By Alexa Ura
A wave of changes to Texas elections, including new voting restrictions, are headed to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk.
Three months after House Democrats first broke quorum to stymie a previous iteration of the legislation, Republicans in the House and Senate Tuesday signed off on the final version of Senate Bill 1 to further tighten the state's voting rules and rein in local efforts to widen voting access. Abbott, a Republican, is expected to sign it into law.
The bill was delayed one more time as its Republican author, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, disapproved of language added by the House to address the controversial conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year sentence for a ballot she has said she did not know she was ineligible to cast. Hughes' objection triggered backroom talks to strip the Mason amendment before the bill could come up for a final vote.
The votes mark the end of a legislative saga that encompassed two sessions of legislative overtime and featured marathon hearings, a dramatic decampment to Washington, D.C., and escalating tensions between the Democrats who fled in protest of what they saw as a danger to their constituents' votes and the Republicans left behind unable to conduct business.
Republicans pushed for SB 1 citing their desire to further safeguard elections from fraud — for which there is no evidence of a widespread problem — and to standardize election procedures. The legislation establishes new ID requirements for voting by mail, enhances protections for partisan poll watchers and sets new rules, and possible criminal penalties, for those who assist voters.
Throughout the last few months, they've also strived to leave intact provisions of the bill that will ban drive-thru voting and set new limits on early voting hours to outlaw overnight voting. Republicans were clear they were targeting initiatives carried out by Harris County last year, which county officials have said were disproportionately used by voters of color.
"We don't do 24-hour voting in Texas, but we do have a lot of opportunities to vote. We don't do drive-thru voting, but we do make sure that folks who have disabilities have access to curbside voting," Hughes said just before the Senate's vote.
For Democrats, the risk the measure carried in raising new barriers for voters of color and those with disabilities were justification enough to bring the Legislature to a standstill for nearly six weeks. But the return of enough Democrats to the House chamber earlier this month put SB 1 back on the path to finally make it across the finish line.
Republicans in the House and Senate began the special sessions fairly aligned in their proposals after using as a blueprint the massive voting bill, then known as Senate Bill 7, that Democrats doomed in May when they first broke quorum. Last week, the House further amended its legislation to match the relatively few differences in the Senate's bill and include a few changes Democrats had pushed for, including training for poll watchers. Left off were controversial provisions from the spring that would've restricted Sunday voting hours and made it easier for judges to overturn elections.
"This bill is not good enough for me to vote for. I think it still has major flaws that will create problems down the road," said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat whose return to the chamber helped Republicans reach quorum. "And all I can hope is that if those problems occur … that we come back here in two years and fix it. Because the worst thing we could ever do is prevent someone from exercising their constitutional right to vote."
On Tuesday, Democrats decried the Senate's objection to the Mason amendment, with state Rep. John Turner, D-Dallas, stating he hoped it was "not because they believe that more people in situations like that of Crystal Mason should be prosecuted or imprisoned."
Coleman and Turner were part of the panel that worked out the final version of the bill in backroom talks. Despite their support for the amendment, House Republicans on that panel also signed off on removing it.
The amendment — offered by state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, but worked on as a bipartisan effort — was meant to prevent voter mistakes from being prosecuted as fraud.
"We're just ensuring that people who do innocent things are not harmed from their past mistakes," Cain said before it was quickly adopted by the House last Thursday.
Mason was convicted of illegal voting for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release for a federal tax fraud conviction. Her vote was never counted, and Mason has said she had no idea she was ineligible to vote under Texas law and wouldn't have knowingly risked her freedom.
Tarrant County prosecutors pressed forward to land the conviction, which was upheld by a state appeals court that ruled that the fact Mason did not know she was ineligible was "irrelevant to her prosecution." Her case is currently under review by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's court of last resort for criminal matters.
Cain's amendment would have clarified existing law that currently defines illegal voting as an instance in which a person "votes or attempts to vote in an election in which the person knows the person is not eligible to vote" by emphasizing that a person must be aware of the "particular circumstances that make the person not eligible" and also that "those circumstances make the the person not eligible" to vote.
Mason's case has played out as Republicans' baseless claims of rampant illegal voting have intensified. But with lack of widespread evidence, her case has landed among the handful of high-profile prosecutions of people of color.
Mason, who is Black, is appealing her case as the Texas attorney general's office prosecutes Hervis Rogers, who is also Black, after he was featured in news coverage of the March 2020 primaries for being the last person to vote at Texas Southern University in Houston at 1 a.m. His registration was active even though he was a few months away from completing his parole as part of a 25-year prison sentence for burglary and intent to commit theft in 1995.
