The law just passed by the Texas legislature — and headed to Governor Greg Abbott’s desk, where it will be signed — isn’t necessarily the worst voter-suppression bill state-level Republicans have been pushing this year. But S.B. 1 without question was the most bitterly opposed by Democrats, who literally went the extra mile in delaying enactment of the bill as long as possible while drawing attention to its sinister purposes. Texas Democratic legislators stopped it by denying Republicans a quorum during the regular session in May and again during two special sessions this summer. On the latter occasion, Democrats dealt with threats of arrest by fleeing en masse to Washington, D.C., where they pressed the Senate to enact national voting-rights legislation that might preempt voter-suppression measures throughout the U.S.
But the Texas Democrats couldn’t stay on strike forever, and once enough of them had returned to Austin to restore a quorum for the passage of legislation, Republicans resolved their own internal differences over the final version of the voting and elections bill, and got it done. The final Democratic act of defiance was a 15-hour Senate filibuster by Carol Alvarado of Harris County (Houston), the jurisdiction whose voters were the most prominent target of GOP suppression efforts.
S.B. 1 has some statewide measures designed to restrict voting by mail while encouraging partisan scrutiny of voters of color, along with statewide “standards” banning steps taken in 2020 by key urban districts to make it easier for pandemic-stricken and working-class voters to cast ballots conveniently.
In the former category are new ID requirements for those who overcome the state’s highly restrictive rules governing absentee ballots (they are only available to those over 65 or people with specific disabilities); tight new regulations on how and whether voters with disabilities can receive assistance from others in reading or casting ballots; and fresh protections for partisan poll-watchers (a Republican specialty in minority areas where intimidation of voters is deemed helpful to the GOP). The provisions aimed at excessively pro-voter local governments were drafted in particular to rule out Harris County’s 2020 innovations like 24-hour early voting and curbside ballot drop-offs. The bill also keeps local election boards from proactively sending absentee ballot applications to voters eligible to cast them, although political parties will still enjoy that prerogative.
There was one pro-voter provision nestled into the new law, giving voters making technical errors in absentee ballots an opportunity to cure them. But an effort to ensure that voters who are not aware they are ineligible aren’t prosecuted for voter fraud (as in the infamous case of Crystal Mason, a Black woman who is appealing a five-year prison sentence for inadvertent illegal voting) failed at the last minute. The whole mess that wound up on Abbott’s desk is not a pretty sight, but will be pleasing to red-state partisan warriors everywhere, who fear the nation’s second-largest state will turn blue without some pushback.