade Phelan made an out-of-the-ordinary request to lawmakers at the start of their debate, urging them to avoid using the word "racism."

His directive instead set up a tense exchange when Democrats speaking against the legislation invoked the Legislature's recent history of intentionally discriminating against voters of color.

"I am convinced that because our elections were safe, secure and successful that we are not here really to deal with what I termed the pretext of the policy goals — incidents of fraud or likelihood of fraud," said state Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas.

Anchía listed off past federal court rulings that found lawmakers engaged in intentional discrimination when they drew up a strict voter ID law that disproprtionately burdened Hispanic and Black voters, and devised political maps the courts found illegally undermined the strength of their votes. That, Anchía argued, was the "backdrop" against which Republicans were pushing for this legislation.

"I know people bristle at certain terms that are used so I'll just say [the Legislature has] been intentionally discriminatory," Anchía said.

Shortly after, state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, approached the chamber's back microphone to pose a question to Anchía: "Intentional discrimination against people of a certain race — is that racism?"

Her query prompted gasps and groans among other members and an admonition from Phelan who interrupted the exchange.

"We can talk about racial impacts of this legislation without accusing members of this body of being racist," Phelan said.

"Respectfully, I'm not accusing members of this body," Hinojosa replied.

Defending the ban on drive-thru voting, Murr indicated moving voting outside of the polling place opens up what is supposed to be a private and secure process. Upon Democratic questioning, though, he indicated he was unaware of any instances of fraud or in which a voter felt their privacy was undermined.

Aside from Phelan's unusual request, Thursday marked a return to familiarity in the chamber, which stood at a standstill for nearly six weeks after Democrats decamped to Washington, D.C., to protest the bill and lobby for congressional action on federal legislation that would have preempted it.

They were always going to be outnumbered back at the state Capitol, though. And with Abbott vowing to continue calling lawmakers back for special legislative sessions until the Legislature passed the new restrictions, Democrats were destined to face a losing vote.

On Thursday, Democrats lined up to speak against the bill and question Murr on whether he looked into the possibility of disparate racial impact from the proposals. Over 12 hours, the Democrats offered more than three dozen amendments — trying to scrap portions of the bill, establish automatic voter registration and require a state study on the impact of voting law changes to different demographic groups, among several others — that were pushed to a pile of failed long-shot proposals.

As she braced for her amendment calling for the study to go down on a party-line vote, state Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, lambasted Republicans for their unwillingness to consider Democratic proposals, pointing to Murr's previous comments that he would reject amendments while the legislation was considered in committee in favor of floor debate.

"It's so disingenuous to me for you to make those comments [when] you have no intention to work with your colleagues," Rose said. "And then you wonder why someone takes the position that they take."

During his initial presentation on the legislation, Murr defended the bill by noting that it incorporated proposals championed by Democrats, including a new correction process for mail-in ballots.

"It contains language offered by both Republicans and Democrats, both senators and representatives during that process," Murr said. "It demonstrates that all viewpoints have been and are being considered regardless of party affiliation in an effort to draft sound and thoughtful policy."

House Republicans proved unwilling to move on all but one of the main tenets of the legislation.

They entertained some of the changes Democrats have been pushing for over the last few months to the portion of the bill that bolsters access for partisan poll watchers inside polling places, granting them "free movement" and heightening criminal penalties for election officials who interfere with their ability to observe elections.

On Thursday, they approved amendments offered by members of their own party to require training for poll watchers, and to revise a portion of the bill that protected poll watchers from being removed from a polling place for violating the law or the election code unless they were previously warned their behavior was illegal. The final House bill now allows them to be removed without warning if they violate the state Penal Code.

Over several hours of debate, Murr kept intact other parts of the bill that clamp down on the state's already restrictive voting-by-mail process by creating new ID requirements and making it a state jail felony for election officials to proactively distribute applications to request mail-in ballots, even to those who are eligible. The bill also still sets new rules — and possible criminal penalties — for those who assist voters, including those with disabilities, in casting their ballots.

Murr did allow for a series of Republican amendments, including increased penalties for election offenses. But Republicans faced their own failed efforts to further bulk up the bill, pulling down an amendment to require a forensic audit of the 2020 election in only the state's biggest counties facing a Democratic challenge to its relevance to the bill.

Democrats also defeated a Republican effort to wall off federal and state elections. That could have allowed Texas to circumvent new, sweeping federal requirements for elections contained in the For the People Act currently under consideration in Congress.

After the House gives the bill final approval, it will be up to the Senate to decide whether to accept the House's version or request a panel of lawmakers from both chambers, known as a conference committee, to resolve the relatively few differences between the bills.

That's the point in the legislative process at which the controversial version of the legislation that prompted Democrats' first quorum break in May, Senate Bill 7, was reshaped behind closed doors so that it swelled far beyond the legislation the House had initially approved.

On Thursday, Democrats sought assurances from Murr that some of the last-minute additions would not return if the current bill was also finalized out of the public eye, namely new restrictions to Sunday early voting hours that were criticized for targeting the "souls to the polls" efforts focused on Black churchgoers and a provision that would've made it easier for judges to overturn elections — both of which Republicans tried to walk away from after Democrats stymied the legislation.

"I have no desire for those provisions to be contained in this document," Murr said. "You asked how can we have assurance they won't show up later and I say one really strong way to do that is for us not to have a conference committee and we pass quality legislation off the House floor."


Texas House committee again passes the voting restrictions bill that instigated Democratic quorum break

A Texas House committee on Monday advanced the GOP-backed voting restrictions bill that first prompted Democrats to stall legislative work during a weekslong quorum break.

The 9-5 party-line vote on the revived legislation, Senate Bill 1, is part of a third bid to enact proposals that would outlaw local efforts to make it easier to vote, ratchet up vote-by-mail rules and bolster protections for partisan poll watchers. It comes just days after the House regained enough Democrats to restart business following a nearly six-week exodus over the minority party's opposition to the voting legislation.

