Responding to calls from Governor Greg Abbott for a special legislative session that could last 30 days, Texas lawmakers have returned to Austin to tackle legislative priorities ranging from election integrity and border security to social media censorship, critical race theory and abortion issues.
The special session comes just weeks after Democrats staged a walkout to block the passage of a restrictive voting bill - Senate Bill 7 - that barred, among other issues, Black churches from conducting "souls to the polls" early voting drives.
As a result of the walkout, Republicans were forced to abandon the initiative, which was aimed at overhauling the state's voting laws.
Republicans in the House and Senate filed new "election integrity" bills that exclude some controversial measures, like banning Sunday morning voting and lowering the threshold for overturning an election based on claims of fraud. Democrats worry that several of the original voting provisions remain.
Notably, the special legislative session is not expected to discuss the state's troubled electric grid - which left millions without power during a winter storm this past-February - and Covid-19 related efforts are not included on the roster.
Congressman Joaquin Castro told LPO that "Governor Abbott's agenda for this special session is not focused on fixing the power grid of expanding access to health care."
"He's pandering to the extremism of his far-right political base at the expense of everyday Texans. This is a now or never moment for our democracy," he said. "Texas Democrats both in Austin and Washington DC are using every tool at our disposal to protect voting rights, and we need to pass election standards such as H.R.1, the For the People Act, through the US Senate."
House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1 tighten Texas' voting-by-mail rules, bolster protections for poll watchers, outlaw drive-thru voting, limit early voting hours, set new ID requirements for voting by mail, create monthly citizenship checks to rule out non-citizens and make it a state jail felony for local election officials to unsend unsolicited ballots to voters.
Republicans in Texas justify the need for these voting bills due to the state's current voting system that allows election fraud to remain undetected.
In an exclusive interview with LPO, Texas House Representative Armando â€˜Mando' Martinez, a Democrat from District 39 - which covers Weslaco and other parts of Hidalgo County near the Mexican border - said that "it is deeply disturbing on what the governor feels are priorities when we have more important and fundamental issues that are affecting people here in Texas."
"There was not one case of fraud in our elections, and he is trying to pass one of the most restrictive voting bills that we have ever had. Texas has a history of discriminatory acts when it comes to voting," Rep. Martinez added. "Voting is a right. People should be encouraged to vote. We should not be creating more obstacles for them to vote, especially when it targets the elderly and those that are disabled from accessing ballots and their right to vote. It is ridiculous."
Texas House Democrats have also accused Republicans from excluding Democrats from the negotiating process.
"In the past, when Republicans were asked about the â€˜souls to the polls' and changing the times for voting, they said it was a typo," Rep. Martinez said. "They speak from both sides of their mouth. They are not transparent when it comes to discussing what they are doing, and they are trying to pass a very suppressive and very restrictive voting bill that impacts not Republicans, not Democrats, but Texans altogether."
Democrats believe that Governor Abbott and Republican lawmakers are trying to please former President Donald Trump ahead of the mid-term elections last year.
House Democrats, for their part, have pledged to use every tactic and rule at their disposal to prevent these bills from passing.
"The people, the voters pick the leaders, we as leaders don't pick our voters, that is wrong," Rep. Martinez.
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