Texas Republican leaders say the changes to voting laws causing a bitter partisan fight in Austin are a necessary response to secure the voting system and prevent fraud. Democrats say it’s voter suppression and liken it to Jim Crow-era voter suppression.

But what would Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 actually do, and how would they affect the experience of voting in Bexar County?

Here’s the San Antonio Report’s analysis of the latest versions of both bills. Senators voted to approve SB1 on July 13, while HB3 remains stalled in the House after clearing a key committee on July 10. That was three days before most House Democrats hopped planes bound for Washington, D.C., breaking quorum and triggering a legislative stalemate.

Expanding early voting, standardizing voting times

The bills expand required early voting hours in rural counties. At the same time, they ban the kind of 24-hour voting that large counties such as Harris County used in the November 2020 election.

Currently, Texas law requires at least three hours of early voting in counties with 1,000 registered voters or fewer. Counties with between 1,000 and 100,000 registered voters are required to make early voting available during local government business hours. Counties with 100,000 registered voters or more must allow early voting at least 12 hours per day during early voting days.

The bills would lower that population threshold from 100,000 to 30,000 voters, while also adding time restrictions. If adopted, all counties with 30,000 registered voters or fewer would have to provide at least 12 hours of early voting, though the bills also restrict voting hours between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. They also change early voting from three hours to four hours daily in counties with 1,000 registered voters or fewer.

For the first time, the bills would require employers to allow their staff time off work to vote during early voting. Currently, this requirement only applies to Election Day.

What people are saying

“There’s been no showing of any suppression. In fact, it’s just the opposite, it’s expanding and extending voting opportunities.”
— State Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio) speaking to KSAT about the bills.

“Who does that affect? Our shift workers, our heroes, our first responders — police, fire, EMTs — health care workers who are at the front lines, those working at our hospitals, those that work on our oil fields, shift workers who don’t have the availability to go vote at the designated times.”
— State Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-San Antonio), speaking about the ban on 24-hour voting.

“Let me tell you about living in Chambers County, where I have Houston on one side and Beaumont on the other. The Houston news reports that polls are open 24 hours, and in Chambers County I’ve got people calling asking where they can vote for 24 hours. … So some kind of consistency — that’s not going to be a bad thing.” 
— Heather Hawthorne, County and District Clerks Association of Texas, in a June 10 House committee hearing.

Poll watcher protections

Poll watchers are people who represent campaigns, a political party, or one side of a ballot measure who Texas law allows to be inside polling places. They can observe but aren’t allowed to talk to voters or interfere with the work of election officials.

The bills would significantly expand the role of poll watchers. Instead of sitting or standing “conveniently near the election officers conducting the observed activity,” the legislation would allow poll watchers to be “near enough to see and hear.” An election worker who interferes with a poll watcher’s duties can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of no more than $1,000 and/or up to a year in county jail, a measure that’s already in the law.

The law would continue to block watchers from observing voters as they cast their votes. Watchers would be required to swear an oath promising not to “disrupt the voting process” or “harass voters.”

The bills expand the places where watchers can do their watching. If enacted, the legislation would allow watchers to observe the closing down of a polling place at the end of voting and follow voting records from that site to a central counting location or “any other location designated to process election materials.”

The House version of the bill is more permissive towards poll watchers. It gives poll watchers one strike to violate any election or criminal law before they are kicked out of a polling site. Election officials would have to give one warning that the watcher’s conduct violates the law before removing them, though they are allowed to call police to remove the watcher.

Both bills also give watchers who believe they were blocked from observing the polls some additional legal firepower. Poll watchers could sue to get a judge to stop election officials from impeding the watchers’ access to polling sites and records.

What people are saying

“Under the Texas voter suppression bill, Proud Boys could serve as poll watchers. They’d be empowered to stand close enough to ‘observe election activity.’ Even if they break the law, a new ‘one-intimidation allowed’ rule prevents a judge from removing them without a warning.”
— 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, on Twitter. 

“We clarified the ability of elections officials to remove a watcher under certain circumstances. We also clarified that a watcher doesn’t necessarily get parked in a corner where they can’t see. They’ll have free movement, while following that oath.” 
— State Rep. Andrew Murr (R-Junction), HB3’s lead sponsor, in a House committee hearing July 10.