With the second special legislative session past the halfway mark, the House Select Committee on Constitutional Rights and Remedies opted to replace the Senate's bill with language from its own bill, House Bill 3. That means the House is essentially starting over with the same exact proposals that instigated a stalemate in the chamber following Democrats' departure to Washington, D.C., in early July.

State Rep. Andrew Murr, the Junction Republican authoring the legislation, indicated he could "foresee" at least some changes to the legislation when it reaches the House floor, though it remains unclear how expansive those amendments could be.

"We're picking up right where we left off from and so those changes are yet to come," Murr told the committee.

He had faced questions from Democrats over possible revisions in light of an overnight hearing last month that garnered more than 12 hours of deliberations and public testimony, largely against the legislation, during which there seemed to be some tenuous consensus, including on possibly mandating training for poll watchers.

Since Democrats' exodus upped the ante in their fight against the legislation, Republicans have not appeared willing to negotiate on contentious provisions or pull back on some of the bill's main tenets. That includes a provision that bans the drive-thru and overnight voting options championed by Harris County last year that were disproportionately used by voters of color.State Rep. Andrew Murr, the Junction Republican authoring the legislation, indicated he could "foresee" at least some changes to the legislation when it reaches the House floor, though it remains unclear how expansive those amendments could be.

"We're picking up right where we left off from and so those changes are yet to come," Murr told the committee.

He had faced questions from Democrats over possible revisions in light of an overnight hearing last month that garnered more than 12 hours of deliberations and public testimony, largely against the legislation, during which there seemed to be some tenuous consensus, including on possibly mandating training for poll watchers.

Since Democrats' exodus upped the ante in their fight against the legislation, Republicans have not appeared willing to negotiate on contentious provisions or pull back on some of the bill's main tenets. That includes a provision that bans the drive-thru and overnight voting options championed by Harris County last year that were disproportionately used by voters of color.

The Senate's previous changes to SB 1 covered technical issues and only some concerns raised by advocates for voters with disabilities. And unlike in the regular legislative session that ended in May, the two chambers' versions of the legislation are much more closely aligned with the House embracing proposed restrictions it had not previously included in its legislation.

Though the legislation under consideration was identical to the House's bill from the first special session, Monday's hearing ran much shorter than the committee's previous marathon hearing during which Murr faced hours worth of questions from Democrats who focused on different portions of the 47-page bill. This time, state Rep. Trent Ashby, the Lufkin Republican who chairs the House's special session committee, limited that questioning to just 40 minutes, noting he was hoping to avoid the long wait time — at least 17 hours — members of the public faced before testifying during the first special session.

While Republicans have pushed the bill under the mantle of "election integrity," House lawmakers for the third time this year heard from voting rights groups and advocates for people with disabilities who reiterated their concerns that the bill would undermine access for marginalized groups, including people of color and disabled voters.

"The Legislature choosing to cut the number of early voting hours after a county has chosen to do it — and combined with the fact that we know this was used disproportionately by voters of color — is voter suppression," said James Slattery, a senior attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project.

The bill adds an extra hour of required early voting hours, moving it from eight hours to nine, and it increases the number of counties that are required to provide at least 12 hours of early voting each weekday of the second week of early voting. But it also creates a new window for early voting — between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. — to forbid Harris County's efforts to provide overnight voting for shift workers and others for whom typical hours don't work.

Upon Democratic questioning about the possibility of disparate racial impact, Murr on Monday echoed his remarks from the first special session and indicated he had not looked into those concerns.

The bill also makes it a state jail felony for local election officials to distribute unsolicited applications for a mail-in ballot, even to voters 65 and older who automatically qualify to vote by mail, or to provide applications to local groups helping to get out the vote.

Advocates for disabled voters warned against keeping portions of the legislation that would complicate the voting process for voters with disabilities by limiting the assistance voters are entitled to have and potentially subjecting those helping them to increased penalties for mistakes.

In light of the House's bill swap Monday, some of the few advocates who had registered a neutral position on the bill swapped back to being in opposition once changes they fought for in the Senate version fell off. Many of those who supported the bill cited its enhanced protections for poll watchers as the reason for their endorsement but criticized the swap because the House legislation carries lower penalties for interfering with poll watchers.

The legislation grants poll watchers "free movement" at polling places and makes it a criminal offense to obstruct their view or distance the watcher "in a manner that would make observation not reasonably effective." The bill also says poll watchers cannot be removed from the polling place for violating the law or the election code unless they were previously warned their behavior was illegal.

During the first special session, 484 Texans — 407 registered in opposition to the bill — traveled to the Capitol for a Saturday hearing on the legislation. On Monday, just 158 Texans registered a position on the legislation, with 88 registered in opposition.

The bill heads to the chamber's Calendars Committee, which is then expected to place it on an agenda so it can be taken up by the full House as soon as this week.

As they returned to the Capitol in larger numbers Monday, Democrats indicated they remained optimistic about successfully fighting the bill during the House's floor debate. State Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, pointed to Democrats' ability to cut a deal on what was a pared down version of the bill during the regular legislative session. After the House approved that version in May, lawmakers reshaped the bill behind closed doors so that it swelled beyond what each chamber initially approved.

That reworked version of the bill instigated Democrats' first quorum break at the end of the regular legislative session; it also served as the blueprint for the current legislation under consideration.

"We had a version of what was SB 7 leave this House in far better shape than it got here," Anchía said. "We expect to be part of the process just like we were during the regular session."

Cassandra Pollock contributed to this report.

Texans line up by the hundreds to testify in Republicans' voter suppression special session

The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature is working rapidly in its second bid to pass new restrictions on voting, considering legislation in overlapping committee hearings that are expected to go late into the night.

Nearly 300 members of the public were signed up to testify on the legislation that makes up the GOP's renewed effort to further tighten state voting rules. The House committee is expected to vote to advance its bill at the end of its hearing, putting the bill on a path to be voted on by the full chamber next week.

