Senate Bill 1 would set new rules for voting by mail, boost protections for partisan poll watchers and roll back local voting initiatives meant to make it easier to vote, namely those championed by Harris County that were disproportionately used by voters of color.
Though delayed in their quest, Texas Republicans are close to passing sweeping legislation to further restrict the state’s voting process and narrow local control of elections.
The Republican majorities in the House and Senate are expected to soon sign off on the final version of Senate Bill 1 and send it to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature. They are setting new rules for voting by mail, boosting the role of partisan poll watchers and rolling back local initiatives meant to make it easier to vote — specifically those championed by Harris County that were disproportionately used by voters of color — while expanding access in more conservative, rural areas.
Compared to the spring’s regular legislative session, Republicans in both chambers have been more closely aligned in their approaches to the priority legislation, using as a blueprint the massive voting bill, then known as Senate Bill 7, that Democrats doomed in May when they staged an 11th-hour walkout to break quorum.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the most significant portions of the wide-ranging legislation expected to become law. It will go into effect three months after the special legislative session, kicking in before the 2022 primary elections.
The bill outlaws drive-thru voting, which several counties used in 2020 to allow voters to cast ballots from their car.
While other counties employed the voting method — and Harris County first tested it in a summer 2020 primary runoff election with little controversy — Harris County’s use of 10 drive-thru polling places for the November general election came under Republican scrutiny.
The county’s drive-thru polling places were mostly set up under large tents. Voters remained in their cars and showed a photo ID and verified their registration before filling out their ballots on portable voting machines. At the Toyota Center — home of the Houston Rockets — drive-thru voting was located in a garage. The option proved popular, with 1 in 10 in-person early voters in the county casting their ballots at drive-thru locations.
SB 1 restricts early voting to a newly established window of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., which would outlaw the 24 hours of uninterrupted voting Harris County offered at a few polling places for one day during the 2020 election.
The legislation also requires more counties to provide at least 12 hours of early voting each weekday of the second week of early voting in state elections. That’s currently required of counties with a population of 100,000 or more. SB 1 will lower that population threshold to 55,000, expanding hours in smaller, mostly Republican counties. The bill also adds an extra hour of required early voting hours for local elections, moving it from eight hours to nine.
As expected, the House and Senate both retreated from a controversial proposal to restrict the start time for Sunday early voting hours, which was derided as an attack on “souls to the polls” efforts focused on Black churchgoers. Instead, the Legislature will apply a new 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. window of voting and add an extra hour of required Sunday voting hours, increasing it from five hours to six.
It will become a state jail felony for local election officials to send unsolicited applications to request a mail-in ballot. That same punishment applies to officials who approve the use of public funds “to facilitate” the unsolicited distribution of applications by third-parties, which would keep counties from providing applications to local groups helping get out the vote. Political parties would still be able to send out unsolicited applications on their own dime.
The proposal is a direct response to Harris County’s attempt to proactively send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters last year with specific instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. The Texas Supreme Court ultimately blocked that effort, but other Texas counties sent applications to voters 65 and older without much scrutiny. Though those voters automatically qualify to vote by mail, mailing unrequested applications to them in the future would also be a crime.
The legislation further tightens rules for voting by mail by setting new ID requirements. Under SB 1, voters must provide their driver’s license number or, if they don’t have one, the last four digits of their Social Security number on applications for those ballots. They must also provide those numbers on the envelope used to return their completed ballot.
Those numbers must match the information contained in the individual’s voter record. The state currently uses a signature matching process to verify completed ballots.
Texas generally has strict rules outlining who can receive a paper ballot that can be filled out at home and returned in the mail or dropped off in person on Election Day. The option is limited to voters who are 65 and older, will be out of the county during the election, are confined in jail but otherwise still eligible or cite a disability or illness that keeps them from voting in person without needing help or without the risk of injuring their health.
Building on Democratic proposals, the bill creates a new process allowing voters to correct their mail-in ballots if they are at risk of being rejected for a technical error. Voters could make those corrections online through a new online ballot tracker that was previously approved by the Legislature. The legislation will also allow voters who make errors on the mail-in ballot application itself to make corrections.
The legislation includes language to strengthen the autonomy of partisan poll watchers at polling places by granting them “free movement” within a polling place, except for being present at a voting station when a voter is filling out their ballot. SB 1 would also make it a criminal offense to obstruct their view or distance the watcher “in a manner that would make observation not reasonably effective.”
Currently, poll watchers are entitled to sit or stand “conveniently near” election workers, and it is a criminal offense to prevent them from observing.
In changes pushed by Democrats, SB 1 requires training for poll watchers and allows for them to be removed from a polling place without warning if they violate the state Penal Code. A previous version of the bill only allowed them to be kicked out for violating the law or the election code after receiving one warning.
SB 1 sets up new monthly reviews of the state’s voter rolls to identify noncitizens — harkening back to the state’s botched 2019 voter rolls review. The bill will require the Texas secretary of state’s office to compare the massive statewide voter registration list with data from the Department of Public Safety to pinpoint individuals who told the department they were not citizens while obtaining or renewing their driver’s license or ID card after registering to vote.
