After All-Night Hearing, Texas Republicans Advance Voting Measure

AUSTIN — After an extraordinary all-night hearing, a Republican-backed bill to overhaul the state’s voting system cleared a key House committee in the Texas Legislature on Sunday morning, advancing the measure on an accelerated path toward a vote in the full 150-member chamber.

The vote by the House committee, conducted at about 7:30 a.m. after nearly 24 hours of debate and public comment, adheres to Gov. Greg Abbott’s timetable for swift action on the bill, which has called a priority. A vote by the full House on the measure, which voting rights groups call one of the most restrictive in the nation, is expected this week. All nine Republicans on the committee supported the bill, while the five Democrats voted against it.

Mr. Abbott, a Republican, has said that passing a new voting law is one of his top priorities. He called the legislature into a 30-day special session, which started Thursday, after Democrats blocked the bill in late May with a dramatic 11th-hour walkout from the Capitol.

A State Senate committee, which also heard hours of testimony on Saturday before a late-hour recess, was also expected to vote on a version of the voter legislation when it returns to work as early as Sunday afternoon.

Hundreds of Texans flocked to the Capitol over the weekend for the committee hearings on companion voting bills being pushed by Republicans, part of a national effort by the party to impose new restrictions on state election systems. Republicans say the restructuring is necessary to improve voter integrity but a host of Democrat-aligned opposition forces are fighting what they call an unprecedented campaign to suppress voting.

“This is the single greatest coordinated attack on democracy in our lifetimes, and perhaps in the life of this country,” said Beto O’Rourke, a former U.S. representative and candidate for president, who has taken a lead role for Democrats on the voting issue and was at the Capitol for the hearing

But Sen. Bryan Hughes, the Republican Chairman of the State Affairs Committee, opened the hearing in his committee on Saturday by declaring that the legislation is designed to create a “better election process that’s safe and accessible.”

House and Senate Democrats have vowed to do everything necessary to kill the legislation a second time, but their options are limited. They have hinted that they are prepared to resort to another bold move, like staging another walkout, or possibly taking the more extreme step of fleeing the state.

Studies consistently rate Texas near the top of the list of states that make it harder to register and vote, which explains, in part, why the Democrats view the stakes as so high.

Though retooled from the regular session, the voting bills in both houses resurrected most of the ingredients in the original legislation. Both would ban 24-hour voting and drive-through voting sites, increase the criminal penalties for election workers who run afoul of regulations, limit what assistance could be provided to voters and expand the authority and autonomy of partisan poll watchers.

But the latest bills jettison two contentious provisions from the first round that Democrats had vehemently opposed, removing a limitation on Sunday voting and a provision that would have made it easier to overturn an election.

For this weekend’s hearings, Democrats and voter advocacy groups opposed to the bills rallied witnesses from around the state to testify.

State Senator Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat, said two busloads of witnesses and a 20-car caravan had made the trip from his district. Both Mr. Miles and Lina Hidalgo, the chief executive of Harris County, the state’s most populous, told reporters that the bills would extract a harsh toll in the Houston region by dismantling election innovations such as 24-hour voting that were put in place during the 2020 election.

“We’re under attack,” Mr. Miles said.

After getting a late start on the voting measure by spending hours on a bail overhaul bill, the House committee worked through the night to hear many of the nearly 300 witnesses who had signed up to testify. Several who were still waiting in the committee room past dawn began to joke about the early morning hour and expressed gratitude to Trent Ashby, the Republican House chairman, for not shutting off testimony.

“Good morning Mr. Chair, thank you for staying,” said Hector Mendez, representing the group Texas College Democrats. “Happy 6:30 to all of you,” said another witness.

Although Democrats sought more time to digest the bill, Mr. Ashby said he wanted to proceed with a committee vote because of the “compressed nature” of the special session. Before voting to send the measure to the full House, the committee also rejected eight amendments offered by Democrats, also on party-line votes.

Texas follows several other battleground states controlled by Republicans that have passed substantial overhauls of their election laws and enacted new voting restrictions this year. Since January, at least 22 bills that make voting more difficult have been signed into law in 14 states.

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