The legislation filed in each chamber is similar to the GOP priority voting bill from the spring regular legislative session that prompted Democrats' to walk out and break quorum. That action effectively killed the bill, prompting Gov. Greg Abbott to call the special session that began Thursday. In Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3, Republicans have already dulled some of the edges of the legislation, dropping controversial provisions to restrict Sunday voting hours and to make it easier for judges to overturn elections.

The bills' authors are still moving to ban drive-thru and 24-hour voting options, enhance access for partisan poll watchers and prohibit local election officials from proactively distributing applications to request mail-in ballots. Both bills also include language to further restrict the state's voting-by-mail rules, including new ID requirements for absentee voters.

"You'll notice that most of the security measures in Senate Bill 1 are not aimed at individual voters," state Sen. Bryan Hughes, the Mineola Republican authoring the Senate legislation, said in presenting his bill. "By and large, individual voters are trying to vote. They're trying to do the right thing. We want them to do that. The security measures in this bill, by and large, are directed at vote harvesters or folks who are trying to steal votes."

Falling in line with the GOP's nationwide response to former President Donald Trump's false claims of widespread voting irregularities, Texas Republicans have pitched their voting bill as part of an effort to bolster the security of Texas elections — even though there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud and state officials described the 2020 election as "smooth and secure."

But the proposals have been met with concerns from civil rights organizations and voting rights advocates who have argued that efforts geared toward improving security would instead complicate the voting process, particularly for marginalized voters. Significant portions of both bills focus on shutting down local expansion of voting options meant to make it easier to vote, like the drive-thru voting and overnight early voting hours used by Harris County in the 2020 general election. Local officials have said both initiatives proved particularly successful in reaching voters of color.

Upon questioning by Democrats, Keith Ingram — the top elections official for the Texas Secretary of State — told lawmakers he was not aware of evidence of fraud tied to voting that occurred overnight or as part of Harris County's drive-thru efforts.

On Saturday, state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, questioned why the Legislature would prohibit options to increase voter access altogether instead of working to address the concerns Republicans may have about how they were implemented.

"Surely, we should be able to find ways to resolve those issues, especially if it's a convenient model for people to be able to vote," West said. "When we stand up and say, 'We can't fix it but we don't even want to look at trying to fix it,' I think it's inconsistent with the intent of the bill."

Hughes defended the ban by arguing it would not limit voter access because the state offers a long early voting period and that requiring voters to go into polling places to cast their ballots in person was "not a radical concept."

As of nearly 7:30 p.m. Sunday, the House committee considering the legislation had not yet turned to public testimony.

The Senate committee, meanwhile, was still listening to the over 200 people who had signed up to testify on the legislation, including former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso. O'Rourke, who called the legislation "a solution in search of a problem," told lawmakers there are more pressing matters facing the state and referenced a deadly winter storm earlier this year that has since prompted concerns about the reliability of the state's electric grid.

"If you're looking for something, more than 700 of our fellow Texans died because we couldn't keep the power on in February," he told the committee. "There are very real problems that require our attention and our focus, and [SB 1] just does not happen to be one of them."

Debate over the election bills comes as Republicans at the Legislature push a number of other issues on Gov. Greg Abbott's special session agenda — an 11-item priority list that appeals largely to conservative voters and includes legislation that did not pass when the Legislature convened earlier this year.

Democrats so far haven't ruled out another quorum break to again block the election bill, with party members in both chambers saying all options remain on the table. Though House Republicans have changed some of their approach for the special session in an apparent effort to appease opponents, Democrats say the legislation is still flawed and insist they plan to fight the bill at every opportunity.

Senate Democrats have echoed those sentiments, though a number of them have rallied around a counter proposal to SB 61 filed by West. The legislation would allow for online and same-day voter registration and expand the early voting period, among other provisions.

West acknowledged during a Friday news conference that while the legislation likely won't receive a hearing in the GOP-dominated Senate, he hopes Democrats and Republicans can "strike compromises to make certain that all people in the state of Texas are able to vote, that it's transparent and that it's secure."

Disclosure: Texas Secretary of State has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Texas Dems abandon House floor - blocking passage of voting bill before final deadline


In a last ditch attempt to block a sweeping GOP voting bill, all Democrats walked off the House floor Sunday night, preventing a vote on the legislation before a fatal deadline.

The Republican priority bill is an expansive piece of legislation that would alter nearly the entire voting process, create new limitations to early voting hours, ratchet up voting-by-mail restrictions and curb local voting options, like drive-thru voting.

Democrats have argued the bill was an act of voter suppression that would make it harder for people of color to vote in Texas. Republicans, however, called the bill an “election integrity" measure — necessary to safeguard Texas elections from fraudulent votes.

In Texas and nationally, efforts to further restrict voting have been rooted in baseless claims of widespread fraud for which there is virtually no evidence.

Debate on Senate Bill 7 had extended over several hours as the Texas House neared a midnight cutoff to give final approval to legislation before it could head to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk to be signed into law.

Democrats had appeared to be trickling off the floor throughout the night, a number of their desks appearing empty.

During an earlier vote to adopt a resolution allowing last-minute additions to the bill, just 35 of 67 Democrats appeared to cast a vote. Around 10:30 p.m., the remaining Democrats were seen walking out of the chamber.

Their absence left the House without a quorum — which requires two-thirds of the 150 House members to be present — needed to take a vote.

Their departure came after a message from Grand Prairie Democrat Chris Turner, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

“Members take your key and leave the chamber discretely. Do not go to the gallery. Leave the building," Turner said in a text message obtained by The Texas Tribune.

Later, in a statement, Turner said the walkout only came after it appeared their plan to run out the clock on the House floor with speeches wasn't going to work.

"The 67 members of the House Democratic Caucus have been fighting SB7 — the Republican anti-voter legislation — all year long. Tonight we finished that fight," Turner said. "It became obvious Republicans were going to cut off debate to ram through their vote suppression legislation. At that point we had no choice but to take extraordinary measure to protect our constituents and their right to vote."

