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Texas Voting Bill Advances    05/07 07:44

   

   AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Texas Republican lawmakers advanced a sweeping 
elections bill early Friday following hours of discussion that would put 
America's biggest red state closer to imposing a raft of new voting 
restrictions in the face of growing warning from corporations.

   The key vote at 3 a.m. in the Texas House followed hours of debate as 
Democrats, who had little means of stopping the bill in the GOP-controlled 
state Capitol, deployed technical challenges and hours of questioning that the 
bill's author, Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain, appeared unprepared at times 
to answer. Finally, an agreement was reached between Republicans and Democrats 
leaving the bill with 20 amendments that significantly watered down some of 
what advocates called the most problematic aspects of the bill as it passed the 
key vote 81-64.

   The amendments lowered initially proposed enhanced criminal penalties, 
allowed poll watchers to be removed if they breach the peace and clarified that 
election judges and volunteers wouldn't be held liable for honest mistakes. 
Additionally, they instructed the state to send voter registration applications 
to high schools and instructed the state to develop an online format for 
tracking early ballots.

   Thursday's bill was combined with a similar bill, which already passed the 
Senate, and both chambers still need to negotiate a final version before it 
goes to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who has broadly defended the measures. The 
session ends May 31.

   "It is old Jim Crow dressed up in what our colleagues are calling election 
integrity," said Democratic state Rep. Jessica Gonzalez.

   Thursday's debate in Texas came the same day Florida's Republican governor, 
Ron DeSantis, signed a wide-ranging bill to make his the latest state to 
toughen its election rules.

   Abbott, who has not wavered in his backing of his party's restrictions and 
has lashed out at businesses that have spoken out, reiterated his support 
Thursday.

   "I made election integrity an emergency item this session to help ensure 
every eligible voter gets to vote & only eligible ballots are counted," Abbott 
tweeted.

   Cain, who chairs the House Elections Committee and who authored the House 
version of the voting bill, echoed those sentiments. Cain has been an ardent 
support of former President Donald Trump, who continues to make false claims 
that fraud cost him the 2020 election.

   There were no major problems or fraud -- which is extremely rare -- reported 
in Texas and Trump carried the state in November.

   Cain, who in March made a procedural gaffe that delayed testimony on the 
bill after hundreds of people showed up to testify, came under sharp 
questioning from Democrats who pressed him over the bill's intent and whether 
he understood what the language in his own legislation meant.

   "We don't need to wait for bad things to happen to protect the security of 
the election," Cain said. "I don't believe that this is voter suppression, I 
believe it is voter enhancement."

   Other restrictions in Cain's bill would outlaw Texas county officials from 
sending mail-ballot request forms to all registered voters, efforts voting 
officials in Harris County -- where Cain is from -- put in place last year to 
expand ballot access when in-person gatherings were more hazardous because of 
the coronavirus pandemic. Harris County, which includes Houston, is also a 
Democratic stronghold where 44% of the nearly 5 million residents are Latino 
and 20% are Black.

   Voting rights groups say poor and minority voters will bear the brunt of GOP 
restrictions, and that Republicans are counting on the privilege of their 
voters to overcome hurdles. On Tuesday, more than 50 companies and business 
organizations, including some in Texas, released an open letter expressing 
opposition to "any changes" that would make it harder to vote in that state.

   Republicans in Texas have angrily rejected those accusations. They say the 
measures would only rein in powers that county leaders never had in the first 
place.

   One Republican in the Texas House, Rep. Lyle Larson, spoke out this week 
against his party's proposals in an opinion column in his hometown newspaper. 
But he has been a lone public voice of dissent in his party in the Texas 
Capitol.

   "The suppression tactics included in this bill would hurt the Republican 
Party as much or more than its opposition," Larson wrote in the San Antonio 
Express-News. "One can only wonder -- are the bill authors trying to make it 
harder for Republican voters to vote?"

 
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