After an early misfire, House Republicans on Thursday succeeded in pushing their proposed restrictions on voting to the legislative forefront as the Texas Legislature’s 2021 session enters its final sprint.
The House Elections Committee’s Republican majority voted to gut Senate Bill 7, the priority voting bill that has already passed the Senate, and replace the bill’s language with that of House Bill 6, a significantly different voting bill favored by House leadership. That maneuvering will put the Senate on the defensive to resurrect its legislation and likely tee up end-of-session tension between the two chambers over competing visions for which proposed restrictions ultimately make it to the governor’s desk.
As passed in the Senate, SB 7 clamps down on early voting rules and hours, restricts how voters can receive applications to vote by mail and regulates the distribution of polling places in diverse urban counties, among several other provisions in the expansive bill. The legislation passed the Senate with support from the chamber’s Republican majority and was awaiting action in the House.
HB 6, approved by the committee’s Republican majority earlier this month, would restrict the distribution of applications to vote by mail, require people assisting voters to disclose the reason a voter might need help in casting their ballot — even if for medical reasons — and enhance protections for partisan poll watchers, including criminal liability for election workers for their treatment of watchers.
On first try, a morning committee meeting descended into chaos when state Rep. Briscoe Cain, the committee’s chair, blindsided his colleagues with a motion to substitute SB 7 with HB 6, which he authored. That effort failed when another GOP lawmaker didn’t vote to follow along after Cain pressed forward, saying there were no objections to adopting the substitute language even as Democrats, shouting at times, continued to object.
The committee reconvened Thursday evening and advanced SB 7 on a 5-4 vote, after rejecting several proposed Democratic amendments.
As things stand now, SB 7 is a duplicate version of HB 6. The Senate can still revive its priorities if the full House approves the rewritten SB 7 and lawmakers from both chambers convene to cut a deal.
Caught off guard earlier in the day, Democrats on the committee said they were handed the replacement language minutes before they were asked to vote, and repeatedly objected to the move, which would preempt any public hearing by the House on SB 7’s provisions that differ substantially from Cain’s substitute.
“I feel that SB 7 is a significant piece of legislation that we should hold a hearing on it,” said state Rep. John Bucy, D-Austin.
“I agree, but we are doing a committee substitute to match it to House Bill 6, and we’ve already heard a complete hearing on that exact language,” Cain responded. He argued that the committee’s lengthy hearing on HB 6 was “sufficient.”
“These two bills are substantially different — you have said that time and time again in committee. Many times you have said these bills are totally different when somebody compared it to SB 7,” said state Rep. Jessica González, a Dallas Democrat who serves as vice chair of the committee. “I have to object. This is wrong. We deserve to have a public hearing on this.”
The meeting erupted into chaos as lawmakers spoke over each other and Democrats pushed back on Cain. After adopting the substituted language, Cain then quickly called for a vote so the rewritten bill could head to the House Calendars Committee, which determines whether bills make it to the full Texas House for a vote. But he was forced to withdraw his proposal after state Rep. Travis Clardy said he would “pass” and refused to cast a vote. Without the Nacogdoches Republican’s vote — and Democrats on the committee voting against the bill — there weren’t enough votes for it to make it out of the committee.
When lawmakers returned to the committee later Thursday, Clardy fell in line with his Republican colleagues.
The push to replace the Senate’s priority election bill with Cain’s proposals likely serves as an indication of how far apart the House and the Senate are on what changes the Legislature should make to voting this session. Instead of uniting behind identical, or even substantially similar bills, each chamber has moved forward with different measures.
See here and here for some background. I recommend reading Emily Eby’s Twitter thread for the inside look and feel of the chaos that reigned. Briscoe Cain is an idiot, but let’s be clear, the Republicans are not going to let him fail. A voter suppression bill is going to pass, one way or another, because that’s what the Republicans want and they have the numbers to do it. If one of the adults in the room has to hold Briscoe Cain’s hand to make it happen, they will. I don’t quite understand the pissing contest between the House and the Senate – there are differences between SB7 and HB6, but in the end they’re both big voter suppression bills and they both suck – but that’s not my lane. I wish I could envision a scenario where the wheels all fall off and they eventually give up, but I can’t. Some form of one of these bills will pass. The rest is just cosplay.