With about an hour left before the midnight deadline, House Speaker Dade Phelan acknowledged the lost quorum and adjourned until 10 a.m. on Monday morning. Midnight was the cutoff for the House and Senate to sign off on the final versions of bills that have been negotiated during conference committees.

After adjourning, Phelan took aim at the Democrats and noted that their actions killed other bipartisan legislation.

“Today, on the second to last day of session, a number of members have chosen to disrupt the legislative process by abandoning the legislative chamber before our work was done," Phelan said in a statement. "In doing so, these members killed a number of strong, consequential bills with broad bipartisan support including legislation to ban no-knock warrants, reform our bail system, and invest in the mental health of Texans – items that their colleagues and countless advocates have worked hard to get to this point. Texans shouldn't have to pay the consequences of these members' actions -- or in this case, inaction -- especially at a time when a majority of Texans have exhibited clear and express support for making our elections stronger and more secure."

SB 7 was one step away from the governor's desk following. It was negotiated behind closed doors over the last week after the House and Senate passed significantly different versions of the legislation and pulled from each chamber's version of the bill. The bill also came back with a series of additional voting rule changes that weren't part of previous debates on the bill.

Abbott tweeted that lawmakers should expect to finish the job during a special session.

"Election Integrity & Bail Reform were emergency items for this legislative session.They STILL must pass.They will be added to the special session agenda," he said in a tweet. "Legislators will be expected to have worked out the details when they arrive at the Capitol for the special session."

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, echoed the call for a special session to pass SB 7 and other Republican priorities that have died in the House.

"The Texas Senate passed all these priority bills months ago and we will again. The TxHouse failed the people of Texas tonight. No excuse," Patrick tweeted.

By 11:15 p.m. about 30 Democrats could be seen arriving at a Baptist church located about two miles away from the Capitol in East Austin. Several members declined to comment on their departure from the floor that blocked the vote.

The location for Democrats' reunion appeared to be a subtle nod at a last-minute addition to the expansive bill that set a new restriction on early voting hours on Sunday, limiting voting from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Over the last two days, Democrats had derided the addition — dropped in during behind closed door negotiations — raising concerns that change would hamper “souls to the polls" efforts meant to turn out voters after church services.

Over the last few months, SB 7 has been at the forefront of Republicans' broader efforts to further restrict voting after the state saw the highest turnout in decades in 2020. With Republicans in full control of state government, the odds that it would make it to the governor's desk were always high.

Still, the legislation has evoked heated debates between Republicans and Democrats — the last one in the House taking a particular focus on the last-minute additions to the bill. The final version of the bill was negotiated behind closed doors, growing well beyond what the House and Senate originally passed into a wide-ranging 67-page bill with many additions that were only revealed to the full House on Saturday.

Portions of the bill were specifically written to target voting initiatives Harris County used in the last election — such as a day of 24-hour early voting, drive-thru voting and an effort to proactively distribute applications to vote by mail — that were heavily used by voters of color. But under SB 7, those options will be banned across the state.

It sets a new window for early voting from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. and makes it a state jail felony for local officials to send mail-in ballot applications to voters who did not request them. It would also be a felony to provide those applications to third party groups, like the League of Women Voters, that get out the vote. It also expands the freedoms of partisan poll watchers, granting them “free movement" within a polling place, except for when a voter is filling out their ballot.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/05/30/texas-voting-restrictions-house/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

After drastic changes made behind closed doors, and an overnight debate

In the course of several hours Saturday and early Sunday, Senate Republicans hurtled to move forward on a sweeping voting bill negotiated behind closed doors where it doubled in length and grew to include voting law changes that weren't previously considered.

Over Democrats' objections, they suspended the chamber's own rules to narrow the window lawmakers had to review the new massive piece of legislation before giving it final approval ahead of the end of Monday's end to the legislative session. This culminated in an overnight debate and party line vote early Sunday to sign off on a raft of new voting restrictions and changes to elections and get it one step closer to the governor's desk.

Senate Bill 7, the GOP's priority voting bill, emerged Saturday from a conference committee as an expansive bill that would touch nearly the entire voting process, including provisions to limit early voting hours, curtail local voting options and further tighten voting-by-mail, among several other provisions. It was negotiated behind closed doors over the last week after the House and Senate passed significantly different versions of the legislation and pulled from each chamber's version of the bill. The bill also came back with a series of additional voting rule changes, including a new ID requirement for mail-in ballots, that weren't part of previous debates on the bill.

But instead of giving senators the 24 hours required under the chamber's rules to go over the committee's report, including those new additions, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, moved to ignore that mandate so the Senate could debate and eventually vote on the final version of the bill just hours after it was filed.

Around 6 p.m. Saturday, Hughes acknowledged the Senate would consider the report "earlier than usual" but tried to argue he was giving senators "more time" by alerting them about his plan to debate the final version of SB 7 at 10 p.m.

"That's a nice spin," state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, shot back.

The Legislature is up against a Sunday night deadline to approve conference committee reports, like the compromise version of SB 7. Had the Senate waited until later Sunday to consider it, it could have left it in reach of a filibuster that could've killed the bill. The House is expected to vote on the final version of the bill later today.

Senate Democrats raised concerns that they had not had sufficient time to review the 180-page conference committee report, including a 67-page bill and a lengthy analysis of the negotiated changes. Roughly 12 pages of the bill contained additions that hadn't been previously considered as part of the legislation and were added by the committee out of the public eye. The truncated schedule also left them without the opportunity to check in with local election officials in their districts or voting rights groups monitoring its passage, they said.

After Senate Republicans voted to suspend the rules, Hughes opened debate on a resolution to approve those 12 pages of additional changes, with Democrats questioning the origin of those changes and the lack of public input in tacking them onto the bill.

"I couldn't in good faith vote to pass a bill the size of this one, that will affect the voting rights of every single Texan of voting age, when they've been deprived of the opportunity to voice their opinions on the final package of this bill," state Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, said.

Throughout the debate, Hughes argued SB 7 was striving for "common sense" solutions that secured elections from wrongdoing and fraud.