“You put a Democrat poll watcher in a partisan Republican box, or in the alternative, and you’re going to have problems. There won’t be enough constables in Harris County to respond to the calls.”
— State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), in Senate testimony. 

“The concern you have exists under current law. All we’re doing is clarifying the language.”
— State Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), responding to Whitmire. 

Changes at polling locations

Parts of the bills are focused on blocking the kind of election sites that some Texas cities offered as an alternative to in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic. That includes Harris County, which implemented drive-thru voting in November 2020.

If enacted, the bills state that polling places “may not be located in a tent or similar temporary moveable structure or in a facility primarily designed for motor vehicles,” such as parking lots or garages, except during natural disasters (not to include pandemics). Voters aren’t allowed to vote from their vehicles unless they meet disability requirements.

People who assist disabled voters or those who don’t speak English have to fill out forms with their names, addresses, relationship to the voter, and whether they received any benefit in exchange for helping. The bills acknowledges voters who can’t read their ballot, rather than only those who can’t write, as current law states.

Voters who drive three or more non-relatives to the polls would have to fill out forms. Poll watchers would be allowed to watch this process.

Under the bills, the state’s largest counties would also have to implement constant video surveillance of areas at polling and counting sites that contain completed ballots. This would be mandatory in all counties with populations of 100,000 or more, where the video would also have to be available via livestream.

The bills include a few measures that focus on voting machines. Voting machines would have to create paper trails rather than digital-only records and couldn’t have wireless connectivity starting in 2024. The bill also would make communication between election officials and voting machine vendors open to disclosure under public information laws.

What people are saying

“We want uniformity. We don’t want to feel like our votes in my part of the world, North Texas, are diluted by what’s happening somewhere else where they’re making up their rules as they go. We don’t have 24-hour-a-day, we don’t have drive-thru, those same opportunities.” 
— State Sen. Drew Springer (R-Muenster), in Senate testimony July 13.

“Everybody in Texas wants free elections, and we want elections where it’s easy to vote, and where it’s hard to cheat. And that’s what these bills do. The Democrats are demagoguing it using their critical race theory ideology to say if you’ve got a law that treats all groups equally, well, that’s racist because of past oppression. That is a false, racist narrative.”
— Shawn Flanagan, chair of the Voter Integrity Project of Nueces County, in a July 13 interview.

“In San Antonio, one out of every 10 natural born citizens needs help voting because of language, and about half of naturalized citizens need help voting. If [someone] needs me to help him vote because of language … I have to go and fill out a form. It’s essentially a voter ID form, which creates a longer line. I then have a new pledge that I have to say. I have an additional part of the pledge that says that I haven’t encouraged him to choose me to help him. … And the penalty for a simple mistake from someone who’s an assistant is a criminal penalty.”
— State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), speaking to reporters July 17.

Mail-in ballot ID rules, citizenship checks, new requirement for judges to inform felons

Voters who request mail-in ballots would have to include their driver’s license or state ID number, election identification certificate, the last four digits of their Social Security number, or provide a statement saying they don’t have an SSN.

The bills add requirements that mail-in voters sign their ballots using ink on paper, not scans or photocopies. As currently required in the law, a signature verification committee would then compare the signature on the ballot to previous years.

County voter registrars would no longer be allowed to send blank mail-in ballot applications to voters, as Bexar County did in 2020 during the pandemic.

The bills change the requirements for matching the signature on the mail-in ballot to the voters’ prior signatures. They change the standard from “two more signatures of the voter made within the preceding six years” to “any known signature.” They beef up requirements for election officials to contact voters whose signatures don’t match to try to correct the issue.

The bills beefs up language meant to block non-U.S. citizens from casting ballots. Currently, if a person is exempt from jury duty because they’re not a U.S. citizen, a voter registrar has to send them a written request to prove their citizenship status. The bills make it so registrars and the Texas Secretary of State would also have to use motor vehicle or Department of Public Safety records to verify citizenship and send those notices.

Convicted felons still serving their sentences or on parole are not allowed to vote in Texas. The bills include a new requirement for judges to inform felony defendants of how a conviction affects their right to vote.

