Texas Senate passes GOP voting-restrictions bill

Alexa Ura / The Texas Tribune
State Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, applies lipstick in her 15th hour of filibustering against Senate Bill 1.

Since before sunset Wednesday, state Sen. Carol Alvarado had been on her feet speaking, not allowed to sit or lean against her desk, on the Senate floor.

Unable to take bathroom breaks or drink water, she had worn a back brace, eyeglasses and running shoes and talked slowly behind a desk stacked with papers and with a microphone in her hand as she mounted a 15-hour filibuster. The target of her efforts was Senate Bill 1, the GOP's priority bill that would place new restrictions on voting that many opponents say would disproportionately suppress ballots from voters of color and disabled voters.

But ultimately, her speaking marathon could only delay the passage of the bill in the Republican-controlled Senate. Shortly after she finally stepped away from her desk around 9 a.m., the Senate voted to advance the measure on an 18-11 party-line vote.

With her Democratic colleagues surrounding her on the Senate floor, Alvarado invoked her Houston constituents — the voters who took advantage of the voting options SB 1 would ban — and asked why they should not be allowed as many opportunities to vote as the county was willing to offer.

"As we draw this discussion to an end, it is my sincere hope that civil acts by everyday Texans, from the Senate floor to the ballot box, can help to shed the light on all important issues," Alvarado said Thursday morning. "What do we want our democracy to look like?

"Do we want access to our electoral process to be more difficult for people with disabilities, or do we want to remove barriers for them?" she asked. "For communities of color, do we want to defend the tremendous progress that we've made in civil rights and equality or chip away at their voting rights one Senate bill at a time?"

Alvarado's filibuster began just before 5:50 p.m. Wednesday, setting up what was clear from the start would be a symbolic gesture rather than a credible attempt to block passage of the voting bill. When she took the floor, the Legislature was on just the fifth day of a 30-day special session, called as Democrats have left the House without enough members present for the Republican majority in that chamber to pass legislation.

That left plenty of time for the Senate to pass the legislation despite the temporary delay. But Alvarado said she felt compelled to filibuster to "put the brakes on" the bill and delay its final approval to shine a spotlight on its provisions.

"[President Lyndon B. Johnson] said the Voting Rights Act struck away the last major shackle of the fierce and ancient bond of slavery," Alvarado said at the onset of her effort. "Senate Bill 1 is a regressive step back in the direction of that dark and painful history."

Alvarado filled the time by recounting portions of the history of the fight for voting rights, reading testimony on the bill that her office collected from the public and going over portions of the bill in excruciating detail with assists from Democratic Senate colleagues who took turns asking her lengthy questions, often speaking at a much slower tempo than usual, throughout the night and morning in what appeared at times to be a largely empty Senate chamber.

As the filibuster stretched into the early morning, Alvarado read messages being sent to her by voters and Democratic elected officials urging her effort on.

Republican senators and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the chamber, appeared to be drifting in and out as the night went on, but made no efforts in to raise procedural objections that might cut her off.

Ahead of her filibuster, Alvarado acknowledged the bill would eventually pass in the Senate but framed her effort under the same “use every tool in the toolbox” mantra House Democrats have adopted during their quorum break targeting the legislation. And she vowed to keep going "as long as I have the energy."

“I’m using what I have at my disposal in the Senate,” Alvarado told The Texas Tribune. “The filibuster isn’t going to stop it, but a filibuster is also used to put the brakes on an issue — to call attention to what is at stake — and that is what I am doing.”

The passage of SB 1 in the Senate is the latest strike in Republicans’ struggle to clamp down on the state’s voting process, which has now extended into a second round of legislative overtime. The Senate’s Thursday vote dispatches the bill over to the House, where Democratic members have been forging their own marathon protest by continuing to leave the chamber’s Republican majority without enough members present to do business in a bid to block the GOP’s proposals. The Democratic blockade has so far derailed passage of the bill for months. Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan has signed arrest warrants for 52 of the House Democrats who have absconded. So far, none have been brought in and it has failed to bring an end to their maneuver.

SB 1 is the Senate’s revived effort to restrict voting by forbidding local officials from taking various steps to make voting more accessible, and further tightening the vote-by-mail process. The bill is nearly identical to legislation the Senate approved in the first special session, and is opposed by Democratic lawmakers, civil rights groups and advocates for people with disabilities who have raised concerns the bill would limit access and suppress marginalized voters.

“We’re talking about [it being] easy to vote, hard to cheat, and that’s what this bill is about,” Sen. Bryan Hughes, the Mineola Republican who authored the legislation, said earlier Wednesday when the Senate gave preliminary approval to SB 1. “It cracks down on those vote harvesters, those paid political operatives who try to coerce voters, who try to mislead voters, who try to get in between the voter and her ballot. We will not have that in Texas.”

Before the final vote Thursday morning, Hughes told his colleagues that the bill "has gotten better as the process has gone."

Pushed under Texas Republicans’ mantle of “election integrity,” SB 1 enhances partisan poll watchers’ freedoms inside polling locations and sets new rules — and possible criminal penalties — for those who assist voters, including those with disabilities, in casting their ballots.

Republicans have pressed forward with those changes even as advocates for people with disabilities have continued to warn that the wording of SB 1 risks disenfranchising the voters who lawmakers claim they want to protect by limiting the assistance voters with disabilities could receive and potentially subjecting those helping them to increased penalties for mistakes. There also remains no evidence that fraud occurs on a widespread scale in Texas.

"When has a crackdown on voter harvesters become voter suppression?" said Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston. "Who wants voter harvesters? Why would we tolerate it? We shouldn't."