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Did The Democrats' Walkout Actually Stop New Voting Restrictions In Texas? Well, Kind Of.

Demonstrators rally for voting rights protections outside the state Capitol last month.
Demonstrators rally for voting rights protections outside the state Capitol last month.

A GOP voting bill Texas Democrats tried to stop by fleeing to Washington could soon be on the governor's desk.

House members will start hearings on the controversial bill soon after enough Democrats returned to Texas to establish a quorum.

But a voting rights expert who has closely read every iteration of the bill says all the stalling from Democrats wasn’t a wasted effort.

James Slattery, a staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said Senate Bill 1 still amounts to a “massive attack on the voting rights of Texans."

But, he said, the latest version is slightly better than what almost passed in late May when Texas Democrats denied Republicans a quorum for the first time this year.

“If one were to ask me were the quorum breaks worth it? I think absolutely,” he said. “The situation for voters in Texas would be much worse if it hadn’t happened.”

That initial walkout right before a final vote on the bill stopped two measures that even Republicans distanced themselves from. One was a ban on voting Sunday mornings, when many Black churchgoers go to the polls.

In July, Republican state Rep. Travis Clardy of East Texas said the ban was basically “a scrivener's error.”

“That was not intended to be reduced,” he told NPR's Steve Inskeep. “I think there was a — you know, call it a mistake if you want to.”

Before it passed in the Senate, however, Republicans defended the measure.

“Those election workers want to go to church, too," state Sen. Bryan Hughes, a sponsor of the bill, said. “You can make Sunday evening service and go vote after that.”

Slattery said another provision that could have made it in if not for the walkout would have allowed election judges to overturn election results if there was a preponderance of evidence — not proof, though — of voter fraud.

According to that version of the bill, a judge may "void" an election "without attempting to determine how individual voters voted."

Clardy told NPR that measure "was lost in translation,” despite the fact that Democrats in the House raised concerns about it on the floor leading up to what was supposed to be a final vote. No Republican mentioned it was an error, either.

Slattery said another provision that got ditched would “shrink” the kinds of disabilities a person could have to be eligible to vote by mail.

“Those provisions are gone,” he said. “You can see a trend of the bills getting better.”

Among other tweaks are changes to a new ID requirement for vote by mail that could have resulted in many folks having their ballots thrown out because the ID they used to register to vote didn’t match the kind of ID they used on their ballot.

Slattery said this provision is still “imperfect,” but it is now less likely that someone’s ballot will be thrown out erroneously.

During the special sessions, the legislature also changed provisions related to new restrictions for voters who need assistance at the polls.

At a Senate hearing this month, Jeff Miller with Disability Rights Texas told lawmakers this latest bill does address some of the issues his group raised the last few times Republicans took up voting bills. That includes removing a curbside voting rule that required everyone else in a car to get out while someone was voting in it.

But ultimately, if passed, Miller said the legislation will “end up disenfranchising voters with disabilities." He said some measures in SB 1 would limit the types of accommodations voters with disabilities could receive at the polls and while voting by mail.

“It seeks to limit the kinds of assistance that people with disabilities are entitled to under federal law,” Miller said, “and it creates new paperwork and new oath barriers for people who want to assist voters with disabilities."

Slattery also noted a provision that allows partisan poll watchers near free rein at polling sites has been stripped of language that would have allowed them to videotape voters.

“Overtime the advocacy has watered down those provisions,” he said.

But overall, Slattery said, the impact of this latest bill is similar to what Democrats have been trying to stop: It will limit access to the ballot and make it harder for local election officials to make voting easy and safe.

“It imposes a lot of one-size-fits-all rules,” he said. "[Republicans] are trying to micromanage local election offices because they didn’t like the results of the last election.”

Got a tip? Email Ashley Lopez at alopez@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.

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