The conference committee report (PDF) for the session’s most significant election bill was filed today (Saturday) and contains provisions that were not in any prior versions. The report was signed by all seven Republicans. None of the three Democrats agreed to it.
Senate Bill 7 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) was dramatically altered by the House when Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) substituted his House Bill 6 for it and 18 amendments were added on the floor. The Senate declined to accept the House version, so the bill went to a conference committee to resolve the differences. Typically, a conference report accepts provisions that were in both chambers’ versions, takes either chamber’s version where they differed or found some middle ground between the chambers’ conflicting versions of a provision.
In this case, provisions from neither bill were included as the committee went “outside the bounds” of their charge. Indeed, the section-by-section analysis provided by Texas Legislative Counsel indicates that the “committee may have exceeded limitations imposed on its jurisdiction” but notes that the presiding officers of each chamber have sole discretion to make this determination.
In Section 1 of the conference committee report, the Legislature finds that “fraud in elections threatens the stability of a constitutional democracy by undermining public confidence in the legitimacy of public officers chosen by election.” This is a more provocative statement than what was contained in the House version (“Minimizing the potential for fraud in elections and enhancing the opportunities to vote strengthen our constitutional democracy and provide for wide-scale confidence in elections.”). The Senate version contained no legislative findings.
No credible evidence of widespread fraud has been presented with respect to Texas elections or the 2020 presidential election.
The final bill maintains a focus on ending practices established by Harris County – and approved by the Secretary of State – to expand access to in-person early voting and delivering absentee ballots in person during the 2020 election. The bill also prohibits officials from sending absentee ballot applications if they were not specifically requested by the voter. The bill’s provisions would extend early voting hours in some counties even as it cuts then in others. The bill requires counties to provide information about elections on their websites (Most already do, but some do not or provide incomplete information.).
The bill expands poll watchers’ access to polling places and vote tabulation locations, but it omits proposed provisions that would have allowed poll watchers to film voters and vote counting activities. The bill places new requirements on individuals assisting voters. It creates and expands various civil and criminal penalties, and it establishes expedited handling of judicial review of election matters.
Based on our reading of the section-by-section analysis, “new” provisions include:
- Enforcement of voter roll maintenance provisions by the Secretary of State, which includes potential fines, withholding of state funds and other “remediation” activities if a county’s compliance
- Changes to the standards defining eligibility to vote by mail, including specifying grounds that “do not constitute” eligibility, one of which is, essentially, a pandemic
- Requirements that a mail ballot application include a driver’s license or personal identification card number, the last four digits of a social security number or a statement that none of these has been issued to the applicant, and the “specific grounds” that qualify a voter based on disability.
- Requirements that an absentee ballot application missing this information be rejected
- New rules for the closing of polling places
- New attestation forms for the delivery of election supplies and a “written reconciliation of votes and voters”
- Extension of the deadlines by which a losing candidate can contest an election
- Awarding of damages to the party successfully contesting an election
As far as we can tell, no resolution authorizing the conferees to go “outside the bounds” has been approved by both chambers for this bill. House Rule 13, Section 9 requires strict compliance with the boundaries established on the conference committee’s jurisdiction. A majority vote of each chamber can authorize conferees to go “outside the bounds.”
The Senate was debating whether to accept or reject the conference committee report as of press time (10 p.m. Saturday). It does not appear that the House may consider the report until 4:41 p.m. tomorrow (Sunday), which is the last day conference committee reports may be considered. The legislative session concludes Monday, on which only technical corrections may be considered.
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