The state’s 2019 review landed it in federal court over concerns it targeted naturalized citizens who were classified as “possible non-U.S citizens” and set up to receive notices from their local voter registrar demanding they prove their citizenship to keep their registrations safe.
The language in SB 1, which was revised from previous iterations, should match the legal settlement the state ultimately entered into to end that effort and settle three federal lawsuits by agreeing to rework their methodology. The state never restarted that work after that debacle but would be required to under SB 1.
The bill would establish new requirements — and possible criminal penalties — for those who assist voters who need help filling out their ballots, including voters with disabilities. The person assisting must fill out new paperwork disclosing their relationship to the voter. Assistants must also recite an expanded oath, now under the penalty of perjury, stating they did not “pressure or coerce” the voter into choosing them for assistance.
Lawmakers reworked the oath so that their assistance no longer explicitly includes answering the voter’s questions. Instead, they must pledge to limit their assistance to “reading the ballot to the voter, directing the voter to read the ballot, marking the voter’s ballot, or directing the voter to mark the ballot.”
Disclosure: The Texas Secretary of State has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Perhaps it goes without saying — but producing quality journalism isn’t cheap. At a time when newsroom resources and revenue across the country are declining, The Texas Tribune remains committed to sustaining our mission: creating a more engaged and informed Texas with every story we cover, every event we convene and every newsletter we send. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on members to help keep our stories free and our events open to the public. Do you value our journalism? Show us with your support.
Loading content …
Loading content …
Lawyers for the US tell a UK court why WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange should face spying charges
LONDON (AP) — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange won’t find out until next month at the earliest whether he can challenge extradition to the U.S. on spying charges, or if his long legal battle in Britain has run out of road.
Two High Court judges said Wednesday they would take time to consider their verdict after a two-day hearing in which Assange’s lawyers argued sending him to the United States would risk a “flagrant denial of justice.”
Attorneys for the U.S., where Assange has been indicted on espionage charges, said he put innocent lives at risk and went beyond journalism in his bid to solicit, steal and indiscriminately publish classified U.S. government documents.
Assange’s lawyers asked the High Court to grant him a new appeal — his last roll of the legal dice in the saga that has kept him in a British high-security prison for the past five years.
The judges overseeing the case reserved their decision, and a ruling on Assange’s future is not expected until March at the earliest.
If judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson rule against Assange, he can ask the European Court of Human Rights to block his extradition — though supporters worry he could be put on a plane to the U.S. before that happens, because the British government has already signed an extradition order.
The 52-year-old Australian has been indicted on 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse over his website’s publication of a trove of classified U.S. documents almost 15 years ago. American prosecutors allege Assange encouraged and helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks published, putting lives at risk.
Lawyer Clair Dobbin, representing the U.S. government, said Wednesday that Assange damaged U.S. security and intelligence services and “created a grave and imminent risk” by releasing the hundreds of thousands of documents — risks that could harm and lead to the arbitrary detention of innocent people, many of whom lived in war zones or under repressive regimes.
Dobbin added that in encouraging Manning and others to hack into government computers and steal from them, Assange was “going a very considerable way beyond” a journalist gathering information.
Assange was “not someone who has just set up an online box to which people can provide classified information,” she said. “The allegations are that he sought to encourage theft and hacking that would benefit WikiLeaks.”
Assange’s supporters maintain he is a secrecy-busting journalist who exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have long argued that the prosecution is politically motivated and he won’t get a fair trial in the U.S.
Assange’s lawyers argued on the first day of the hearing on Tuesday that American authorities are seeking to punish him for WikiLeaks’ “exposure of criminality on the part of the U.S. government on an unprecedented scale,” including torture and killings.
Lawyer Edward Fitzgerald said there is “a real risk he may suffer a flagrant denial of justice” if he is sent to the U.S.
Dobbin said the prosecution is based on law and evidence, and has remained consistent despite the changes of government in the U.S. during the legal battle.
She added that the First Amendment does not confer immunity on journalists who break the law. Media outlets that went through the process of redacting the documents before publishing them are not being prosecuted, she said.
Assange’s lawyers say he could face up to 175 years in prison if convicted, though American authorities have said the sentence is likely to be much shorter.
Assange was absent from court on both days because he is unwell, WikiLeaks said. Stella Assange, his wife, said he had wanted to attend, but was “not in good condition.”
Assange’s family and supporters say his physical and mental health have suffered during more than a decade of legal battles, including seven years in self-exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
“Julian is a political prisoner and he has to be released,” said Stella Assange, who married the WikiLeaks founder in prison in 2022.
“They’re putting Julian into the hands of the country and of the people who plotted his assassination,” she added, referring to unproven claims by Assange’s lawyers that he was a target of a CIA plot to kidnap or kill him while he was in the Ecuadorian Embassy.
Supporters holding “Free Julian Assange” signs and chanting “there is only one decision — no extradition” protested outside the High Court building for a second day.
Assange’s legal troubles began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. In 2012, Assange jumped bail and sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy.
The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted from the embassy in April 2019. British police immediately arrested and imprisoned him for breaching bail in 2012. Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed.