"We want elections to be secure and accessible," he said.

Defending the additions as a standard part of the conference committee process, Hughes argued many of the additions were pulled from other bills passed by the Senate or generally discussed by the chamber.

The new provisions include language from separate Republican bills that failed to pass that would set a new voter ID rule for mail-in ballots, requiring voters to provide their driver's license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number, if they have one, on their applications for those ballots. For their votes to be counted, voters will be required to include matching information on the envelopes used to return their ballots.

Other changes, including a new window of 1 to 9 p.m. for early voting on Sundays, hadn't come up until they were added to the conference committee report outside of public view. State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, raised the possibility that change could hamper "souls to the polls" efforts meant to turn out voters after church services and questioned the justification for 1 p.m. start time.

"Those election workers want to go to church, too," Hughes responded.

When West asked if Hughes had spoken to election workers to make that determination, Hughes admitted he hadn't.

"We're going to be able to buy beer at 10 o'clock in the morning but we can't vote until 1 p.m.," West said.

Beyond the debate over the new changes, the Senate's discussion on SB 7 regularly landed on the detrimental effect Democrats feared the legislation would have on voters of color and the significant portions of the bill that were written to outlaw some of the voting initiatives Harris County used in the last election.

SB 7 would ban drive-thru voting and the day of 24 hours of uninterrupted early voting the county offered — both of which proved particularly successful in reaching voters of color. An analysis by Harris County's election office estimated that Black and Hispanic voters cast more than half of the votes counted both at drive-thru sites and during extended hours.

"The provisions of this bill apply equally across the board," Hughes said in response to Democrats' questions about the bill's effect on access for voters of color. He added that the provisions banning those voting initiatives could only target Harris County because it was the only county he was aware of that offered those options.

He also pointed out that the final version of SB 7 left out a provision to regulate the distribution of polling places only in the state's largest counties — diverse, urban counties largely under Democratic control. A Texas Tribune analysis found the formula proposed by Hughes would have led to a significant drop in voting sites in largely Democratic areas, with voting options curtailed most in areas with higher shares of voters of color.

Hughes said the decision to leave out that provision had been influenced by the Senate's initial debate on SB 7 when Democrats hammered the Republican over that proposal. But state Sen. Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat, pressed him on whether he had adequately considered the extent to which SB 7 could narrow access for voters of color, pointing to Hughes' decision to keep the ban on drive-thru voting despite the concerns Democrats raised about that provision.

"Because I represent a majority African American district and we benefited from the drive-thru voting that you're trying to ban now, I feel like you're coming for my district," Miles said.

Biden blasts Texas voter suppression as ‘wrong and un-American’

With Texas Republicans poised to sign off on a sweeping voting bill, President Joe Biden said Saturday that legislation like Senate Bill 7 that restricts voting access is "un-American."

"Today, Texas legislators put forth a bill that joins Georgia and Florida in advancing a state law that attacks the sacred right to vote, " Biden said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. "It's part of an assault on democracy that we've seen far too often this year — and often disproportionately targeting Black and Brown Americans."

SB 7, the Texas GOP's priority voting bill, would limit early voting hours, curtail local voting options and further clamp down on mail-in voting, among several other provisions. Biden's denouncement of the bill came just as a draft of the final version began circulating at the Texas Capitol. The House and Senate are expected to take final votes on the bill in the next day and send it to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature before it becomes law.

"It's wrong and un-American," Biden said. "In the 21st century, we should be making it easier, not harder, for every eligible voter to vote."

Texas Republicans began the 2021 legislative session staging a sweeping legislative campaign to pass new voting restrictions, proposing significant changes to nearly the entire voting process and taking particular aim at local efforts to make voting easier. It was formally touched off by Abbott, when he named "election integrity" one of his emergency items for the legislative session despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also named "election and ballot security" one of his priorities.

SB 7 ultimately emerged as the main vehicle through which state lawmakers, like Republicans across the country, would further restrict how and when voters cast ballots following the 2020 election.

"Overall, this bill is designed to address areas throughout the process where bad actors can take advantage, so Texans can feel confident that their elections are fair, honest and open," Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes said while presenting the bill to the Senate earlier this year.

While Republicans have tried to frame the legislation as one that standardizes voting rules across the state, substantial portions of SB 7 were written to specifically outlaw voting initiatives carried out last fall in largely Democratic Harris County, the state's largest county where voters of color make up a high share of the electorate.

That includes drive-thru voting to allow people to vote from their cars, extended early voting hours after the usual 7 p.m. cutoff and a day of 24 hours of uninterrupted early voting to reach shift workers who have trouble casting ballots during regular hours. Both initiatives — which proved particularly successful in reaching voters of color — would be banned under SB 7.

SB 7 also sets new windows for early voting — generally from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. — that would also slightly shorten the extra hours other large counties offered in the last election.

The legislation has been condemned by advocates for voters with disabilities, voter advocacy groups and civil rights organizations with histories of fighting laws that could harm voters of color. Throughout the legislative session, they've repeatedly warned lawmakers that SB 7 would raise new barriers to the ballot for marginalized voters, including voters of color and voters with disabilities, and that it likely violates federal safeguards for those voters.

The final version of the bill was negotiated behind closed doors over the last week after the Senate and the House passed significantly different versions of the legislation.

"It is fitting that the final push to get anti-voter Senate Bill 7 to the Governor's desk would take place behind closed doors, hidden from public scrutiny," MOVE Texas communications director Charlie Bonner said Saturday. "This bill does nothing to improve the security of our elections — it only makes our democracy weaker by limiting access for young, disabled, Black and Brown Texans."

SB 7 also clamps down on voting by mail, making it a state jail felony for local officials to distribute applications to request mail-in ballots to voters who didn't ask for them. This ban was also a response to Harris County's failed attempt to send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters last year, even though other Texas counties sent applications to voters 65 and older without controversy. Although those voters automatically qualify to vote by mail, SB 7 bans counties from proactively mailing unrequested applications to them in the future. Political parties can still send unsolicited applications, as both Republicans and Democrats often do before elections.

