After Walkout, Texas Voting Showdown Part II Looms

The Texas Legislature is trying again after Democrats staged an abrupt walkout in May to kill a Republican plan narrowing voting options in the state.

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AUSTIN — The issues and arguments were familiar, but the road ahead revolved around a more novel question as nearly 100 witnesses lined a Capitol hallway awaiting the start of an 8 a.m. committee hearing on voting rights in Texas: Do Democrats have a second act?

The hearings were being held just days after the start of the 30-day special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott to craft a revised version of a voting bill that House Democrats killed with an abrupt quorum-busting walkout in May in the final hours of the regular 140-day legislative session.

Seemingly energized and united, House and Senate Democrats have vowed to do everything necessary to kill the legislation a second time, hinting that they are prepared to resort to another bold move, like another walkout.

But facing solid Republican majorities in both houses and an equally united Republican Party, it was unclear if Democrats could either get a better deal to protect voting rights in the state or find a way to stymie whatever plan Republicans eventually agree on.

“All options are on the table,” Sen. Carol Alvarado said at a Democratic news conference on Friday.

In a year in which Republican led-states around the country have pared back the ability to vote, the legislative process in Texas has been among the most contentious.

“This is the single greatest coordinated attack on democracy in our lifetimes, and perhaps in the life of this country,” declared Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat and a former U.S. representative, echoing the party’s contention that the Republican bills would suppress access to the polls, particularly for members of minority groups and low-income residents.

Senior Republicans reiterated their contention that the legislation was not as extreme as Democrats were contending.

“We all want to work toward a better election process that’s safe and accessible, and that’s what Senate Bill 1 does,” Bryan Hughes, the Republican chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee, said as the committee opened its hearing on his Senate version of the election overhaul.

“Unfortunately, this one’s become bitterly partisan,” he said. “It’s become fashionable to say that Texas is the hardest state in which to vote, and that’s just baseless.”

In fact, studies consistently put Texas near the top of the list of states that make it harder to register and vote, which explains, in part, why the stakes are viewed as so high.

Mr. O’Rourke, a former Democratic presidential candidate who has taken a lead role in his party’s campaign against the Republican bills, even suggested that Democrats could potentially leave the state to break a quorum if they were unable to defeat the bills through traditional legislative channels.

He said he did not know if such a tactic was under consideration, though he added that such an “extraordinary” move to block the bills would have his support.

Mr. O’Rourke was among hundreds who had traveled to Austin in the hope of testifying before the Senate or House committees holding hearings on the bills.

Though retooled from the regular session, the voting bills in both houses resurrected most of the ingredients in the original legislation. Both would ban 24-hour voting and drive-through voting sites, prohibit election officials from proactively sending out absentee ballot applications to voters who had not requested them, add new voter identification requirements for voting by mail, increase the criminal penalties for election workers who run afoul of regulations, limit what assistance could be provided to voters and expand the authority and autonomy of partisan poll watchers.

But in what Democrats claimed as a partial victory, the latest bills jettisoned two contentious provisions from the first round, removing a limitation on Sunday voting and a provision that would have made it easier to overturn an election.

The committee chairmen — Mr. Hughes and, in the House, Trent Ashby — both signaled the likelihood of a late-hours session, but it was unclear whether either committee would approve a bill on Saturday to send to the floor of either chamber. The final version of a voter overhaul is likely to be crafted by a House-Senate negotiating committee.

Texas follows several other battleground states controlled by Republicans that have passed substantial overhauls of their election laws and enacted new voting restrictions this year. Since January, at least 22 bills that make voting more difficult have been signed into law in 14 states.

Participants in the hearings were as divided as the legislators were. Gerald Welty, a 72-year-old retired electronics technician, sported a red “Trump 2024” cap and a red jersey emblazoned with “No. 1 USA” on the front and “America” on the back.

Mr. Welty, who lives in the small town of Cibolo, near San Antonio, said more restrictions were needed to weed out corruption and vote harvesting in the election system.

“The penalties need to be a lot more harsh,” said Mr. Welty, who spent a total of 23 years in the military reserve and on active duty. “They can’t make them hard enough to keep these people from cheating.”

Edward Jones, a school bus driver from Killeen, also in Central Texas, wore a white knit shirt reading “It is in our” and a symbol that Mr. Jones said meant “D.N.A.” The word “vote” was also printed on his dark blue cap.

He said the House and Senate bills would impair access to the polls, particularly for members of minority groups and low-income Texans. “We’re going backwards when we should be going forward,” he said.

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