Rebeca Ibarra: I'm Rebeca Ibarra, in for Tanzina Vega and you're listening to The Takeaway. We leave Georgia now for Texas, where early on Thursday morning, the Texas State Senate passed a bill that would make it harder to vote by limiting early voting, as well as the number of voting machines.
The legislation was debated for seven hours and ended up passing 18 to 13 along party lines. The legislation now heads to the Texas House of Representatives for consideration.
Democrats and voting advocates are concerned that the legislation will suppress voters, especially in places like Harris County that had record turnout during the 2020 election, but Texas State Senator, Bryan Hughes, one of the authors of the bill says the legislation is meant to preserve election integrity and he joins us now. Senator Hughes, welcome to The Takeaway.
Senator Bryan Hughes: Thank you for having me.
Rebeca Ibarra: You are one of the sponsors of Senate Bill 7. What is included in this bill?
Senator Bryan Hughes: Senate Bill 7 has some common-sense reforms to make the system work better, to make elections better. A number of provisions make it easier to vote and also make it hard to cheat, and that's what the bill is about. Looking at our system, continuously improving. Every session, the legislature looks at ways to make the system work better and that's what Senate Bill 7 is about.
Rebeca Ibarra: I notice that you say make it easier to vote, but it does restrict voting in some cases. It makes it illegal for local election officials to solicit or send out vote by mail applications to voters even the ones that qualify. It bans drive-thru voting, which actually increased some voting in the last election. It also limits early voting hours. Could you say how it makes it easier to vote?
Senator Bryan Hughes: I'd be glad to. For one thing, the law clarifies that if you are at the polling place and in line when the polls close, even though you're outside waiting in line, you still get to vote, you can't be kept out for that reason.
The bill also provides that when you cast your ballot by mail, a tracking system is going to be in place. Only you can track your own ballot online. Many folks tell us they're not sure if their ballot has been received. They don't know whether they should try to vote in person. This tracking system is going to allow the voter to make sure their vote is on the way.
Also, a paper backup for electronic voting. Most counties in Texas now have gone to this, but thousands of Texans still vote on electronic systems that do not have a paper backup, so there's no way to do a recap, no way to verify.
You mentioned voting machines as we were going in, and I want to clarify that. The bill does not limit voting machines or reduce the number of voting machines. It does require that polling places and voting machines be distributed evenly based on eligible voters. There's no limitation on the number, it does make sure that if one particular party is controlling a county government, that party doesn't cheat by putting more of the machines to favor their party to disfavor the opposition.
That applies to the biggest counties in Texas, counties with a million people or more. Some of those are Republicans, some of those are Democrats, but it makes sure that the local government in a big urban area is not using their power to stack the deck, to put the machines in places that favor their party and disfavor the other party.
Again, the bill says it's based on population of eligible voters. Not voter turnout, not even registration, but eligible voters. It's the fairest possible method that could be used. As far as the security measures in the bill, 24-hour voting has never been done in Texas. Our election code doesn't provide for it.
We had one county decide to do that in one election last year and there was evidence, there was testimony that there were not poll watchers available. It was even difficult to get election workers in some of those areas for 24-hour voting. Now, what the bill does do is standardize. It requires some counties to increase their hours, but every county will now have to provide at least 12 hours between 6:00 AM and 9:00 PM.
It's about standardizing the process and making sure that we have security in place so that everybody knows their votes are going to count and going to be counted accurately.
Rebeca Ibarra: Why was this bill debated for so many hours? Why was this bill so controversial and what elements of it did people disagree on?
Senator Bryan Hughes: There was a great attempt to pull this bill into a national debate and you're familiar with it. I'm sure you see it at the national level. There were a lot of questions about bills in other states and what happened in the 2020 election in other states and other precincts. That's not what Senate Bill 7 is about. It's about elections in Texas. It was debated for a long time. Many people had questions, and if you go back and watch it, I think you'll find many of the questions were about other states and other elections.
The Senate Bill 7 is clear, it's about making sure Texas elections run smoothly and fairly. We talked a lot about participation because if folks lose face in the process, if they don't believe their vote is going to be counted accurately, reported accurately, they're not going to turn out. That's why the debate took so long.
There are also technical aspects of the bill. It makes sure that those voting machines are checked for accuracy. It also requires that once the votes are counted, they're tabulated fairly and in a way that's open for everyone to see. Not how people voted, not their private ballot, but that the numbers are tabulated correctly and reported correctly.
The election process involves details and so those had to be debated, but I will say part of the reason it took so long is because there was an attempt to drag us into some national debate that has nothing to do with Senate Bill 7 in Texas.
Rebeca Ibarra: Maybe sticking to Texas. In response to this bill, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said, "SB7 and related legislation is a poll tax disguised as election integrity. It's clearly a direct response to the massive success we had in Harris County last year in terms of accessible and secure elections."
Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party has said, "Senate Bill 7 is the worst voter suppression we've seen since Jim Crow and a full-on assault on the voting rights of Texans with disabilities and Black and Latino voters." What is your response to those comments?
Senator Bryan Hughes: I'm disappointed that folks would make irresponsible and false generalizations like that. We could look at specific provisions in this bill. That suggestion of some kind of a poll tax, there is nothing in this bill that adds any kind of a cost, any kind of an expense to someone casting their vote. That is completely false.
As far as other generalization, again, people want to talk about different states and want to talk about elections across the country and what happened there. This bill is about elections in Texas, and every criticism I've heard, every criticism I've heard has been about some vague campaign in other states. When we look at the provisions of this bill just take a look, you'll find there are common-sense reforms that apply to everyone across the board.
Rebeca Ibarra: Let's talk about Harris County again for a second, which includes Houston. Analysis by Harris county's election office with data from the Texas Civil Rights Project shows that Black and Hispanic voters are more likely to vote than white voters at drive-through sites and during extended hours. Senator, why try to eliminate drive-thru voting?
Senator Bryan Hughes: Drive-thru voting is not provided for in the Texas Election Code, nor in many states' election codes. That's because the safest way, the most secure way to vote is in-person in the polling place. That's how Texans and Americans have voted for a long time because, in the polling place, we have protections in place. There are poll watchers, there's a process to make sure the law is followed, to make sure folks have a secret ballot that's secure.
Now, of course, we make exceptions, we have mail ballots for people who are 65 or over, who are disabled, or who will be out of the county during the election period. We also provide curbside voting, and that's an important accommodation. Folks with disabilities who cannot get out of the car and come into the polling place, curbside voting is provided for them.
That's been the law for a long time. Everyone knows the law, it works. What we saw Harris County do was ignore the law and try to create a new system. I think we would agree that laws are passed by the legislature, people of Texas act through the legislature. Those laws are established and local governments follow those laws.
There was also testimony that in drive-thru voting in Harris County, our largest county, as you mentioned, there was real concern about security, about multiple people in cars having voting machines passed around, no secret ballot, no poll watchers. There have been even reports that the votes weren't counted accurately. There's a criminal complaint being investigated right now that says votes were not even counted accurately in that process.
I understand there've been some soundbites about how wonderful this was. The evidence shows it was against the law, and it was not a fair, safe, accurate process that gave everyone secret ballot.
Rebeca Ibarra: We should clarify that poll watchers, they aren't public watchdogs, but they are inherently partisan figures. Reporting by the Texas Tribune, for example, has found that poll watchers actually did have access to observe drive-thru and 24-hour voting. Also in December, a multiagency, bipartisan task force in Harris County, the Harris County Election Security Task Force said they did not find any evidence of election fraud in the November election, despite widespread allegations of fraud from individuals mostly in your party, Senator. [crosstalk]
Senator Bryan Hughes: Forgive me. I will only say there's a pending complaint based on sworn testimony right now in Harris County about inaccuracies in the numbers that were reported. As far as poll watchers go, and I'm sorry to interrupt, but as far as poll watchers go, remember that poll watchers are there from both political parties, from multiple candidates. Each party, Republican, Democrat, each candidate has an incentive to have poll watchers who are prepared, who know what they're doing, and who can be the eyes and the years of the public.
I think we agree that poll watchers are important. Otherwise, how does anyone else know what's going on, what the election workers are doing at any polling place? Whether it's in a Republican area, a Democrat area, poll watchers really are the eyes and ears of the public and I don't think that's ever been put in question before.
Rebeca Ibarra: Now, critics, Senator, will say that Republicans are pushing this legislation because turnout was so high that Democrats were able to increase vote count in urban and suburban areas and that ultimately threatens Republican control. What do you say to that?
Senator Bryan Hughes: When I was in the legislature some years ago, when I was brand new, we had a big debate about voter ID, photo ID, asking folks to show a photo ID when they vote. Like you have to to get on a plane, to get into a sporting event, common areas of life. Of course, we put an exception for folks who didn't have a driver's license. For folks who couldn't afford an official ID, we made those IDs free and we were accused of trying to limit voter turnout. What happened? After voter ID, our turnout improved dramatically and has continued to improve.
Republicans and Democrats want a fair system in Texas. There's this big national debate and I understand that and people are going to ask about that, but if you look at this bill, the provisions of this bill are common sense, straightforward. As we discussed at the beginning, this bill makes it easier to vote and harder to cheat and that's fair for everyone.
Rebeca Ibarra: Did you do say easier to vote, but according to a 2020 analysis published in the Election Law Journal, it's already harder to vote in Texas than any other state in the country. It says, "Texas is a state with the most restrictive voting processes." Why add more restrictions to that, Senator?
