Two years after Texas’ voting rights showdown gripped the nation, lawmakers again push dozens of elections bills

Jan. 25, 2023

Less than two years after Texas Democrats staged a dramatic showdown to forestall sweeping changes to voting laws, the Legislature is poised to once again revisit how Texas runs elections.

Entering the 2023 legislative session in January, more than 75 bills related to elections or voting had already been prefiled. Both major political parties have drafted bills. Democrats aim to expand voting access. Republicans are focused on enhancing election security.

Because Texas Republicans successfully pushed through a number of their election priorities in the last session, voting-related legislation is unlikely to garner as much attention this year as it did in 2021.

That year’s debate over Texas elections gripped the country as state Republicans pushed an omnibus election bill into law during a special legislative session in 2021. Democratic lawmakers fled the state Capitol and headed to Washington, D.C., in hopes of drawing more national attention to their opposition to the legislation, forcing a nearly six-week shutdown of the Legislature to try to prevent the lower chamber from having enough members to pass bills.

The Texas House Democrats breaking quorum in the nation’s capital host a press conference alongside Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and grassroots organizers at the United States Capitol in Washington, DC on Friday, August 6, 2021. Friday is both the anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act, and the last day of the special session of the Texas Legislature. At the event, Texas House Democrats address their victory in killing the Texas Republicans’ anti-voter measures back home, and their successes in helping to move federal voter protection legislation.

Texas House Democrats breaking quorum hosted a press conference alongside U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and grassroots organizers at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Aug. 6, 2021. Credit: Shuran Huang

They were ultimately unsuccessful, and the law Gov. Greg Abbott signed contained a slew of voting restrictions and a tightening of election security, including a prohibition on drive-thru and 24-hour voting, plus an expanded role for poll watchers.

Still, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has said that tightening election laws is on his list of legislative priorities for this session. Among his goals is changing the penalty for illegal voting from a misdemeanor to a felony after it was downgraded in 2021.

Another Republican proposal would allow the secretary of state to appoint election marshals to investigate violations of election law.

“We need to have election results that we can rely on,” said Rep. David Spiller, R-Jacksboro, who has introduced a bill to enhance the criminal penalty for election crimes. “These laws will ensure that we have safe and secure elections.”

Since 2020, Republicans nationwide — fueled by former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims about election fraud — have sought to increase barriers to voting. More than 3,600 election-related bills were introduced nationwide following the 2020 election, and 368 of them were enacted, according to the Voting Rights Lab, which tracks such legislation.

Texas Democrats find the new proposals worrisome. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, who chairs the Texas House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune that House Democrats would fight to protect voting rights.

Fischer was a key player during the quorum break in 2021 and is known for using his vast knowledge of the legislative process to kill Republican bills.

“House Democrats intend to use every rule in the rulebook, every sentence, every comma, every semicolon of the Texas Constitution to defend the right to vote,” Fischer said.

One bill that has already prompted criticism is a proposal for election marshals filed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston. The bill appears similar to a law passed in Florida that created an elections crime unit, a move that has been widely criticized by voting rights advocates as ineffective and unnecessarily aggressive.

Police body camera footage published by The Guardian in January showed armed Florida police officers arresting a Miami resident at gunpoint in August after the individual had allegedly voted illegally. He is among at least 19 Floridians who have been arrested for voter fraud since the state created the office to investigate and prosecute election fraud.

At least some of those charged have indicated that they thought they were eligible to vote.

“Despite a huge outlay of resources, that law is not rendering any results,” said Daniel Griffith, senior director of policy for Secure Democracy USA, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C., that seeks to improve voter access. “There is not pervasive voter fraud, so it’s difficult to understand the need for these law enforcement units.”

In Texas, Bettencourt said election marshals are necessary because of “voter irregularities” in places like Harris County, where some polling locations opened late and reportedly ran out of paper on Election Day in November. In a post-election assessment, Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum said the investigation into what happened was “inconclusive.”

Voters wait in line after 7 p.m at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center in Houston on Nov. 8, 2022. The polling location was one of the Harris County polling locations open until 8 PM on Election Day.

Voters wait in line after 7 p.m. at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center in Houston on Nov. 8, 2022. Credit: Briana Vargas for the Texas Tribune

Bettencourt called the issues in Harris County “preposterous” and said the bill he filed would provide resources to investigate and immediately rectify administrative problems like paper ballot shortages. He said the bill had nothing to do with Republican claims of voter fraud following Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election.

“This is not about election denying; it’s about voter irregularities,” Bettencourt said. “If the county election administrators aren’t going to follow the law, we need someone whose duty it is to go in and say ‘follow the law.’”

