Texas House committee signs off on controversial election bill

Texas Tribune News

State Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, listens to testimony on Senate Bill 9 from Mark Cundall with Rev Up Texas.
State Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, listens to testimony on Senate Bill 9 from Mark Cundall with Rev Up Texas.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

The House Elections Committee voted Friday to advance a controversial election bill, setting up a race to get it onto the full chamber’s agenda ahead of bill-killing deadlines that start this weekend.

The committee approved Senate Bill 9 by Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes on a 5-4 party-line vote during a short meeting on the House floor called two days after the panel heard hours of public testimony — a vast majority in opposition of the bill — during a marathon hearing that ran past midnight.

SB 9 is a wide-ranging bill that makes more than two dozen changes to election practices. Among the provisions are one to make it a felony for Texans who vote when they’re ineligible — even if they do so unknowingly — and another to allow partisan poll watchers or election officials to be present at a voting station if a voter is getting help from someone who isn’t a relative. Those individuals would then be allowed to examine the voter’s ballot before it’s submitted to determine whether it was filled out “in accordance with the voter’s wishes.”

The legislation also grants the state attorney general direct access to the voter rolls and essentially allows Texas to participate in a controversial, Kansas-based voter verification program that has proved to be unreliable and riddled with cybersecurity weaknesses.

Hughes and state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, who is shepherding SB 9 through the House, have billed the legislation as an election security measure meant to address vulnerabilities in the electoral process. But opponents of the bill have warned that it opens the door to voter suppression and would criminalize even honest mistakes while voting.

On Wednesday, progressive groups, voting rights advocates and advocates for voters with disabilities packed a committee room to testify against the bill. The Texas Association of Election Administrators joined them in opposition. A total of 256 people registered a position on SB 9, with 233 declaring their opposition, before registration closed half an hour after the hearing started — an unusual procedural move that rankled Democrats and opponents of the bill.

Even some of those who testified in support of SB 9 expressed concerns with Klick’s decision to remove the one bipartisan measure — requiring voting machines with paper trails — that Hughes pitched as the heart of SB 9. Klick, who chairs the Elections Committee, also added language to regulate where counties can place voting centers if they permit what’s known as countywide voting, which allows a voter to cast votes at any polling place and not just the one in his or her voting precinct.

The bill now heads to the House Calendars Committee, which sets the full chamber’s agenda. If it makes it onto the House calendar, the chamber will need to approve it before a midnight deadline Tuesday. Already running against the clock, the House Elections Committee delayed a vote on the bill twice, canceling a Thursday vote when too few Republicans would be in the room to get it out of committee.