On Saturday, Biden also cited the imminent passage of SB 7 to a call on Congress to act on federal voting legislation that would significantly reform elections and another measure that would bring back federal oversight of state changes to voting law.

Until 2013, Texas was among the states under federal supervision of its election and voting laws to ensure they did not hamper the voting rights of people of color. Federal courts repeatedly found that Texas lawmakers discriminated against voters of color in their political mapmaking and in writing up new voting requirements, including the state's original voter ID law in 2011.

Disclosure: MOVE Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Texas will gain two seats in Congress -- as residents of color drive population gains

Texas will continue to see its political clout grow as it gains two additional congressional seats — the most of any state in the nation — following the 2020 census, the U.S. Census Bureau announced Monday.

Thanks to its fast-growing population — largely due to an increase in residents of color, particularly Hispanics — the state's share of votes in the U.S. House of Representatives will increase to 38 for the next decade. The new counts reflect a decade of population growth since the last census, which determines how many congressional seats are assigned to each state. Texas is one of six states gaining representation following the census. The other five states are each gaining one seat.

The 2020 census puts the state's population at 29,145,505 — up from 25.1 million in 2010 — after gaining the most residents of any state in the last decade. More detailed data, which lawmakers need to redraw legislative and congressional districts to reflect that growth, isn't expected until early fall. But census estimates have shown it's been driven by people of color.

Through 2019, Hispanics had accounted for more than half of the state's population growth since 2010, a gain of more than 2 million residents. And though it makes up a small share of the total population, estimates showed the state's Asian population has grown the fastest since 2010. Estimates have also shown the state's growth has been concentrated in diverse urban centers and suburban communities.

With its gain of two seats, the state's footprint in the Electoral College will grow to 40 votes. But Texas will remain in second place behind California for the largest congressional delegation and share of Electoral College votes. California is losing a congressional seat but will remain on top with 52 seats and 54 votes in the Electoral College. The other states losing seats are Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Florida, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon will each gain one seat.

The state's political heft has been growing steadily for decades. Texas has gained at least one additional congressional seat after every census since 1950, according to the Census Bureau. It's gained two or more seats after every census since 1980.

Texas ultimately fell short of the three congressional seats it was projected to gain based on population estimates. Census Bureau officials on Monday indicated the state's 2020 population count was slightly lower — a difference of about 1% — than the estimates.

In the lead up the census, Republican Texas lawmakers shot down any significant funding for state efforts to avoid an undercount in the 2020 census, leaving the work of chasing an accurate count to local governments, nonprofits and even churches. Texas is home to a large share of residents — people who don't speak English, people living in poverty and immigrants, to name a few — who were at the highest risk of being missed in the count. With just a month of counting to go, Texas abruptly launched a last minute $15 million advertising campaign paid by dipping into federal dollars meant to address the coronavirus pandemic

The state's congressional delegation is currently made up by 22 Republicans and 13 Democrats, with one vacant seat following the recent death of Republican Ron Wright.

Congressional and state House and Senate districts need to be reconfigured before the 2022 elections to account for the new population figures, and spread residents across districts that were drawn to be close to equal in population 10 years ago but are now significantly out of balance.

But the Census Bureau is running far behind schedule in reporting detailed results because of delays forced by the coronavirus pandemic and interference from the Trump administration. The detailed population numbers lawmakers need to redraw districts to reflect the state's growth will be delivered by Sept. 30 — far past the end of the 2021 legislative session that ends next month.

This will almost certainly require Gov. Greg Abbott to call lawmakers back to the Capitol for a rare special session in the fall to draw new political maps. The litigation that will inevitably follow is likely to upend the election schedule for the 2022 primaries, when voters pick winners from each party to face off in the general election.

Decade after decade, federal courts have found that Texas lawmakers discriminated against voters of colors during their mapmaking by working to intentionally dilute the power of their votes, and their maps have regularly violated the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act. The 2021 round of political mapmaking will be the first in nearly half a century without federal oversight that was meant to shield voters of color living in states with a long history of discrimination like Texas from discriminatory maps.

Texas' original maps from 2011 were eventually ruled unconstitutional and federal judges found lawmakers purposefully diminished the voting strength of voters of color in the Texas House and in several congressional districts. Court fights over the maps resulted in the 2012 primary elections being pushed back by more than two months even without any census-related delays at the time. Under the state's current schedule, the filing deadline for candidates hoping to be on the 2022 primary ballot is Dec. 13.

Texas GOP voting restrictions blasted as Jim Crow 'in a tuxedo'

Two nights of voting in Houston, eight months apart, each occurring as midnight slipped by, lay bare the fault line cutting through Texas' ongoing debate about voter suppression.

First, the March 3, 2020, presidential primary. On the campus of Texas Southern University, a historically Black college, hundreds waited in a line that wrapped through a campus library and out into a courtyard for four hours, then five, then six after polls were supposed to close at 7 p.m. — the result of an unexpected surge of Democratic voters and a mismanagement of voting machines.

Then in November, Houston residents — most of them people of color — were again voting after hours in the general election, but this time it was intentional. Harris County had set up a day of 24-hour voting to make it easier for voters, like shift workers, who face difficulty getting to the polls during traditional hours.

The first scene was one of frustration and disenfranchisement, not unusual in a state with some of the strictest voting rules in the nation. The second felt celebratory, a moment when it seemed democracy went right and people were welcomed to the voting booth.

It is the second scene that pushed Texas' Republican leaders to act.

Outlawing 24-hour voting is one part of Senate Bill 7, priority legislation backed by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and likely most Republicans in the ongoing legislative session. The bill would enact other sweeping changes to voting, including making it illegal for local election officials to proactively send applications for mail-in ballots to voters, even if they qualify, and restricting the distribution of polling places and voting machines in diverse, urban counties.