Bettencourt introduced a similar bill during the 2021 legislative session, but it stalled in the House.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, addresses his colleagues in the Senate floor on March 2, 2021.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, addresses his colleagues on the Senate floor on March 2, 2021. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

Other bills that have been introduced relate to the punishment for illegally voting. In 2021, lawmakers reduced the charge for illegally voting from a second degree felony to a Class A misdemeanor. A pair of bills from Spiller and state Sen. Bryan Hughes would reinstate the felony charge.

“It’s so that we can have safe and secure elections,” Spiller said. “And it’s nothing new — this has been in place for years and years.”

In one controversial case in 2016, a woman who cast a provisional ballot while on supervised release for a federal conviction was given a five-year prison sentence. At the time, illegal voting was a second-degree state felony. A Texas Court of Criminal Appeals asked a lower appeals court to reconsider the case because the voter, Crystal Mason, did not know she was ineligible to vote. That case is still moving through the court system.

Voting rights advocates warn that reinstating a felony charge could dissuade people and create more voter intimidation.

“Looking back over the past few legislative sessions, there have been repeated attempts to find creative ways to prosecute people for what really looks like an honest mistake,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for policies such as online voting registration and ending gerrymandering. “There’s no infrastructure to tell people what the process is for when you can vote again [after release from prison] or how you can vote again.”

Another two bills filed in the Texas House of Representatives would expand Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s power to prosecute election crimes, something he has prioritized since he took office in 2015. One bill would allow the office to appoint special prosecutors on the cases and the other would penalize local prosecutors who “limit election law enforcement.”

On the opposite side of the aisle, Democrats are advancing bills to support their own priority: expanding voting access. One bill filed in the House would allow Texans to complete their voter registration application online, something the majority of states in the U.S. already permit.

“We all want safe and secure elections, and we have that in Texas,” said Rep. John Bucy III, D-Austin, who filed a bill relating to electronic voter registration. “We just need to figure out how to make them more accessible to Texans.”

Bucy also proposed legislation to improve access to a tracker he helped introduce during the last session for applications for vote by mail. Overall, Bucy said he is hopeful that bills clamping down on election security won’t take center stage during this session.

“These are distraction bills to appease Donald Trump and his faction,” Bucy said. “I don’t think the people of the House will stand for it.”

The deadline to file a bill is March 11, the 60th day of the legislative session.

Disclosure: Common Cause and Secure Democracy 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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Texas Republican loser's election complaint tossed after he fails to pay fee

A losing Republican candidate’s case to overturn his November 2022 election results was dismissed this week by one of the state’s top legislative leaders.

Republican Mike May had filed what’s known as an election contest with the Texas secretary of state’s office in early December, asking the Legislature to void the results of the midterm election and order a new one. Texas’ election law allows any candidate to contest the results.

May, who ran to represent House District 135 in the Houston area, lost his bid to Democratic incumbent Jon Rosenthal by more than 6,000 votes. May argued in his petition that the results of the election were not the “true outcome” because of paper ballot shortages at some polling places in Houston on Election Day.

House Speaker Dade Phelan this week dismissed May’s case, citing May’s failure to comply with procedural rules laid out in the election law. In a Jan. 9 letter addressed to May and obtained by The Texas Tribune, Phelan said the election contest was dismissed because May had not submitted the "security of costs" fee to the House of Representatives on time.

May could not immediately be reached for comment.

Rosenthal said he felt that May’s challenge was “without merit” and that he was pleased with the dismissal.

“For a challenge to be sustained, you have to demonstrate that a specific number of voters who would have voted for you were disenfranchised,” Rosenthal said. “This challenge had no claims like that.”

May was one of more than 20 losing Republican candidates in Harris County who filed election contests, citing reports of Election Day issues. According to the county’s recent post-election assessment, some November polling sites opened late and ran out of paper, issues that losing candidates argue prevented people from voting on Election Day. The report said the county investigation “has not yet revealed” whether any voters were turned away.

Unlike May’s challenge, the other contests mostly came from candidates who ran for judicial offices, including Republican Alexandra del Moral Mealer, who ran to be county judge of Texas’ most populous county but lost to incumbent Lina Hidalgo.

Those contests are all being handled by a district court, not by the Legislature. The cases are expected to proceed over the next few months, according to Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee.

In a Wednesday statement, Menefee applauded the Legislature for dismissing May’s contest.

“This quick dismissal shows these election contests are largely about political posturing and undermining our democratic processes,” Menefee said. “I thank Speaker Phelan and Representative Morgan Meyer for upholding the law and ensuring the will of the voters stands.”

