Lawmakers in Texas, a state that already claims the most onerous voting laws in the nation, on Thursday took a major step toward making it even tougher to cast a ballot, the latest in a bevy of Republican-backed efforts to restrict voting ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
The State Senate approved an overhaul of election law that would roll back many steps taken by counties last year to facilitate voting during the pandemic and impose new curbs in their place, including statewide limits on polling-place hours, a new formula for locating polling places and a ban on drop boxes that were widely used nationwide last year to assist mail-in voters.
The proposal also would ban anyone except the voter who filled out a ballot from dropping it in a mailbox or delivering it to an election official. It adds new paperwork requirements for voters who need help because of language problems or disabilities. And it would give so-called poll watchers — untrained monitors, usually chosen by candidates or party officials, who are stationed inside polling places — the right to videotape voters if they deem them suspicious.
The Texas measure comes on the heels of efforts in Iowa and Georgia, where lawmakers significantly tightened voting rules last month. The Georgia measure has been criticized by executives of several major companies with headquarters in the state. In Arizona, two Republican-backed bills that would erect roadblocks to voting by mail — the method used by eight in 10 voters — are approaching final votes in the State Legislature.
American Airlines, which is based in Fort Worth, said in a statement on Thursday that it was “strongly opposed” to the bill that passed the Texas Senate “and others like it.”
A similar bill moved through the Texas House’s elections committee on Thursday. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, made tougher voting laws a priority for the current legislative session after party leaders and some legislators embraced the baseless claim that a wave of fraudulent votes was responsible for President Biden’s election last fall. (Though President Donald J. Trump won Texas, drawing 52 percent of the vote.)
Despite no evidence of significant election fraud in Texas last year, supporters of the bills in both chambers say those and other measures are necessary to make the state’s elections more secure.
“This bill is designed to address areas throughout the process where bad actors can take advantage, so Texans can feel confident that their elections are fair, honest and open,” State Senator Bryan Hughes, a Republican from Mineola, about 100 miles east of Dallas, said during Senate debate on the measure.
But David Becker, an expert on election administration who directs the Center for Election Innovation and Research in Washington, said the legislation ultimately would make voting less secure by encouraging voters who would normally vote by mail or in person during early voting periods to vote on Election Day. What little fraud exists can often be spotted by analyzing the ballots cast before Election Day, he said, while fraud or cyberattacks are harder to detect and address in the crush of a big Election Day turnout.
Another provision would delay a statewide requirement to use auditable paper ballots until 2026, a move that would almost certainly make Texas the last state in the nation to carry out that basic security measure.
Critics of the Senate bill said most of its provisions were less about making voting secure than about making it harder, particularly for urban voters and minority voters, two groups that tend to vote for Democrats.
They called the clause allowing partisan monitors to videotape voters an invitation to intimidation, and noted that the voters most likely to be recorded — those with language problems who need assistance filling out a ballot — were disproportionately people of color.
Similarly, they said, clauses limiting voting hours to 6 a.m. to. 9 p.m., banning drive-through voting and changing the formula for allotting polling places in counties with more than one million residents would apply largely to counties with big cities like Houston, which expanded its voting hours and allowed for drive-through balloting in November.
The Senate bill was widely opposed by the state’s local election officials, including those in many of the biggest urban areas.
Stephanie Gómez, the associate director of the advocacy group Common Cause Texas, said in a video conference with reporters that the two bills were “weaponizing legislation to codify widespread voter intimidation.”
“If you want to know which state is going to be the next Georgia,” she said, “it’s Texas.”