Here are the Texas election bills to watch with a month left in the legislative session
By Natalia Contreras, Votebeat Texas
During the 2021 legislative session, Texas lawmakers responding to baseless claims of widespread voter fraud after the 2020 presidential election backed a sweeping law that reworked voting by mail and put election workers under new scrutiny. House Democrats, in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to deprive the chamber of a quorum and block the law’s passage, fled the state.
This year, there’s been less drama. But some of the election legislation most likely to emerge from this session also has the potential to reshape processes around the state, and many bills stem from Election Day stumbles in Harris County, the state’s largest.
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican who represents part of Harris County, filed about a dozen election-related bills, and “the genesis” of all of them, he said, were Harris County’s Election Day problems.
“This is about a catastrophic lack of performance in Harris County,” Bettencourt said during an hourslong Senate committee hearing last month. “It’s too big to ignore. The state can’t afford this type of problem in Harris County, and neither can the residents.”
Last month, Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum told Votebeat his office was prepared to answer lawmakers’ questions if requested, but Harris County officials have yet to testify in front of either the Senate or the House this legislative session.
Tatum also said, however, that the bills before the state Legislature do not provide solutions to the problems Harris or other counties have experienced. “What resolves those issues is providing resources that allow us to address those issues,” Tatum said.
During last November’s midterm election, hundreds of Harris County voters waited for hours, contending with delayed openings and malfunctioning voting machines across multiple polling locations. Other polling sites ran out of ballot paper.
A recent investigation by the Houston Chronicle found that the county’s Election Day problems were not as widespread as Bettencourt and even Gov. Greg Abbott have said. But the county has yet to address whether the problems that day prevented anyone from voting, which can be hard to gauge because Harris County voters can cast ballots at any site countywide.
The problems prompted the local Republican Party and several candidates to sue the county and the elections administrator, seeking a new election. Trial dates have been set for June.
With about a month left in this legislative session, bills giving state officials more authority over local elections appear poised to win lawmakers’ support. As Votebeat has reported, bills such as these could have implications for the hiring and retention of elections officials and could change the working dynamic between the counties and the secretary of state’s office. Some voting rights groups such as the League of Women Voters say this type of legislation is also concerning because it “infringes on the rights of county governments” who are best positioned to address the needs of their voters.
People in Texas say they’re proponents of local control, said Daniel Griffith, senior director of policy at Secure Democracy USA, an election policy advocacy nonprofit organization, but “these bills certainly seem to be really contrary to those trends and those ideas around letting local voters decide who’s going to make the decision for them,” he said.
Key deadlines to pass legislation are next week, and Texas lawmakers must end the session by May 29. Most of the outstanding bills still must be approved by a second chamber. Among the bills moving forward that would give the state more election oversight:
These are the other election administration and voting bills gaining momentum this session to watch closely:
There are also bills that aim to expand voting access and address obstacles in election administration. Here’s where they stand heading into the last month of the session:
Natalia Contreras is a reporter for Votebeat covering election administration and voting access in partnership with the Texas Tribune. Contact Natalia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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