Harris County Democratic Party Chair Odus Evbagharu said in a statement that the election contests are part of an effort to “fuel election denialism” and he hopes the remaining contests are dismissed.

“This feeble attempt to grasp at straws has become a sad tradition for Republican candidates,” Evbagharu said. “I’m happy that Representative Rosenthal can now spend his time this session focusing on passing legislation that will improve the lives of the residents of House District 135.”

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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

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Conspiracy theorists and 16-hour days: Inside the stress elections officials face ahead of the midterms

NACOGDOCHES — Since Todd Stallings began working in Nacogdoches County’s elections office in 2003, his responsibilities have grown exponentially.

So has his stress.

First came a shift toward digital voting records, along with new state legislation that created more duties for elections officials. Then, accusations of foreign interference in the 2016 presidential race stoked the public’s fear about election integrity. And conspiracy theories about voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election have led to heightened scrutiny.

Although election deniers at one point concentrated their efforts in states like Arizona and Georgia, supporters of former President Donald Trump have since sent a barrage of public information requests to elections offices nationwide, including those in the smallest and reddest Texas counties, where Trump won handsomely.

So on top of fulfilling their normal job duties, such as preparing ballots and updating polling information, officials are fielding questions from concerned voters. The increased demands have left some workers burned out. According to the secretary of state’s office, 30% of Texas elections workers have left their jobs since 2020. In one county, the entire elections administrator’s office resigned.

“There’s just more and more to do,” Stallings said. “Which is fine, but it’s when there’s stuff we aren’t prepared for — that’s what kind of turns everyone into a panic.”

Growing public scrutiny

In the weeks leading up to an election, Stallings’ East Texas office phone is always ringing. He puts in 12- to 16-hour days six or seven days a week to make sure everything runs smoothly.

[Trump allies probe for election system weaknesses in Texas and other key states]

Lately, his days are even longer, as he’s hustling to respond to emails from activists across the country — Los Angeles, New York, New Jersey — who are asking for ballot images from November 2020.

“Answering emails can just eat up a big part of your day,” Stallings said. He and his colleagues are usually doing “customer service” until 5 p.m., at which point they can finally start to work on administrative and planning duties.

Todd Stallings looks through curbside voting information October 3, 2022 at the elections office in Nacogdoches on Oct. 3, 2022.

Todd Stallings looks through curbside voting information at the county elections office in Nacogdoches on Oct. 3, 2022. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

About 80 miles south in Jasper, County Clerk Holly Thomas will administer her first election in November. Since the county does not have a singular elections office, her team runs the election while the tax assessor’s office handles registration.

Thomas is anxious as she tries to keep up with a growing list of responsibilities and public demands. On top of her normal duties, she meets with members of the public who visit her office and ask to inspect voting machines, see where ballots are stored or dissect Election Day procedures.

“One person is particularly persistent,” Thomas said. “He’s wanting to know why it’s this way or why it’s that way.”

Larger counties in Texas are experiencing even more public scrutiny. In Williamson County, just north of Austin, the elections administrator’s office has filled nearly 100 public information requests this year, more than the previous six years combined.

“Some of these requests are being fielded on the backs of unfounded doubts and fears — that is problematic,” said Chris Davis, the elections administrator. “But our job as election officers is to peel back that curtain and to listen to folks with their concerns.”

Tarrant County, the state’s third most populous county, plans to hire a new part-time employee to respond to public information requests related to elections.

The county’s elections administrator, Heider Garcia, has been the target of vitriolic attacks on rightwing social media sites. Garcia worked for election technology company Smartmatic before moving to Texas, and rightwing activists have accused him of facilitating voter fraud in the Philippines when he worked for Smartmatic.

Garcia said the allegations are false, and in testimony submitted to a U.S. Senate Committee, he shared screenshots of the messages he received and recounted an incident in which his home address was posted publicly.

“Can you imagine the level of stress this put on us?” Garcia wrote. “I could not sleep that night, I just sat in the living room, until around 3:00 a.m., just waiting to see if anyone had read this and decided to act on it.”

The newest stressor elections offices face involves a stunning legal opinion by Attorney General Ken Paxton that appears to conflict with existing state and federal laws.

State law dictates that elections offices keep ballots secure for 22 months after an election. But Paxton’s opinion, which contradicts an opinion he issued just a few days earlier, states that elections offices can grant access to ballots as soon as the day after they are counted.

The nonbinding opinion has left some counties wondering how to handle public information requests they will likely receive following the November election.

“How do we handle a request for information that we are still not sure, by reading the law, can be released?” Davis asked.

