The top legislative story across the country right now is the Republican-led effort to greatly restrict voting rights in swing states like Florida, Georgia, and Texas. Our own Legislature is currently involved in a fight on what the final bill will look like, and it’s frankly gotten weird.
Currently, there are two bills, HB 6 and SB 7. The former is the brainchild of State Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park), who made headlines by joining the Trump Administration in one of their many failed attempts to overthrow the presidential election in Pennsylvania. Cain has been Governor Greg Abbott’s point man on rolling back voter access under the name of “election integrity.”
So, his latest move is probably not all that surprising. HB 6 has not made it out of the lower chamber yet, but the Senate version of voter rights rollbacks has already passed the upper chamber. Rather than continue with his own bill, which is co-sponsored by 70 other Republicans and no Democrats, he simply gutted the Senate bill and replaced it with the language from HB 6.
There are pretty significant differences between the two bills that are likely to cause a raucous inter-party fight. For instance, Cain’s version significantly empowers and protects partisan election watchers, a move that voting rights activists think will lead to voter intimidation. It also criminalizes election workers if they treat watchers unfairly. The bill also has deeply invasive provisions for people assisting others with mail-in voting as well as making it illegal to send out mail-in-voting applications without being asked first, even for government employees.
SB 7 is less draconian by comparison, but still institutes sharp restrictions on voting hours and mail-in voting. It also limits the number of machines in any one voting place to the amount that is the smallest number present in any voting location in the state. This is likely to create long lines in urban, more Democratic areas.
These were apparently not enough for Cain, who launched his legislative coup last Thursday in committee. Every Democrat on the committee immediately objected, as did at least one Republican. Chaos ensued as Cain tried to say the substitution was passed without objection, but the change was eventually made later that evening on a partisan 5-4 vote. Cain’s argument for the substitution was that the lengthy debates on the House bill were sufficient to justify its passage and that there was no time to fully consider the Senate bill in its own form.
Speaker Dade Phelan endorsed the move. A spokesman from his office told the Texas Tribune that he supports “the language contained in HB 6 and in the interest of having as many viable vehicles for that legislation, we also support putting the HB 6 language into SB 7.”
Update May 4, 5:09 PM: Instead of sending the legislation further along in the legislative process, the leadership of the Texas House has placed HB 6 on the Major State Calendar for Thursday.