Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signs voting legislation that expands early voting hours for most and places new rules on absentee voting

Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, R-Orange, presided as they House prepared to debate voting bill SB1, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in Austin, Texas.
Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, R-Orange, presided as they House prepared to debate voting bill SB1, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in Austin, Texas. The final version of the bill passed both chambers on Tuesday. AP Photo/Eric Gay
  • Gov. Greg Abbott signed election reform legislation into law, ending a weeks-long partisan impasse.
  • Texas Democrats left the state for weeks to break quorum and stop the bill from passing.
  • The legislation, Senate Bill 1, includes new early voting hours and rules on absentee voting.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas signed into law controversial election reform legislation that sparked a months-long impasse with their Democratic colleagues, who left the state for weeks in a dramatic quorum-breaking walkout to block the law.

The final version of Senate Bill 1 passed both chambers of the Texas state legislature on August 31 almost entirely along party lines through the state House by a vote of 80-41 and the Senate by a vote of 18-13. The bill’s passage and enactment is a major victory for GOP members who control the legislature.

After Democrats walked out to block a previous election omnibus bill from passing at the end of the regular session in late May, Abbott called a special session to pass election legislation and a slate of other conservative priorities.

Then, at the start of the special session in mid-July, dozens of legislative Democrats decamped the state and headed to Washington, DC, where many stayed for a number of weeks to deny the quorum necessary for the Texas House to pass any legislation and to also lobby Congress to enact federal voting protections.

House Democrats also boycotted the start of the second special session that began August 7, but members began steadily returning to the Texas Capitol, causing tension within the Texas Democratic caucus itself and even more acrimony and accusations of foul play between Democrats and Republicans.

Democrats and civil rights advocates argue that the legislation’s specific provisions, many of which take aim at officials in predominately nonwhite and heavily Democratic Harris County, pose new hurdles for voters of color and those with disabilities.

“We left Texas because we knew the fix was in,” Rep. Nicole Collier, the chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus and a member of the group remaining in DC, told reporters at the US Capitol in August. “We knew the writing on the wall that all they were trying to do was make it harder to vote … so we did all that we could do.”

Republicans have contended that the bill is necessary to further secure Texas’ elections despite no proof of any widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election and GOP lawmakers, in many cases, offering scant evidence that the voting measures the bill aims to ban or curtail are significant risks for fraud.

“Anyone who tells you there’s no voter fraud in Texas is telling you a very big lie,” the bill’s author, State Sen. Bryan Hughes, said at the end of Senate debate on Tuesday. “How much voter fraud is okay? None. How much suppression is okay? None.”

Texas already has among the strictest voting rules in the nation. It doesn’t allow same-day, online, or automatic registration for most voters, requires an excuse to vote absentee for those under 65, and mandates a photo ID to vote.

Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives attend a news conference after the House of Representatives passed the The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in Washington, on Capitol Hill
Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives who left the state attend a news conference after the House of Representatives passed the The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in Washington, on Capitol Hill. AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades

What’s in Senate Bill 1:

  • New early voting hours. SB1 requires counties to hold at least nine hours of voting during the early voting period that can start as early as 6 a.m. and end as late as 10 p.m. local time. The bill sets a more specific set of hours than current law, which just requires early voting to be held at a county or city clerk’s office during “regular business hours.”

    • The bill also requires early voting to be held for 12 hours a day during the last week of early voting in larger counties, mandates 12 hours of Saturday and six hours of Sunday early voting for those counties, and allows small jurisdictions with fewer than 1,000 voters to hold fewer early voting hours.
    • The new hours for early voting, however, would ban local officials from offering early voting 24 hours a day, as Harris County did in 2020 during the pandemic.
  • Bans on drive-thru voting. The bill prohibits officials from offering early voting in a “moveable structure” after officials in Harris County offered it as a COVID-19-specific measure, prompting several unsuccessful last-minute lawsuits against the practice.
  • ID information needed to vote absentee. Texas, which already uses signature matching to verify absentee ballots, will now require voters to provide the number on their driver’s license, other state ID, or the last four digits of their Social Security number on the outer envelope when requesting an absentee ballot.
  • More restrictions on absentee applications. SB 1 makes it a felony for election officials to send out unsolicited absentee ballot applications to voters who are both eligible and ineligible to vote absentee. Harris County officials tried to do so in 2020 but was blocked by the Texas Supreme Court.
  • More protections and access for partisan poll watchers: the bill requires that a watcher be allowed to be “near enough to see and hear” election activity, allows watchers to observe the transfer and storage of election data, and makes it a criminal offense for election officials to interfere with poll watchers’ access.
  • Beefed-up criminal penalties for paid ballot collection, sometimes called ballot or vote harvesting, on behalf of a candidate or party.
  • More rules for people assisting voters with disabilities or who need language assistance. Assistors will now be required to fill out a form under penalty of perjury affirming the need for assistance and stating their relationship to the voter.
  • Enhanced protections for voters to receive time off from work to vote during early voting.
  • The option for voters to “cure” or fix issues with their absentee ballots. In a move advocated for by Democrats, the bill includes a new provision that will require officials to notify voters if their absentee ballot is missing a signature on the outer envelope or has a mismatched signature, and give them an opportunity to fix the problem to have their vote counted.
  • The bill requires courts to inform individuals convicted of felonies in Texas of how their conviction affects their right to vote and protects individuals against being convicted of a crime “solely” for voting a provisional ballot while unknowingly ineligible. These measures are, in part, a response to the prosecution of Crystal Mason, a Fort Worth woman who was sentenced to five years in prison for trying to vote on supervised release when she didn’t know she was ineligible.

    • Republicans in the state Senate, however, rejected an amendment by GOP Rep. Briscoe Cain that would have broadened those protections against all voters who unknowingly voted while ineligible, not just provisional voters.