Strict voting laws

Texas has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country. And after the 2020 presidential election, Texas was one of 18 states to pass even more restrictive laws. Texas’ sweeping voting legislation, often referred to as Senate Bill 1, was championed by Republicans and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott last fall. It took effect in December.

The law includes a number of changes: a ban on drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting sites, increased penalties for voting crimes, more protections for poll watchers and new voter assistance rules. The law also added identification requirements for voting by mail, requiring voters to provide their driver’s license number or Social Security number on both their application and ballot.

When that law went into effect, elections administrators had just a few months to parse through the new language and understand what they needed to do in order to comply. The law was also the subject of multiple lawsuits, including one from the U.S. Department of Justice.

In March, thousands of Texans who voted under the new law had their ballots rejected because they did not meet the new, stricter voter identification laws.

Those laws also piled on more labor for election workers, who must individually process each vote-by-mail application and ballot and determine whether the voter meets the strict identification requirements. In some cases, election workers said they had to call voters to have them verify information.

Stallings said his team made more than 100 calls to voters who left off information on their vote-by-mail application.

Deborah Miller, who has worked elections for more than four decades in Nacogdoches County, said the mail-in ballots are still poorly designed, causing voters to forget to include certain required information that election workers must then try to obtain through follow-up phone calls.

Election officials are trying to provide clearer instructions to avoid these hassles. But with higher expected turnout this November, there may be a learning curve.

“We anticipate seeing people voting by mail for the first time since the new legislation,” said Davis, whose county experienced an 11.5% rejection rate in the March primary. “We’re hoping to avoid such a large rejection again.”

Tarrant County’s Garcia said despite the increasing tension, his belief in public service has kept him working as an elections administrator, a job he views as imperative to maintaining a functional democracy.

“It’s not winning a Super Bowl or being a movie star,” Garcia said. “It’s a quiet role — or at least it used to be — but a very important one.”

As for Stallings, he isn’t sure how many more years he’ll be working elections in Nacogdoches County.

Voter information signs at the elections office in Nacogdoches.

Voter information signs at the elections office in Nacogdoches. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

Todd Stallings poses for a portrait at the elections office in Nacogdoches on Oct. 3, 2022.

Todd Stallings poses for a portrait at the elections office in Nacogdoches on Oct. 3, 2022. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

First: Voter information signs at the county elections office in Nacogdoches. Last: Stallings in the Nacogdoches County elections office on Oct. 3, 2022. Credit: Mark Felix for The texas Tribune

“At this point, I’m kind of evaluating things on a year-by-year basis because the field of elections continues to become more tense each year,” Stallings said. “I don’t expect that will stop anytime soon.”

When he started, he had recently graduated from Stephen F. Austin University with a degree in marketing and was working as a DJ on the weekends. He needed something more stable and stumbled across an opening in the elections administrator’s office.

Twenty years later he’s still there, thanks to his faith and the community, he said.

“I think if you take this job, then you owe it to the public to do everything you can to deliver a good election for them, even if it gets really difficult.”

Disclosure: The 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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

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

Does a fetus count in the carpool lane? Abortion laws create new questions about legal personhood

When a pregnant North Texas woman was pulled over for driving alone in a high-occupancy vehicle lane, she protested.

“I just felt that there were two of us in [the car] and I was wrongly getting ticketed,” the driver, Brandy Bottone, told The Dallas Morning News in July.

Bottone argued that under Texas’ abortion laws, which went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion, a fetus is considered a living being. She argued the same should be true when it comes to the state’s traffic laws.

“I’m not trying to make a political stance here,” Bottone said, “but in light of everything that is happening, this is a baby.”

Dallas County officials are now facing unprecedented legal questions about what defines “personhood.” While the district attorney’s office dismissed Bottone’s first citation, she was ticketed a second time in August.

Legal experts, meanwhile, warn that this traffic incident is just a small piece of a larger puzzle considering what it means to treat a fetus the same as a person. Debates about “fetal personhood” have been happening nationwide since the 1960s, when many abortion opponents started championing the idea. In Texas, abortion opponents are divided over whether a fetal personhood law is worth pursuing. But the concept is gaining traction nationwide and could become increasingly salient in Texas, where nearly all abortions have been banned and fetuses already have some legal rights.

“Historically, conversations about fetal personhood have been about introducing increasingly harsh penalties for people who either perform abortions or ‘aid and abet’ abortions,” said Mary Ziegler, a legal historian focusing on abortion at University of California Davis School of Law. “That isn’t the only way you can think about personhood.”

An expansive concept

During the 1960s and ’70s, abortion opponents pushed for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would define life as beginning at the point of fertilization. Such an amendment would have automatically criminalized abortion across the country. But it would also raise all sorts of new questions such as whether a fetus should be included when determining child tax credits, in census counts — or even as a passenger in an HOV lane.