Their intent, GOP leaders say, is to protect the "integrity" and standardization of Texas elections from local efforts like those Harris County devised in November to expand voting access. But the pushback from local leaders, Democrats, big business and voting rights advocates has been intense, centering on concerns that the legislation's effects will almost certainly make voting harder for groups Texas' voting rules have long marginalized — voters of color, voters with disabilities, low-income voters and voters with limited English proficiency — and who are the most likely to be shut out when voting procedures are tightened.

In an angry press conference Tuesday, yelling at times, Patrick objected to suggestions that Republicans are deliberately targeting voters of color in Democratic strongholds.

"Senate Bill 7 is about voter security, not about voter suppression, and I'm tired of the lies and the nest of liars who continue to repeat them," Patrick said, focusing much of his ire on Fort Worth-based American Airlines and Harris County leaders who spoke up against the bill.

He continued: "You're questioning my integrity and the integrity of the governor and the integrity of the 18 Republicans who voted for this when you suggest that we're trying to suppress the vote. You are, in essence, between the lines, calling us racist, and that will not stand."

As they successfully shepherded SB 7 through the Senate over the last two weeks, Republicans argued that it is a race-neutral bill, not designed to discriminate, in part because the state's voter rolls are "color blind" and voters don't list their race or ethnicity when they register.

But to critics, especially those familiar with past election restrictions that Texas has passed that made it harder for already-marginalized voters to participate, "neutrality" is a false flag. The legislation passed the Senate with zero support from Democrats, including every senator of color in the chamber, who over seven hours of debate on the Senate floor listed concerns about the harmful effects the bill could have on voters of color.

"I'm in disbelief that our esteemed body would consider legislation we consider detrimental to countless persons of color. We urge you to hear our voice and public testimony," state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said just before the Senate advanced SB 7, noting that senators had not been provided with evidence that showed the 2020 election was anything other than "honestly run, fairly adjudicated and somewhat better attended."

"What we did hear, however, were numerous pleas from our fellow Texans not to do this," Zaffirini said. "We heard from men and women of color who interpret Senate Bill 7 as yet another sign that those who control their state do not welcome their participation."

The legislation is part of a broader Republican push to make changes to voting laws in a state with already restrictive rules. It echoes national efforts by Republicans in state legislatures across the country — largely built on claims of widespread voter fraud for which there is little to no evidence — to rework voting rules after voters of color helped flip key states to Democratic control.

SB 7 targets Harris County initiatives like extended early voting hours and drive-thru voting, which were disproportionately used by voters of color in November. The bill also singles out voters receiving assistance inside the polling place, including in filling out their ballot, by allowing poll watchers to record them if the poll watcher "reasonably believes" that the assistance is "unlawful." That provision has drawn particular concerns about the policing of voters with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency — most of whom are Hispanic and historical targets of voter intimidation in Texas — who would be among those most likely to receive help to vote.

Hours after SB 7 cleared the Senate, American Airlines became the first corporate giant to come out against the bill, citing provisions "that limit access to voting" and the need to break down barriers "to diversity, equity and inclusion in our society" instead of creating them. That opposition teed up a series of broader statements from other corporations calling for equal access to voting and came ahead of Major League Baseball's decision to pull its All-Star Game from Georgia in response to new voting restrictions there.

The pressure on corporate America to lend its weight against Republican proposals has continued to swell this week as voting rights advocates worked to frame the fight as one rooted in the civil rights movement and meant to protect the right to vote, especially for Black and Hispanic voters, whose access to the ballot box has been historically undermined.

Over the weekend, Black leaders in the Dallas-Fort Worth area took out a full-page ad in The Dallas Morning News calling on local corporate leaders to work against the provisions of SB 7, which they called "unfair, unequitable and immoral," that make it easy for some Texans to vote while creating obstacles for others using a "familiar strategy." Its signatories included former Dallas Mayor and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, Paul Quinn College President Michael Sorrell and Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynt Marshall.

"Texas continues to engage in the same kinds of practices that produced the oppression that this great cloud of witnesses had to overcome," the Rev. Frederick Haynes III, a pastor at the Friendship-West Baptist Church of Dallas and a signatory on the ad, said Wednesday while standing with other faith leaders in front of the Texas African American History Memorial monument on the Capitol grounds. "Because unfortunately we have those in leadership in Texas government who have in their ideological DNA the same mindset … of those individuals who upheld Jim and Jane Crow segregation. Gov. Abbott and his Republican cronies have decided to dress up Jim and Jane Crow in a tuxedo of what they call voter integrity."

In response to the corporate blowback, Abbott — who declared "election integrity" a priority for the 2021 legislative session — announced he would no longer throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Texas Rangers' home opening game and would boycott any other Major League Baseball events over "false political narratives" he claimed the league was pushing.

In a Fox News television interview Tuesday, Abbott said he was sending a message to Texas-based companies that have "made the very same mistake" of coming out against Republican proposals to change the state's voting laws.

"What we need to do is have these business leaders realize they don't need to be responding to tweets or these bogus arguments that were put forth by people like Stacey Abrams and others in Georgia," Abbott said.

Abrams, a former Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia and a prominent voting rights advocate, has denounced restrictions recently signed into law in Georgia, where she said Republicans had "outperformed in the category of suppressive laws" by shrinking the window for voters to request absentee ballots, imposing new voter ID requirements for absentee voting, and banning the handing out of water and food to people waiting in line to vote, among several other new restrictions. Like in Texas, the new rules were passed under the banner of securing elections.

Even in defending their proposals, Texas Republicans have run into the Legislature's own history of passing voting laws that were later found to unequally burden voters of color.

The lieutenant governor on Tuesday attempted to characterize the criticism of SB 7 as "race baiting" by those raising concerns about how it could suppress the votes of Texans of color, pointing to similar criticism Republicans faced when they worked to pass one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country in 2011. His defense was based on the increased voter participation the state has seen in recent elections — in part a result of a growing Democratic electorate and the draw of more competitive races. (Patrick cited the large increase in the raw numbers of votes cast, which is generally a reflection of the state's rapidly growing population and doesn't accurately capture increases in voter turnout over time.)

