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Reality check: What's really in the Texas voting reform bill?

Texas Democrats fled the state to protest the GOP-backed legislation, but its modest reforms belie opponents' apocalyptic rhetoric.

Updated: July 13, 2021 - 10:28pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

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Texas Democrats this week threw their legislature in disarray when they fled the state for Washington, D.C., in protest of an election reform bill currently being pushed by Republicans there. 

The fleeing Democrats have cast the bill in an apocalyptic light as a full-scale attack on core voting rights, but the legislation, formed by one bill in the Texas House and one in the Texas Senate, is mostly a modest reform of the state's voting rules, relative to both existing law and other, slightly more far-reaching bills passed by other state legislatures in recent months.

Republicans are trying to "make it harder for the people of Texas to vote," state Rep. John Bucy III said this week. State Rep. Diego Bernal argued that the GOP reform bill was "an attempt to rig the system," while state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer suggested the flight of Democratic legislators was a "stand for democracy,"

The remarkable step of fleeing the state for Washington has served to paint the Texas bill as an even more dire threat to voting rights. Yet largely missing in the ongoing debate has been detailed, objective discussion of what the bill itself does, and why Democrats are opposed to it. 

The bill makes it harder for election workers to bar or eject poll watchers from polling places and strengthens their ability to survey most parts of a voting location. During the 2020 election, reports surfaced in various states across the country of poll watchers being blocked from observing critical ballot-counting processes on Election Day and afterwards. 

Under the bill, voters who wish to vote by mail would be required to include their driver's license number on the application. If they do not possess a driver's license, they would be required to use the last four digits of their social security number. 

The legislation would also forbid public officials from proactively distributing mail-in ballots to voters. Texas residents would have to request a mail-in ballot in order to receive one. And the bill would forbid residents from voting from their cars unless the voter suffered from a disability that prevented voting inside the polling location. 

Sparse explanations for controversy

Texas Democrat Michelle Beckley, one of the lawmakers who fled with colleagues to Washington, said in a statement that the law was filled with "vote suppressing provisions."

"Both versions of the bill impose restrictions on expanded early voting hours, threaten election officials with criminal charges for removing disruptive partisan poll watchers, and even allow partisan poll watchers to threaten election workers with frivolous litigation," she argued. 

"These bills unnecessarily make it harder to vote by mail by requiring voters to provide sensitive personal information and increasing the technical requirements for both voters and election workers when dealing with vote-by-mail ballots."

Beckley also argued that the bill makes it "easier to prosecute people who assist mail and in-person voters through increasing the technical requirements that they must comply with and removing any defense to prosecution," a reference to new paperwork requirements for individuals assisting others in casting a ballot. 

Dire Democratic messaging regarding the law was underscored on Monday night when a group of the voluntarily exiled Democrats, while in a parking lot at Dulles National Airport, broke out in a rendition of "We Shall Overcome," a well-known gospel song that was regularly intoned by activists during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Another group subsequently sang the same song on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

Media coverage on the controversy, meanwhile, has frequently avoided putting the actual contents of the bill front-and-center in the ongoing reports on the matter. 

A CNN article on Tuesday, for instance, referred to the legislation in question as "Republican restrictive voting bills" that appear "tainted by political opportunism." Yet the article only examined the contents of the bill after 21 paragraphs, and even then mostly obliquely, claiming the bill, for instance, "introduces new restrictions for voting by mail."

A Monday New York Times article, meanwhile, styled the bill as a "restrictive new voting law by the Republican-controlled Legislature," but the report only briefly addressed the actual substance of the bill after nearly 30 paragraphs.