Update: The House Elections Committee, with Swanson in attendance, voted 5-4 along partisan lines to advance SB 9. The bill still faces a slog in the final days of the session; the key deadline is Tuesday at midnight, when the House must pass all but the most minor Senate bills.
Original story: Representative Valoree Swanson had a strange day. The backbencher from Spring was absent from the Legislature most of the day with an illness, putting a highly contentious voting bill in jeopardy. Yet somehow, Capitol wags noted, she was voting on other legislation. To move Senate Bill 9 out of committee in these waning days of the legislative session, Swanson was needed in the House Elections Committee, which is split between five Republicans and four Democrats. A 4-4 tie would mean the legislation wouldn’t advance. But Swanson was apparently ailing somewhere away from the Capitol. Until she returned, SB 9 was stuck. Yet meanwhile the massive vote tally boards located at the front the House chamber showed her voting on other legislation.
“Ghost voting”—where lawmakers vote for their colleagues on the House floor for usually innocent reasons—is not really controversial at the Capitol. But being AWOL on legislation desperately wanted by top Republicans is. Her absence left Democrats cheerful, if apprehensive, that they could run out the clock on legislation they see as yet another voter suppression bill aimed at discouraging the elderly and people of color from voting. (SB 9 would, among other things, make it a felony to vote if ineligible, even unwittingly, allow poll watchers to inspect the ballots of disabled people who use non-relatives to help them vote, and require registration of volunteers who drive three or more disabled voters to polling places.)
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Even though Swanson showed up mid-afternoon, the House adjourned for the day without setting a hearing for the bill in committee. Though a hearing could still be set, its prospects dim by the hour.
Originally, the heart of SB 9 was a requirement that counties use voting machines with a paper audit trail—a measure widely supported by elections officials. But by the time it reached the House, the legislation had morphed into a patchwork of new criminal penalties and sanctions around voting. The provision for a paper trail, which had enjoyed bipartisan support, was gone altogether. Nonpartisan groups such as the League of Women Voters and Texas Association of Election Administrators warned that criminal provisions added in the bill would make it difficult to enlist election volunteers, because even simple mistakes could be the basis for prosecution and jail time.
So many people signed up to testify on the bill in the House Elections Committee on Wednesday that Representative Stephanie Klick, the chairman, shut down the opportunity for people to register a half hour after the committee began taking testimony. The truncated public participation only reinforced the notion among critics that the legislation was about cutting certain people out of the democratic process.
Still, hundreds of people testified on the bill, the vast majority in opposition to the legislation. Instead of voting on the bill late Wednesday, Klick delayed the vote until Thursday morning. As members began to assemble for the committee hearing they learned she had cancelled the meeting because of Swanson’s absence. When Swanson showed up in the House chamber just before 2:30 p.m. (theatrically coughing in the direction of the press), the chairman told another committee member that she had not decided when she might reschedule a vote.
The decision comes at a critical moment for the Texas Legislature as the legislative session draws to a close on Memorial Day. Saturday is the last day for House committees to vote out Senate bills; Tuesday is the last day for the House to consider any Senate bills on the House floor. Given the complexity of the voter bill, one Democrat said it would be easy to load it up with a lot of amendments, which could delay passage of the legislation and endanger other legislation. For now, Swanson’s cough might be enough to kill SB 9.