A U.K. district court judge rejected the U.S. extradition request in 2021 on the grounds that Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions. Higher courts overturned that decision after getting assurances from the U.S. about his treatment. The British government signed an extradition order in June 2022.
Meanwhile, the Australian parliament last week called for Assange to be allowed to return to his homeland.
Andrew Wilkie, an Australian lawmaker who attended the hearing, said he hoped that sent a strong message to the U.K. and U.S. governments to end the legal fight. “This has gone on long enough,” he said.
Associated Press video journalists Kwiyeon Ha and Jo Kearney contributed to this report.
Jill Biden is announcing $100 million in funding for research and development into women’s health
WASHINGTON (AP) — Jill Biden on Wednesday announced $100 million in federal funding for research and development into women’s health as part of a new White House initiative that she is heading up.
The money is the first major deliverable of the White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research, which was announced late last year. The money comes from the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, which is under the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
The first lady announced the ARPA-H Sprint for Women’s Health during an appearance in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Biden has said women don’t know enough about their health because the research historically has been underfunded and lacking. The White House initiative aims to change the approach to and increase funding for women’s health research.
The $100 million will be used to invest early in “life-changing” work being done by women’s health researchers and startup companies that cannot get private support, Biden said.
“We will build a health care system that puts women and their lived experiences at its center,” she said. “Where no woman or girl has to hear that ‘it’s all in your head,’ or, ‘it’s just stress.’” Where women aren’t just an after-thought, but a first-thought. Where women don’t just survive with chronic conditions, but lead long and healthy lives.”
President Joe Biden created the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health in 2022 to work on advancing solutions to health issues. The agency is part of what he called his “ unity agenda.”
In the coming weeks, the agency will solicit ideas for groundbreaking research and development to address women’s health, according to the White House.
The first lady said last year when the White House initiative was announced in November that it grew out of meeting she had had with Maria Shriver, a women’s health advocate and former California first lady. Shriver, Biden said, spoke of the need for a public-private effort to close the gaps in women’s health research. Shriver also participated in Wednesday’s announcement in Massachusetts.
The White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research is led by Jill Biden and the White House Gender Policy Council.
White House promises ‘major sanctions’ on Russia in response to Alexei Navalny’s death
WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House said Tuesday it is preparing additional “major sanctions” on Russia in response to opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s death last week in an Arctic penal colony.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the sanctions, on the eve of the two-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “will be a substantial package covering a range of different elements of the Russian defense industrial base, and sources of revenue for the Russian economy that power Russia’s war machine, that power Russia’s aggression, and that power Russia’s repression.”
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. had not determined how Navalny had died, but insisted that the ultimate responsibility lay with Putin.
“Regardless of the scientific answer, Putin’s responsible for it,” he told reporters.
Russian authorities have said the cause of Navalny’s death is still unknown and have refused to release his body for the next two weeks as the preliminary inquest continues, members of his team said.
The Treasury Department declined to comment on the details of the upcoming sanctions. Brian Nelson, the department’s Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, is in Europe this week to continue working on Russia sanctions ahead of the invasion’s two-year anniversary.
“The global coalition imposing unprecedented sanctions on Russia’s war machine has thrown sand in the gears of the Kremlin’s efforts to equip and supply its military. President Biden recently expanded Treasury’s authorities to target those funding Russia’s war production efforts – even if they’re located in third countries – and Treasury is aggressively pursuing those who attempt to evade our sanctions,” the Treasury department said last week. “Multilateral sanctions and export controls have forced hard tradeoffs for Putin and damaged his ability to project power now and in the future.”
So far, the U.S. and its allies have sanctioned thousands of Russian people and firms, frozen Russian Central Bank funds, banned certain Russian goods, restricted Russian banks’ access to SWIFT — the dominant system for global financial transactions — and imposed a $60-per-barrel price cap on Russian oil and diesel, among other measures.
Policy experts have advanced an array of proposals meant to further starve Russia of the money it needs to continue its invasion — from seizing the nation’s Central Bank funds housed largely in Europe to lowering the Group of Seven price cap in Russian oil.
A February working paper from the International Working Group on Russian Sanctions at Stanford University calls for heavier sanctions in Russia’s energy market – from lowering the current $60 price cap on Russian-produced oil to $30, as well as completing the EU and G7 ban on Russian hydrocarbons.
Asked about more sanctions on Russia during a Council on Foreign Relations media briefing Tuesday, Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the organization, said “the choices are rather limited — but it’s not zero.”
Sestanovich said it is also possible that the U.S. and allies could lower the price cap on Russian oil, since it is an area where “the U.S. and EU have not been particularly aggressive.”
“They could try to go lower and put the squeeze on and force the Russians to sell more oil at a discount,” he said, adding that he anticipates the U.S. to impose more personal sanctions on Russian officials.
Charles Kupchan, also a CFR senior fellow and professor of international affairs at Georgetown University said, “sanctions are always in the quiver, but they’re not going to matter that much — because let’s be honest, the sanctions have not had a huge impact on the Russian economy.”
“What will make a big difference is military and economic assistance to Ukraine, full stop,” Kupchan said.