Senator Bryan Hughes: I've heard the criticism of our voter ID. Of course, it's been upheld by the US Supreme Court, and turnout has increased since we added voter ID. By turn out, I mean percentage. I'm talking about raw numbers, percentages, turnout's increased, but again, a number of provisions to this bill, like allowing people who are in line when the polls close, making sure they get to vote. Making sure when you cast that mail ballot, even when you request the ballot, you can track and see where it is in the process, make sure it made it, paper back up so that when you vote on an electronic system you can know there's a paper record to do a recount.
Also making sure the machines work properly. A number of provisions to this bill make that process smoother and increase people's confidence. As far as why make changes, the committee in the legislature heard sworn testimony over the last couple of years, not only from Republicans but from Democrats, from prosecutors who are Republican and Democrat, from election workers, Republican and Democrat, and from the Attorney General's office.
They've told us, "Here's how people are cheating. Here's what we're finding when we investigate, when we prosecute. Here's how people are cheating." In response to that, like we do every other area of the law, we try to make improvements so that people can't cheat.
Rebeca Ibarra: Again, to clarify, there hasn't been any reported widespread election fraud, just to be clear. Lastly, Senator, can you discuss--
Senator Bryan Hughes: I don't know what widespread means, but how much fraud is enough? We want elections to be fair. Fraud is not okay and I hear people say there's not much, or there's not too much. How much fraud is okay? We want our elections to be fair.
Rebeca Ibarra: Lastly, Senator, can you discuss the role places like the Heritage Action Fund have in drafting and supporting legislation like this? Have they been involved or invested efforts in Texas? I know they've committed to at least $10 million so far to supporting what they call election integrity.
Senator Bryan Hughes: I haven't heard from them. A couple of questions were about what groups we solicited information from. We didn't solicit information from anyone or help. Any group that reached out to us, we responded to. We worked with a number of disability rights groups in the process of this bill. We worked with county election officials to ask questions and concerns they had.
These were from across the state, from across the board, and then during the hearing, folks testified. Civil rights groups testified, disability rights groups testified, volunteers, government officials. We listened to that testimony and we may changes. I don't recall that group testifying or hearing from them.
Rebeca Ibarra: Bryan Hughes is a State Senator from Texas representing the first district. Senator Hughes, thank you so much for joining us.
Senator Bryan Hughes: Thank you for having me on.
Rebeca Ibarra: For more on voting rights in Texas, we're joined now by Jane C. Timm, senior reporter covering voting rights and election policy for NBC News. Jane, welcome to the show.
Jane C. Timm: Hi, there.
Rebeca Ibarra: You were listening to our interview with Texas State Senator Bryan Hughes that happened just before the break. Did anything, in particular, stand out to you?
Jane C. Timm: I was surprised to hear him talking about eligible voters as a really common-sense way to calculate where you put polling locations because eligible voters isn't a number that really exists out there. The census doesn't count voting age, US citizens who don't have a felony conviction or are serving parole or probation in Texas.
That's why advocates say it's going to end up being counted based on registration or historical data and they're really worried because past historical voting trends tend to favor more white voters in Texas. Fast-changing communities of color have newer voters who don't show up in the voting registration data from maybe a few years ago.
Rebeca Ibarra: What should we make of the timing of this bill of the fact that it happened overnight?
Jane C. Timm: I've been asking a lot of people why this passes at 2:30 in the morning and advocates feel like it was really intentional to try and keep eyes off the process. Late last night before I went to bed, I actually checked in to see what was happening in some of the House debates of other election restriction bills and there was one still going around 9:20 last night. It had been going all day. Every other committee had adjourned for the day, but this one's still going.
There's only so many hours you can watch this stuff and it's not really on YouTube after. Once it's gone, it's gone. I think there's some thought that this is an intentional to keep eyes off of it.
Rebeca Ibarra: We've heard a bit about this already, but can you tell us again, what exactly would SB7 do?
Jane C. Timm: You talked about some of the early voting cuts, but some of the other big ones are that it empowers partisan poll watchers in a much different way. These are people who are appointed by local parties and the bill says they can videotape people and send that footage to the secretary of state if they think they're seeing something illegal.
It's a crime to actually obstruct their view this bill says, so this seems to me to be a direct response to President Trump and how much he rallied and said his army of poll watchers would find the fraud and see the fraud in action and stop it. We should be clear, fraud is incredibly profoundly rare. Someone once described this to me, that poll watching is like cataloging planes coming in and you're waiting for a UFO, and for the most part, you're not going to see the UFO.
Rebeca Ibarra: Republican lawmaker Bryan Hughes just told us why he's supporting this legislation. Is that in line with what we're hearing from Republican lawmakers in Texas across the board, and you did mention the Trump administration, how much of this is tied to the rhetoric we heard from the Trump administration?
