Hours after Florida installed a rash of new voting restrictions, the Republican-led Legislature in Texas pressed ahead on Thursday with its own far-reaching bill that would make it one of the most difficult states in the nation in which to cast a ballot.
The Texas bill would, among other restrictions, greatly empower partisan poll watchers, prohibit election officials from mailing out absentee ballot applications and impose strict punishments for those who provide assistance outside the lines of what is permissible.
After a lengthy debate that lasted into the early morning hours on Friday, the State House of Representatives passed the measure in a 81-64 vote, largely along party lines, at about 3 a.m., following a flurry of amendments that had been spurred by Democratic protests and a Democratic procedural move known as a point of order.
The new amendments softened some of the initial new penalties proposed for those who run afoul of the rules and added that the police could be called to remove unruly partisan poll watchers. Other amendments added by Democrats sought to expand ballot access, including with changes to ballot layout and with voter registration at high schools. But those amendments could be knocked off by a potential conference committee.
The bill will soon head to the Republican-controlled Senate following a third reading in the House. Gov. Greg Abbott has been supportive of the current voting bills in the legislature.
Briscoe Cain, the Republican sponsor of the bill, said he had filed it “to ensure that we have an equal and uniform application of our election code and to protect people from being taken advantage of.”
He was quickly challenged by Jessica González, a Democratic representative and vice chair of the House Election Committee, who argued that the bill was a solution in search of problem. She cited testimony in which the Texas secretary of state said that the 2020 election had been found to be “free, fair and secure.”
After the early-morning vote, Sarah Labowitz, policy and advocacy director of the A.C.L.U. of Texas, said in a statement, “Under cover of darkness, the Texas House just passed one of the worst anti-voting bills in the country.” She added, “Texans deserve better than to wake up and find out that lawmakers jammed through a law that will make participating in our democracy harder and scarier.”
Florida and Texas are critical Republican-led battleground states with booming populations and 70 Electoral College votes between them. The new measures the legislatures are putting in place represent the apex of the current Republican effort to roll back access to voting across the country following the loss of the White House amid historic turnout in the 2020 election.
Earlier on Thursday, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, with great fanfare, signed his state’s new voting bill, which passed last week. Held at a Palm Beach hotel with cheering supporters in the background, the ceremony showcased Mr. DeSantis’s brash style; the governor’s office barred most journalists and provided exclusive access to Fox News, a nose-thumbing gesture of contempt toward a news media he viewed as overly critical of the bill.
“Right now, I have what we think is the strongest election integrity measures in the country,” Mr. DeSantis said, though he has praised Florida’s handling of last November’s elections.
Ohio, another state under complete Republican control, introduced a new omnibus voting bill on Thursday that would further limit drop boxes in the state, limit ballot collection processes and reduce early in-person voting by one day, while also making improvements to access such as an online absentee ballot request portal and automatic registration at motor vehicle offices.
Iowa and Georgia have already passed bills that not only impose new restrictions but grant those states’ legislatures greater control over the electoral process.
Republicans have pressed forward with these bills over the protests of countless Democrats, civil rights groups, faith leaders, voting rights groups and multinational corporations, displaying an increasing no-apologies aggressiveness in rolling back access to voting.
The efforts come as Republicans in Washington are seeking to oust Representative Liz Cheney from her leadership position in the House Republican caucus for her continued rejection of former President Donald J. Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, and as Republicans at a party convention in Utah booed Senator Mitt Romney for his criticism of the former president.
Together, the Republican actions reflect how deeply the party has embraced the so-called Big Lie espoused by Mr. Trump through his claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
Democrats, gerrymandered into statehouse minorities and having drastically underperformed expectations in recent state legislative elections, have few options for resisting the Republican efforts to make voting harder.
In Georgia and Texas, progressive groups applied pressure on local businesses to speak out against the voting measures. But Republican legislators have been conditioned during the Trump era to pay less attention to their traditional benefactors in chambers of commerce and more attention to the party’s grass roots, who are aligned with the former president and adhere to his lies about the 2020 election.
And in Florida, Democrats didn’t even manage to organize major local companies to weigh in on the voting law.
“Elections have consequences both ways, and we are living in the consequences of the Trumpiest governor in America here in Florida,” said Sean Shaw, a former state representative who was the 2018 Democratic nominee for Florida attorney general. “The ultimate strategy is, what are we going to do in 2022? How are we going to beat the dude?”
Mr. Shaw, who offered an extended laugh when first asked what his party’s strategy was for combating Florida’s new voting law, said he was planning to start a campaign this month to place referendums on the state’s 2022 ballots for constitutional amendments that would make voting easier.
“We are not Mississippi or Alabama,” he said. “We are not that kind of conservative state, but we are governed by this mini-Trump person. All we can do as Democrats is let the people know what they’ve got.”