Hughes on Thursday said the amendment raised concerns for "people in the building" and "outside the building" that the language could go farther than intended, and noted he believed non-citizens who vote in elections should be prosecuted even if they were not aware they were ineligible. Notably, the Mason amendment could have also affected the state's prosecution of Rogers, who was charged with two counts of illegal voting.
Hughes also noted the bill still includes language that would require proof beyond a provisional ballot for an attempt to cast an illegal vote to count as a crime.
Following the House's final vote on SB 1, Republican state Rep. Dustin Burrows offered a resolution addressing the appeals court's ruling in Mason's case to "reaffirm" the House's position that mistakes should not be prosecuted as illegal voting.
"The Cain amendment, which was adopted, in all honesty, it may not have been necessary in the first place because the law as written, if interpreted correctly, should have already provided for this," Burrows said. "If you make an honest mistake… you should not be put in jail for five years under those circumstances."
Though it is expected to draw the state into federal court, SB 1 is set to go into effect three months after the special legislative session, kicking in before the 2022 primary elections.
After months of speculation, a new report says political personality Beto O'Rourke is mulling a run for Texas governor that he will announce later this year.
Sources tell Axios the former congressman is preparing his campaign for the 2022 election, where he will likely vie for the position against incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott. The only other candidate that has announced he will take on Abbott for governor is former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West—no Democrats have announced they are running as of yet.
"No decision has been made," Axios reports David Wysong, O'Rourke's former House chief of staff and a longtime adviser, said. "He has been making and receiving calls with people from all over the state."
A new poll from The Dallas Morning News and University of Texas at Tyler shows O'Rourke is narrowing the gap between himself and Abbott's prospects for governor. In the poll, 37% said they'd vote for O'Rourke over Abbott, while 42% said they'd vote for Abbott.
Abbott has been in the hot seat due to his handling of COVID-19 and the signing of landmark legislation into law, including new abortion and voting rights laws; 54% of poll respondents voted they think the state is headed in the "wrong direction." Still, Texas hasn't had a Democrat as governor since the 90s.
O'Rourke's people-focused approach to the 2018 Senator race, which he lost to Sen. Ted Cruz, gave him a widespread following and many hoped he'd throw his hat into the ring since he said he was considering it earlier this year.
"We hope that he's going to run," Gilberto Hinojosa, the state chair of the Democratic Party, told Axios. "We think he'll be our strongest candidate. We think he can beat Abbott because he's vulnerable."
Austin rapper Jordi Esparza may not have won the 2021 Red Bull Batalla, the world's largest Spanish freestyle rap competition, but for a spirited two rounds, the 22-year old Mexican native looked like he had every right to.
On Saturday evening in Los Angeles, the event itself looked like Cobra Kai meets Star Search with graphics adding a very Batman Beyond aesthetic. Over a dozen rappers hoping to represent the U.S. in the international round of the competition took to the stage with in-your-face jabs at accents, sexual orientation and odors, among other things.
This was Esparza's second rodeo; he had placed third at the 2020 National Finals, automatically securing him a spot this year.
However, things were different this year. He was not nervous about the contest. Unlike in 2020, when he made his Red Bull Batalla debut, the anxiety of the event led him to "feeling so bad."
Affecting a casual calm, the locally-based landscaper said he just felt "so relaxed, so happy" and primarily wanted to "enjoy everything."
Choosing his first-round opponent, Esparza, whose stage name is Jordi, elected to go against LA-based Boss.
Esparza freestyled an attack on his opponent's weight and cholo style of dress.
Boss—bracketing his Latin freestyle with English appeals to the crowd—mocked Jordi's lack of education, made fun of how clean Jordi's shoes looked and suggested that Jordi just came back from a Footlocker.
That first round went to Jordi.
But his next opponent Eckonn would prove to be his undoing.
Eckonn compared Jordi to Hannah Montana, while Jordi soulfully explained that he had learned from the best.
Esparza's verbal dexterity is matched by a rattling rhythm and a game face that is as mawkish as it is mockish. The overall effect is that of an underdog with bite.
Eckonn beat Esparza in that round with the overall championship going to Palm Beach-based rapper Reverse.
However, Esparza was just happy to be there. He recently told Austonia going to the finals again was a dream come true—a pinnacle that he said he won't know how to top.
With his nimble jabs and sneaky prowess, honed from pop culture and the swagger of a young working man hungry to be more, Jordi Esparza is just getting started.