Jane C. Timm: I talked to Senator Hughes a couple of weeks ago, and he actually told me that he'd been wanting to do some of this legislation for a long time, but that the 2020 election had really made people more interested in it. I think that what President Trump said in his stolen election lie has really mobilized a base behind maybe what policies Republicans have been wanting to do for a long time.
Voter fraud isn't a new thing. McCain was talking about fighting voter fraud years ago. Advocates say it really dates back to the 2000 election where people realized a couple of thousand votes here and there can make all the difference in the world. What President Trump has said, actually really has put just sort of gasoline on these embers and turned it into this national fight.
Rebeca Ibarra: Jane, who would be most impacted by the SB7 legislation and other efforts to change voting rules in Texas?
Jane C. Timm: Just about anybody who likes flexibility in how they vote. It tends to be communities of color who are shift workers, first responders, people who can't vote at 10:00 AM on a Tuesday in November. I think that's actually a lot of people, but I think communities of color absolutely are being targeted. The disabled now have to sign a different form under this bill, essentially they have to say they know it's a felony to lie about their disability in their absentee ballot votes.
It puts restrictions on how officials and individuals can help a voter. There's one part of this bill that says, if you are helping a voter, you now have to fill out a form explaining why that voter needed help and sign it. I've helped family members in the past vote, close relatives, and whenever I had to sign something, that's where I got a moment of pause of, "Wait, is this okay?" This makes people worry and makes people maybe feel chilled out of the process.
Rebeca Ibarra: Republicans are in full control of the state government in Texas, right? Does that mean their efforts will ultimately be successful?
Jane C. Timm: They have trifecta control, they have the power to do it but what we saw last night was actually really interesting to me, American Airlines and Michael Dell of Dell Technologies in Texas, these Texas corporate giants coming out in opposition to voting restrictions. Similar to what we saw in Georgia but that happened after the bill had been passed. They're getting involved now, and I think that corporate interests are incredibly powerful in Texas.
You could see this change maybe what is in the final bills when they make it to the governor's desk if they make it to the governor's desk, but Republicans have the power to do this. If they want to, they can push this through.
Rebeca Ibarra: As we've been saying, SB7 was passed in the Senate, and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has called this bill a priority. Then when does it head to the House and then how likely is it to pass in the House?
Jane C. Timm: It goes into the committee process through the house. The house is already considering their own very similar bill. They were doing that late last night as I said, HB6, but these bills can change a lot in the process and the amendments. Even if the number bill passes it might look different when it gets through.
Rebeca Ibarra: Should we expect to see any legal challenges to SB7 or other changes to voter laws in Texas in the coming weeks and months?
Jane C. Timm: Absolutely, I think these bills are primed to get lawsuits particularly the eligible voters' formula is very confusing. There's going to be lawsuits that try and sort out the vagaries of these bills and advocates say these bills seem so intentionally vague so that counties who don't want to go to court are just going to be as conservative as they can because they don't want to be punished.
A lot of these voting restrictions in SB7 and the ones being considered in the house with HB6 actually had criminal penalties to election officials who make mistakes. There isn't in summon cases provisions that say you know you're making a mistake, not malicious mistakes. Elections can be confusing and people do make mistakes. It happens every year.
The idea that you could maybe face criminal penalties, there was one provision where state employees could lose their job and their pension over election mistakes. Those are scary and chilling for people who are involved in the process.
Rebeca Ibarra: Jane, how does SB7 fit into the larger push for Republicans to restrict voting in the state following last year's election?
Jane C. Timm: We've seen bills that look a lot like what we're seeing in Texas across the country. It's clear there's a national push. That phrase that you just heard "easy to vote and hard to cheat" from Senator Hughes, I hear that all over the country from different lawmakers who are pushing bills like this. I think what you're seeing is you're going to see lawsuits all over the country that challenge these laws when they pass, and you'll also see federal legislation that would stop a huge vast majority of these restrictive bills with the For The People Act.
I think that's going to inform that congressional conversation over the filibuster because people realize that this is the one way you could stop all of these restrictions across the country instead of a state by state, committee by committee, legislature by legislature fight.
Rebeca Ibarra: In Texas what other pieces of legislation on voting rights access are being proposed?
Jane C. Timm: HB6 is a similar bill and that's working through the house right now. Then it would go to the Senate and they'd flip. There's actually 49 bills in Texas that would restrict access for voting. They lead the nation in restrictive voting proposals. I think it's these Omnibuses that are going to be the vehicle for whatever actually passes and comes out.
Rebeca Ibarra: Jane C. Timm is senior reporter covering voting rights and election policy for NBC News. Jane, thanks for joining us.
Jane C. Timm: Thanks for having me.
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