What people are saying

“I challenge any of you on the committee to remember, do you remember what you registered for you when you filled out your voter registration application, if you put [drivers’ license] or [the last four digits of your Social Security Number] or both? I certainly don’t, and I’m in the business of this. Voters could guess wrong.” 
— Chris Davis, Texas Association of Elections Administrators, in testimony before a Texas House committee on July 10.

“In the middle of the pandemic, Judge [Nelson] Wolff and county Commissioners Court made a decision to make sure that they would send an application of vote by mail to any registered voter who qualified. … That would be prohibited and potentially a crime.”
— State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, dean of Bexar County’s House delegation, speaking to reporters July 17.

“It is of the utmost importance to protect the voting integrity in Texas. It has become clearly evident that there are bad actors in this country that are hijacking the vote of the American people. … Eliminate all machine voting; voter ID is a must. To do anything, an ID is required — to buy alcohol, to get on a plane, to claim tickets at will-call. This is a no-brainer.”
— Megan Hedges-Poole, San Antonio resident, supporting HB3 in written testimony to the Texas House.

‘Vote harvesting’

The Texas bills define “vote harvesting” as “in-person interaction with one or more voters, in the physical presence of an official ballot, a ballot voted by mail, or an application for ballot by mail, intended to deliver votes for a specific candidate or measure.” The bill makes it illegal to do this in exchange for a “benefit.”

What counts as a benefit? The bills define it as “a gain or advantage, including a promise or offer of employment, a political favor, or an official act of discretion, whether to a person or another party whose welfare is of interest to the person.”

If enacted, vote harvesting would be a felony, and the bills include several other enforcement provisions as well. Candidates who say their opponents have engaged in the voter harvesting could sue them and win money from the other side – if they can prove it.

The burden of proof in a case like this would be the lowest possible allowed in law. The bills state that lawsuits over vote harvesting would rely on “preponderance of the evidence,” meaning the candidate suing his or her opponent would have to show there’s a greater than 50% chance that his or her claim is true.

As a semi-related matter, both bills also ban the use of voting machines that could effectively allow straight-ticket voting, which in some states allows voters to mark all candidates of a political party in a single motion. A 2017 appeals court ruling has already blocked straight-ticket voting in Texas.

What people are saying

“What they are talking about is just people helping other people vote by mail, whether it’s turning in their ballot, or helping them fill it out — you know, a person with a disability needs help filling out a ballot. And so they use scare terms like that, like vote harvesting. But that’s what they actually mean, and that’s what they’re trying to prohibit.”
— James Slattery, senior staff attorney, Texas Civil Rights Project, in a July 13 interview.

“There’s been testimony about people who are claiming to assist the voters in fact are voting for them, voting against their will, telling them how to vote when the voters do not want them to. That’s what this provision is about.”
— State Sen. Bryan Hughes, SB1’s lead author, in Senate testimony July 13.

“You’re going to be de-incentivized to help people. So that right there is a slam dunk if you’re trying to scare off people who don’t speak English, people with disabilities, you know, less educated people, perhaps people who are just generally afraid and aren’t willing to take those risks, which is a lot of people.”
— Angelee Rodriguez, San Antonio resident who opposes the bills, in a July 13 interview.

Challenging election results

The Senate version of the bill make it easier to challenge elections in court. If found liable by a preponderance of the evidence, a candidate would have to pay his or her opponent who brought the lawsuit $1,000 for each violation. The court could also require candidates to pay attorney’s fees to opponents if they lose a fraud case.

The Senate bill also includes language that would shoot fraud cases to the top of courts’ to-do lists. Except for death penalty cases or cases involving constitutional rights, election fraud cases would become top priority for all trial courts in Texas.

The House’s most recent version does not include these provisions.

What people are saying

“It’s very easy to file a lawsuit and go fishing, through discovery, to find some type of violation. … I guarantee this is going to have a reverberation of lawsuits filed.”
— State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen), in Senate testimony July 13.

“We need a forensic audit to uncover all the voter fraud. … Texans want to know more about claims of voter fraud [and] deserve to have confidence in their elections.”
— State Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) announcing a new bill he filed July 21 to audit the results of the November 2020 election in Texas’ most populous counties.

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the San Antonio Report's environment and energy reporter.