AUSTIN (KXAN) — Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke was among those who testified against two controversial elections overhaul bills on Saturday at their first hearings during the special session.
The bills stem from the previous Senate Bill 7, which was toppled by a late-night Democratic walk-out. But now, Senate Bill 1 and its House equivalent have resurrected the GOP-led effort to make several changes to how elections are conducted in the state.
“I’m here in Austin, at our state capitol, preparing to testify against an elections bill that would change the rules on how we vote and make it harder for hundreds of thousands of our fellow Texans to participate in our democracy,” O’Rourke said Saturday morning. “The good news is: I’m here with a lot of other people.”
Texas Republicans say the laws would protect election integrity. “There’s currently many gaps,” said Chairman of Harris County Republican Party Ballot Security Committee Alan Vera. Vera testified at Saturday’s hearings. “There’s many ambiguities in the election code, and they need to be cleared up.”
Others, namely Democrats, have said these laws are aimed at stopping legal voters from casting ballots. The controversial bills would limit early voting hours, ban drive-thru and mail-in ballot drop boxes and require people with disabilities to prove they can’t make it to a voting center.
Additionally, SB 1 would allow partisan poll watchers to record voters who get help filling out ballots — and make it a crime for local elections officials to encourage voting by mail.
“Whether it’s ending 24 hour voting, or allowing free rein to poll watchers and making it harder to be able to vote by mail and an absentee ballot, this is going to make it tougher, not easier for those who should have a say in our elections,” testified O’Rourke in Saturday’s committee hearing.
O’Rourke and Powered by People held an event at the Capitol in June to show support for the federal voting right “For the People Act,” which has stalled in the U.S. Senate.
O’Rourke urged anyone who wants to protest against the bill to testify in the Texas House and/or Senate on Saturday.
O’Rourke implored Texans: “If you want to make sure that we save democracy and preserve voting rights, and have free and fair elections in Texas, then come down to the state capitol.”
Meanwhile, ahead of O’Rourke’s testimony, others gave public testimony.
Senators asked questions of representatives from the Texas Attorney General and Secretary of State’s offices.
While Keith Ingram, the Texas Secretary of State’s Elections Division Director told lawmakers his office has no evidence of voter fraud during Harris County’s use of drive-thru and 24-hour voting– Jonathan White, the Texas Attorney General’s Chief of Election Integrity says his office has received some reports of voter fraud in recent years. White says 44 of those are currently being prosecuted and an additional 386 claims are currently under active investigation.
In response to those numbers, Sen. Royce West asked White, “It’s a very few cases of fraud in Texas that’s being prosecuted by the attorney general’s office, correct?”
However, White said assuming voter fraud may not be a large issue from case numbers alone isn’t necessarily fair. His office only investigates claims that are reported, and he said voter fraud is a victimless crime that can often go undetected.
“Our cases are a bit of a Rorschach test for folks that can look at the same picture of voter fraud that we with a small team show and you can say, ‘Well, there’s hardly any within the grand scheme of things,’ or you could see what we’ve found that’s coming through the filter of being detected, being reported, being prosecuted and say, ‘That’s evidence of a greater problem,’ and come to the opposite conclusion,” White said.
Once they get through all of the public testimony on Saturday, lawmakers in the committee could vote on several amendments to the bill. Then they’ll vote on whether to move it forward.