But Patrick left out that a federal judge and the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals — considered to be among the country's most conservative appellate courts — ultimately found the state's voter ID law disproportionately harmed voters of color, who were less likely to have one of the seven forms of identification the state required voters to present before they could cast their ballots. The law was blocked for years after it was passed and was eventually eased to match a judge's suggested rules.

As part of call on corporations to stand against SB 7 and other Republican proposals, Texas voting rights advocates and organizers also pointed to the state's increased turnout, and the voters of color behind it, to identify what they see as the genesis for the changes the Legislature is considering.

Although it topped out at 66% participation, Texas saw the highest turnout in decades in 2020. After the election, Republicans remain in full control of state government, but Democrats have continued to drive up their vote counts as the electorate continues to expand in the state's urban centers and diversifying suburban communities.

In a virtual press conference Tuesday, those advocates called Republicans out for imposing more restrictions on voting while refusing to consider measures like online voter registration that could open the door to more participation. The state should be building on the progress it made on turnout in 2020 instead of "advancing the path toward voter suppression," said Devin Branch of the Texas Organizing Project, which advocates for communities of color and low-income Texans.

"Every person who genuinely believes in democracy abhors attempts to undermine it, and these bills are harmful to democracy," Branch said. "This is about those in power seeking to retain power by disempowering and disenfranchising Black and Latino voters. Full stop."

Disclosure: Texas Southern University's Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


Corporate giants come out against Texas Republicans' voter suppression efforts

Corporate giants American Airlines and Dell Technologies on Thursday became the first business heavyweights to lend their opposition to Republicans' legislative proposals to further restrict voting in Texas.

American Airlines took specific aim at Senate Bill 7, which would impose sweeping restrictions that take particular aim at local efforts meant to make it easier to vote — like extended early voting hours. Senate Republicans advanced that measure in a 2 a.m. vote Thursday.

"Earlier this morning, the Texas State Senate passed legislation with provisions that limit voting access. To make American's stance clear: We are strongly opposed to this bill and others like it," the company said in a statement.

Dell Technologies CEO Michael Dell declared his company's opposition to House Bill 6, another voting proposal, in a Twitter post. That legislation would prohibit local election officials from proactively sending out applications for mail-in ballots and impose new rules for people assisting voters to fill out their ballots. The House Elections Committee on Thursday was hearing public testimony on the proposal that was expected to continue into the night.

"Free, fair, equitable access to voting is the foundation of American democracy. Those rights — especially for women, communities of color — have been hard-earned," Dell said. "Governments should ensure citizens have their voices heard. HB6 does the opposite, and we are opposed to it."

Both measures are legislative priorities for Texas Republicans, who this year are mounting a broad campaign to scale up the state's already restrictive voting rules and pull back on local voting initiatives championed in diverse urban centers, namely in Harris County, during a high-turnout election in which Democrats continued to drive up their margins. That push echoes national legislative efforts by Republicans to change voting rules after voters of color helped flip key states to Democratic control.

The statements of opposition by the two Texas businesses comes just a day after Black business leaders called on corporations to publicly oppose Republican-proposed restrictions across the country — a response to new restrictions in Georgia that were recently passed into law with little opposition from major companies.

SB 7 is one of the broadest proposals under consideration during the 2021 Texas legislative session. Beyond prohibiting extended or overnight voting hours meant to accommodate shift workers, it would outlaw drive-thru voting, make it illegal for local election officials to proactively send applications to vote by mail to voters, allow partisan poll watchers to video record some voters who receive assistance to fill out their ballots and set specific rules for the distribution of polling places in the state's largest counties — most of which are either under Democratic control or favored Democrats in recent national and statewide elections.

The legislation has been offered under the banner of "election integrity," with state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, defending it as a measure that "standardizes and clarifies" voting rules so that "every Texan has a fair and equal opportunity to vote, regardless of where they live in the state."

"Overall, this bill is designed to address areas throughout the process where bad actors can take advantage, so Texans can feel confident that their elections are fair, honest and open," Hughes said at the start of the Senate debate on the bill.

In response to American Airlines' opposition, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who deemed SB 7 a legislative priority — released a statement in which he argued the legislation included "comprehensive reforms that will ensure voting in Texas is consistent statewide and secure."

"Texans are fed up with corporations that don't share our values trying to dictate public policy," Patrick said.

But the legislation has been met by fierce opposition from Democrats and a collection of civil rights organizations that have warned its restrictions — and its focus on local initiatives pushed in Harris County — could lead to intimidation and disenfranchisement of voters of color and voters with disabilities. That coalition now includes representatives of corporate America.

"Any legislation dealing with how elections are conducted must ensure ballot integrity and security while making it easier to vote, not harder," the American Airlines statement read.

It remains to be seen if the corporate opposition to Republicans' proposals will match the barrage of outcry during the Texas Legislature's 2017 debate over a so-called "bathroom bill" to restrict transgender Texans' access to public facilities.

That year, transgender women, men and children from across Texas descended on the Capitol to testify about how the proposal could endanger their lives. They were joined by a broad faction of businesses — from local enterprises to top corporate executives, including the heads of dozens of Fortune 500 companies — in rallying opposition to the legislation, which failed to pass.

"Major Texas employers are stepping up and speaking out against voter suppression, and for good reason. Texas should not go down the same path as Georgia," said former House Speaker Joe Straus, the San Antonio Republican who helped bottle up the bathroom bill in the House. "It's bad for business and, more importantly, it's bad for our citizens."

Texas voting rights groups, including Texas Organizing Project, MOVE Texas and theTexas Civil Rights Project, have joined with Black Voters Matter to demand similar stands by corporations against Republicans' bills, including SB 7, starting with full-page ads in the local newspapers in recent days.

"We are calling for the business community to take a strong stand against current attempts to pass voter suppression legislation that amounts to Jim Crow 2.0," the groups said in the ads. "It must not be business as usual."

Disclosure: Dell and MOVE Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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