How voter suppression legislation was defeated in Texas — and what happens next

For months, the Texas House and Senate have been working on legislation to make voting in the state more difficult. Texas Republicans claim the legislation is necessary to crack down on fraud. But Texas is already the most difficult state in the country to vote and there is no evidence that fraud is a real problem. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) devoted 22,000 staff hours to identifying voter fraud during the 2020 election and came up with 16 people who put an incorrect address on their voter registration forms. 

Nevertheless, Republicans in each chamber passed versions of "SB7," a bill that would suppress voting. Then House and Senate Republicans negotiated behind closed doors, combined many of the worst provisions of each bill, and added new restrictions that weren't debated in either body. 

At 6 AM Sunday morning, the Texas Senate approved this Frankenstein version of the bill, which targeted voters of color with surgical precision. The last step was for the Texas House to approve the legislation, which appeared to be a formality. 

Then, late Sunday night, the process collapsed. The House did not approve the bill and the legislative session ended. The legislation is dead — at least for now.

What happened?

Under Texas law, all legislation in the session needed to be approved by both chambers by Sunday at midnight. Because of internal disputes among Republicans about the final composition of the bill, the Texas House did not begin considering the bill until Sunday evening. 

Texas House Democrats initially engaged in the debate over SB7, raising various procedural and substantive objections as the clock ticked closer to midnight. Then around 10:35 PM, as Republicans prepared to end debate and call for a final vote, all of the Democrats left. "Leave the chamber discreetly. Do not go to the gallery. Leave the building," Texas Representative Chris Turner (D), the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, wrote in a text message.

The exodus deprived the body of a quorum, which requires two-thirds of the 150 representatives present to conduct business. Texas Speaker Dade Phelan (R) was forced to gavel out the session, killing the bill. It was the first time Democrats used the tactic to block legislation since 2003. 

The fight, however, is not over. Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) immediately said the legislation would be added to a special session of the legislature. It's unclear, however, when such a session will occur. 

Later, Abbott said he would veto the section of the budget that funds the modest salaries of the state legislators. If he follows through, the legislature's professional staff and maintenance workers also would not get paid. 

The last-minute attack on Sunday voting

After they left the legislature, many Texas Democrats went to "a Baptist church about 2 miles away from the Capitol in East Austin." The location was not an accident. It was an effort to highlight a last-minute addition to the bill which banned voting on Sundays before 1 PM. That provision was a transparent effort to undermine "souls to the polls," a tradition in the Black community in which voters are encouraged to cast their ballot after attending church service. 

Notably, the limitation on Sunday voting was not included in either the House or Senate version of SB7. It was not debated in either chamber. During the legislative session on Sunday night, Republican proponents of the bill refused to take questions on why it was added. No one has explained why votes cast before 1PM on Sundays are more likely to be fraudulent than votes cast after 1PM.

“Why in the world would you pick Sunday morning to outlaw voting in Texas, but for the fact that they know that a lot of Black parishioners historically have chosen that time to organize and go to the polls?” Congressman Joaquin Castro (D-TX) asked.

Overturning elections "without attempting to determine how individual voters voted"

Another last-minute addition to SB 7 would allow Texas judges to declare an election "void" without bothering to determine if allegations of fraud would have had any impact on the outcome of the election.

OVERTURNING ELECTION. If the number of votes illegally cast in the election is equal to or greater than the number of votes necessary to change the outcome of an election, the court may declare the election void without attempting to determine how individual voters voted. 

The provision appears to be an effort to address a problem that Trump had while pushing the Big Lie that Democrats stole the presidential election. Attorneys representing Trump would make wild allegations of fraud but were unable to identify which ballots were fraudulent. This provision would make that unnecessary. 

For example, one argument advanced by Trump's lawyers was that thousands of absentee ballots were fraudulent because not enough were invalidated as compared to previous elections. Under this provision, a sympathetic judge could void an election on this basis. It would open up the possibility of voiding elections based on suspect statistical analysis rather than actual evidence of fraud and an examination of votes. 

Texas Representative Briscoe Cain (R), the chairman of the House Election Committee and a lead sponsor of the bill, was part of Trump's team that attempted to void the results of the presidential election in Pennsylvania. 

A related provision would lower the standard to establish voter fraud from "clear and convincing evidence" to a "preponderance of the evidence." 

Other restrictions on voting

Other provisions in SB7 were included in versions of the bill debated in the House and Senate, but are unnecessary or discriminatory:

Bans drive-thru and 24-hour voting which were used in Harris County in 2020, disproportionately by voters of color. 

Makes it a felony to send an absentee ballot application to anyone who didn't request one.

Allows partisan poll watchers "freedom of movement," potentially opening up voters to harassment.

Subjects local election officials to numerous new criminal penalties, including a new crime for counting "invalid" ballots. 

Sarah Labowitz, policy and advocacy director with the ACLU, called it "one of the ugliest anti-voter bills in the country."

Corporations go quiet

As Popular Information first reported in March, the sponsors of Texas' voter suppression legislation were backed by millions in corporate contributions over the last three years. Under pressure, two Texas corporations, American Airlines and Dell, issued strong statements opposing the legislation. Later, a few dozen corporations signed a letter with more ambiguous language objecting to the bill. Hundreds of corporations and executives have signed onto a broad statement opposing efforts to restrict voting. 

But as SB 7 barrelled toward the finish line, corporations went quiet. "By the time the Texas bill was poised to pass over the Memorial Day weekend, the opposition from businesses had grown faint," the AP reported

While some corporations were willing to issue statements, none expressed a willingness to take action if the bill was signed into law. It was a willingness by corporations to take action that defeated, for example, anti-gay legislation in Georgia in 2016. 

While the bill may be revived in a special session, the delay gives activists more time to renew pressure on the corporate community.