Critics say that lawmakers haven’t fully considered these legal questions. Georgia is the only state with a “fetal personhood law” in effect, according to The Guttmacher Institute, and that state is still trying to figure out exactly how to apply that law.

Kimberley Harris, who teaches constitutional law with an emphasis on reproductive rights at Texas Tech University School of Law, warns that the ultimate impact of fetal personhood laws would be to regulate the decisions of pregnant people.

“If the fetus is now a person,” Harris said, someone who consumes alcohol while pregnant “could be guilty of child endangerment.

“You could potentially be guilty of manslaughter or murder if you had a miscarriage and weren’t taking proper precautions,” she said.

Already, such cases are underway in states like Alabama, where voters have adopted a constitutional amendment protecting fetal rights. The state can legally sentence women to up to 99 years in prison for using drugs during pregnancy and then miscarrying. At least 20 women in the state have faced the harshest possible criminal charges for using drugs and then suffering pregnancy loss, The Marshall Project reported.

Rebecca Kluchin, a reproductive health historian at California State University, Sacramento, said that fetal personhood laws hark back to the era of forced sterilization, when states could forcibly sterilize people deemed unfit to procreate. She said that if fetal personhood is more widely recognized, more women could be forced to undergo unwanted medical interventions, such as cesarean sections, if a doctor believes that treatment is in the interest of the fetus.

“A doctor can say, ‘You need this to save your fetus,’ and it doesn’t matter what you want,” Kluchin explained. “And that takes women’s ability to consent out.”

No U.S. or Texas laws on fetal personhood

Although a constitutional amendment granting fetal personhood has been introduced more than 300 times in Congress, it has never gained significant traction. The U.S. Supreme Court has also declined to weigh in on fetal personhood. In the recent Dobbs decision, Justice Samuel Alito wrote: “Our opinion is not based on any view about if and when prenatal life is entitled to any of the rights enjoyed after birth.”

At the state level, lawmakers in several conservative states have championed fetal personhood laws, though only Georgia’s and Arizona’s have passed, and Arizona’s is currently blocked by a judge.

Texas Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, filed a bill in the last legislative session that would provide due process to a fetus. That bill died in committee.

Toth did not respond to an inquiry about his agenda for the upcoming session.

State Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, filed a bill last year that would allow families to apply for “life certificates” for their “preborn child.” Similar to a birth certificate, the document would acknowledge the personhood of a fetus, although it’s unclear what types of rights such a certificate would grant. That bill died on the House calendar.

Texas’ abortion opponents remain divided

While certain conservative legislators are advancing bills granting legal rights for the fetus, anti-abortion activists said fetal personhood is not a priority. John Seago, president of Texas Right to Life — a statewide anti-abortion organization — said that while he ethically supports fetal rights, he is more focused on ensuring that current abortion laws are enforced.

“We have district attorneys who are not enforcing pro-life laws,” Seago said. “And so instead of adding a new law, we need to enforce what’s already there.”

At Texas Alliance for Life, another anti-abortion nonprofit organization, president Joe Pojman said he did not support Toth’s personhood bill because fetuses already have sufficient rights in Texas.

“I didn’t see anything that was not already in the Texas law,” Pojman said, adding that references to fetal rights are scattered throughout Texas’ legal code. Texas’ Estates Code, for example, protects inheritance rights for fetuses. And Texas’ Advance Directives Act, which would allow a doctor to end life support for certain patients, does not apply to pregnant women.

For nearly 20 years, Texas has also afforded fetuses legal rights when it comes to criminal cases. The Texas Penal Code was updated in 2003 to identify an “unborn child at every state of gestation from fertilization until birth” as an individual for cases of murder and assault. That law has been upheld by Texas’ highest criminal court of appeals, allowing the state to prosecute individuals who cause the “death of or injury to an unborn child.”

In one recent case, a Texas man was imprisoned for life without parole after being found guilty of capital murder. A jury found the man guilty of causing the death of his ex-wife’s 5-week-old fetus.

Since Texas banned nearly all abortions, a person could conceivably be prosecuted for capital murder for performing a medical procedure that was legal just three months ago. Texas law explicitly exempts the pregnant patient from being charged with murder in the death of their fetus. And no prosecutor has yet tried to use the capital murder charge for abortion. Experts say prosecutors are more likely to charge Texas abortion providers under the state’s trigger law, which makes performing an abortion punishable by up to life in prison.

Eleanor Klibanoff contributed to this article.

Disclosure: Texas Tech University 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.

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