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As lawmakers overhauled Texas elections, I had to gauge their chances of success

Guessing which bills would make it through the Legislature wasn’t easy. Here’s how we did it.

Lawmakers on the House floor during Sine Die of the 88th Texas Legislative Session, at the Capitol in Austin, on May 29, 2023. (Eddie Gaspar / The Texas Tribune)

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Greetings from Austin, Texas! 

I’ll start by flashing back to February, when a Republican legislator in Texas made national news by introducing a set of proposals to ban polling places in schools and on college campuses

The bills were among hundreds of election-related proposals, and among about two dozen that I was tracking as I dove into while covering my first Texas legislative session. Ultimately, Votebeat decided not to write about those bills, and many others. Now, I want to walk you through how we came to that decision. 

As the only Texas reporter at Votebeat and given the hundreds of bills filed related to elections — some related to administration, others about election technology and security and election law enforcement — I had to figure out which proposals were the most important ones that deserved coverage. 

At the same time, I also had to quickly learn how the legislative process worked, with all of its moving parts. I learned that the committee chairs had a lot of decision-making power, and that helped me get a better idea whether an election bill would clear its first hurdle of receiving a committee hearing. And in a majority Republican legislature, it was telling whether those committee chairs were either far-right conservatives or moderates. 

After the proposals to ban polling places in schools and college campuses were referred to the House Elections Committee, I wondered if they’d get a public hearing. And if not, was it worth it to alarm voters and election officials by writing about  major changes in voting access that likely wouldn’t become law?

By then, most national outlets had already covered the potential impacts the bills would have on young voters, as well as other similar GOP efforts across the country to restrict voting access. 

So I called my sources — election administrators who have been following the Legislature for years; policy experts and voting rights activists — and I asked them all the same question: Do you think these bills will make it? They all said something along the lines of “You never know” or “Anything is possible,” but they shared thoughts about how to gauge the proposals’ prospects.

They suggested considering which lawmaker filed the proposal, because some have more influence than others. The state representative behind these bills, Carrie Isaac, a conservative from Central Texas, has spread election conspiracy theories and was starting her first term. It was possible she didn’t have enough support from fellow legislators. And my colleagues at our partner publication, the Texas Tribune, who have some of the best legislative coverage in the state, said that sometimes freshmen lawmakers file proposals just to make a political statement.  

We decided Votebeat’s coverage of election legislation should focus elsewhere, on legislation that stood a higher chance of becoming law and affecting voters. And sure enough, Isaac’s bills ultimately failed to gain momentum and died early on, after failing to pass by key deadlines. 

I used these same parameters as I kept track of other election legislation. But I’ll be honest, the process only became more complicated. I had to be on alert about movement of legislation in both chambers at the same time. 

For example, a proposal in the Senate was initially filed as a bill setting a procedure to audit counties after an election. Weeks later, and behind closed doors without public input, the proposal changed into a plan to give the state more oversight of local elections. Ultimately, and again without public input, the bill was amended in the House to focus solely on election oversight of Harris County, home to Houston. 

This was happening at the same time as lawmakers were voting on a bill that would eliminate the Harris County elections administrator position, and on another  bill that would allow the state to withdraw from a multistate consortium seen as the best tool for combating voter fraud. And depending where the bills were on the daily agendas, some of those chamber debates went on for hours.

I relied on Google and my colleagues at the Tribune to figure out the meaning of some of the jargon that cropped up during legislative debates as tactics to delay a vote and block bills from moving forward. Ever heard of a “point of order” (better known as a ‘POO’ to political journalists)? This was Democratic lawmakers’ lightsaber this session. Here’s a good explainer.

And somewhere along the way, I took a step back. I thought about the hours I spent trying to figure out exactly how the legislative process works. It took a lot of effort — phone calls, meetings, and earning sources’ trust — to get some intel on how some of the proposals were changing behind closed doors and what it really meant. 

What’s done inside the Texas Capitol is the people’s business. It ultimately impacts all of us. 

But somehow, understanding it really is a full-time job. 

Back Then

In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled poll taxes violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, striking them down. In response, the Texas Legislature enacted an annual registration requirement that was also struck down in federal court for the same reason in 1971. 

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In Other Voting News

  • A trial began before a federal judge who will determine whether North Dakota’s legislative districts violate the Voting Rights Act by diluting the strength of Native American voters. The lawsuit was brought by the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and the Spirit Lake tribe, the Associated Press reported.
  • Fulton County election officials investigating thousands of challenges to voters’ eligibility filed by Republicans have so far validated the vast majority of the voters and are continuing to investigate the rest, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Many of the addresses in question turned out to be college dormitories, new apartment buildings, or, in some cases, incorrectly listed double addresses such as “street street” that election officials are correcting.
  • The term of Wisconsin’s chief nonpartisan elections administrator, Meagan Wolfe, expires at the end of the month, and the Wisconsin Elections Commission is expected to decide whether to recommend her reappointment, which would be subject to confirmation by the state Senate, where her support is uncertain. Republicans, including the state Senate president, have been harshly critical of Wolfe and other election officials in the swing state since the 2020 election, and in a letter this week, Wolfe said it was clear that some legislators believe “false information” about her work, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported
  • The Ohio Supreme Court ordered state officials to redraft what they said was misleading language describing a ballot initiative that would stiffen requirements for placing citizen-initiated constitutional amendments on the ballot, the Associated Press reported. The new requirements will go before voters in a special August election.
  • Republican lawmakers in North Carolina, who hold a legislative majority, want to alter the makeup of the state’s Board of Elections, allowing the Legislature to appoint members rather than the governor and also allowing state lawmakers to break deadlocks on the board, which would have an even number of members of the two major parties. The state Supreme Court had previously rejected a similar change, but the partisan composition of the court recently shifted towards Republicans, North Carolina Public Radio reported
  • A Wayne County judge ordered Michigan GOP Chair Kristina Karamo and Republican lawyers who brought in a “frivolous” lawsuit over Detroit ballots last year to pay nearly $60,000 in costs and legal fees to the Detroit clerk’s office, the Detroit Free Press reported.
  • The U.S. Senate confirmed Dale Ho, a voting rights lawyer who has worked for the American Civil Liberties Union, to be a federal judge in New York, Roll Call reported.
  • A federal judge has released two dueling reports into the security of Georgia’s voting systems, both filed as part of an ongoing lawsuit. The first found that the Dominion Voting System had vulnerabilities that could be exploited by a bad actor under specific circumstances, but the second, commissioned by Dominion in response, found such attacks to be “operationally infeasible,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported

Natalia Contreras is a reporter for Votebeat in partnership with the Texas Tribune. Contact Natalia at ncontreras@votebeat.org.

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