Marc Elias, a Democratic lawyer, filed a lawsuit nine minutes after Mr. DeSantis had signed the legislation, saying that the new Florida law violated the First and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
“It’s not true that states could not change their voting laws whenever they want,” Mr. Elias said in an interview Thursday. “You have to weigh the burden on the voter with the interest of the state.”
Amid months of false claims by former President Donald J. Trump that the 2020 election was stolen from him, Republican lawmakers in many states are marching ahead to pass laws making it harder to vote and changing how elections are run, frustrating Democrats and even some election officials in their own party.
- A Key Topic: The rules and procedures of elections have become a central issue in American politics. The Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal-leaning law and justice institute at New York University, counts 361 bills in 47 states that seek to tighten voting rules. At the same time, 843 bills have been introduced with provisions to improve access to voting.
- The Basic Measures: The restrictions vary by state but can include limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, adding identification requirements for voters requesting absentee ballots, and doing away with local laws that allow automatic registration for absentee voting.
- More Extreme Measures: Some measures go beyond altering how one votes, including tweaking Electoral College and judicial election rules, clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives, and outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections.
- Pushback: This Republican effort has led Democrats in Congress to find a way to pass federal voting laws. A sweeping voting rights bill passed the House in March, but faces difficult obstacles in the Senate. Republicans have remained united against the proposal and even if the bill became law, it would likely face steep legal challenges.
- Florida: The latest state to restrict voting. Measures include limiting the use of drop boxes, adding more identification requirements for absentee ballots, requiring voters to request an absentee ballot for each election, limiting who could collect and drop off ballots, and further empowering partisan observers during the ballot-counting process.
- Texas: The next big move could happen here, where Republicans in the legislature are brushing aside objections from corporate titans and moving on a vast election bill that would be among the most severe in the nation. It would impose new restrictions on early voting, ban drive-through voting, threaten election officials with harsher penalties and greatly empower partisan poll watchers.
- Other States: Georgia Republicans in March enacted far-reaching new voting laws that limit ballot drop-boxes and make the distribution of water within certain boundaries of a polling station a misdemeanor. Iowa has also imposed new limits, including reducing the period for early voting and in-person voting hours on Election Day. And bills to restrict voting have been moving through Republican-led legislatures in Arizona and Michigan.
Tom Perez, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, said a case could be made that the new voting laws would improperly make it harder for Black and Hispanic people to vote, and he called on the U.S. Justice Department to take the lead in the legal battle against the Republican-passed laws.
“Ten years ago when I was running the Civil Rights Division, the Georgia law would never have seen the light of day,” Mr. Perez said Thursday. “The Justice Department needs to get involved, and having the imprimatur of the Justice Department sends a really important message about our values.”
Mr. Biden’s nominee to lead the Civil Rights Division, Kristen Clarke, had a Senate hearing last month but has not yet been confirmed. Mr. Biden said in March, after the Georgia law had been signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, that the Justice Department was “taking a look” at how best to protect voting rights. A White House official said that the president, in his comments, had been assuming the issue was one the department would review.
Democrats argued on Thursday that the Republican crackdowns on voting in Florida and Texas had made it more urgent for the Senate to pass the For the People Act, which would radically reshape the way elections are run, make far-reaching changes to campaign finance laws and redistricting and mitigate the new state laws.
“We are witnessing a concerted effort across this country to spread voter suppression,” Jena Griswald, the Colorado secretary of state, said Thursday on a call with progressive groups in which the new Florida law was condemned. “The For the People Act levels the playing field and provides clear guidance, a floor of what is expected throughout the nation.”
The scene in Austin on Thursday was tense, as Republicans in the House decided to replace the language of a bill that passed the senate, known as SB 7, with the language of a House voting bill, known as HB 6. The swap removed some of the more onerous restrictions that had originally been proposed, like banning drive-through voting, banning 24-hour voting and adding limitations on voting machine allocation that could have led to a reduction of polling locations in densely populated areas.
But the bill before the House included a host of new restrictions. It bans election officials from proactively mailing out absentee ballot applications or absentee ballots; sets strict new rules for assisting voters and greatly raises the punishment for running afoul of those rules; greatly empowers partisan poll watchers; and makes it much harder to remove a partisan poll watcher for bad behavior. The expansion of the authority and autonomy of partisan poll watchers has raised voter intimidation concerns among civil rights groups.
In the debate Thursday evening, Mr. Cain, the sponsor of the House bill, was unable to cite a single instance of voter fraud in Texas. (The attorney general found 16 instances of minor voting fraud after 22,000 hours of investigation.)
Democratic lawmakers also seized on Texas’ history of discriminatory voting legislation and likened the current bill to the some of the state’s racist electoral practices of the past.
“In light of that history, can you tell me if or why you did not do a racial impact analysis on how this legislation would affect people of color?” said Rafael Anchía, a Democratic representative from Dallas County.
Mr. Cain admitted that he had not consulted with the attorney general’s office or conducted a study of how the bill might affect people of color, but he defended the bill and said it would not have a discriminatory impact.
Patricia Mazzei and Mike Ives contributed reporting.