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Some Texas Lawmakers Disown Part Of Their Plan To Change Voting Rules

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're trying to unravel a mystery about a failed effort to change voting laws in Texas. Republicans in the Texas Legislature tried to join other states in changing the rules. They've been acting after former President Trump tried and failed to overturn the 2020 election. Texas Democrats barely blocked their state's bill, and then yesterday on this program, a key Texas Republican made news. He disowned parts of the bill that nearly became law. Representative Travis Clardy of East Texas said he did not intend to ban voting on Sunday mornings, when many Black voters go from church to the polls. The bill text did block Sunday voting before 1 p.m.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TRAVIS CLARDY: And actually, that's one of the things I look forward to fixing the most. Call it a scrivener's error, whatever you want to, but I talked to our team yesterday, kind of regrouping over what happened. That was not intended to be reduced. I think there was a - you know, call it a mistake if you want to. What should have been 11 was actually printed up as 1.

INSKEEP: Clardy also disavowed a provision for overturning elections. All this matters because Texas Republicans plan to bring up election rules again, in a state that gets a little less Republican each election. Ashley Lopez of our member station KUT is here to help us work through this. Hey there, Ashley.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Hey there.

INSKEEP: How close was this legislation to passing?

LOPEZ: Oh, it was very close. Right before the bill was going to come to a final vote, which was an hour shy of an important deadline for the bill's passage, is when Democrats got together and walked out of the House chamber. So this very nearly went to the governor's desk.

INSKEEP: And how quickly did this legislation come together?

LOPEZ: Well, there are months of debate over the House and Senate versions of these bills. But by the time they went to conference, which is a closed-door process in which both chambers reach a compromise - and in this case, it was a very secretive last-minute process. The Senate had to actually suspend the rules, by the way, which is not uncommon, to take it up so quickly. But what we learned is that in that last stretch, a lot of new things that were never debated before or shown to the public were added to the bill.

INSKEEP: Well, what was Representative Clardy's role in that?

LOPEZ: I guess you could say he was, like, a sort of a public face of these last-minute changes. He was tasked with presenting the conference report to his colleagues and was asking Statehouse members to vote for it. And he was basically in charge of defending these changes.

INSKEEP: Well, now that it's failed, he's saying the legislation, in places, went too far, and he referred to the rush in our interview yesterday. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CLARDY: You know, we came down to the - literally, the last few hours to get Senate Bill 7 passed as amended by the House and worked through the conference. I do regret - if there's one thing I regret about what we did is we didn't really have the time to inform the other members of the legislature, both Republican and Democrat, of the details of what was in the legislation.

INSKEEP: Well, Ashley, given the rush, could the restriction on Sunday voting possibly have been a kind of clerical error?

LOPEZ: Look; I mean, that's hard to confirm one way or the other. As I mentioned, this was a pretty secretive process in the end. But what I will say is that it certainly didn't seem that way because in the Senate, which did pass the final version of the bill, the Senate sponsor of the bill, Bryan Hughes, defended this provision to one of his colleagues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRYAN HUGHES: Those election workers want to go to church, too, and so that's why it says 1 p.m. later than 9 p.m. You can make Sunday evening service and go vote after that.

INSKEEP: All right, Ashley Lopez, there is a bigger measure that Representative Clardy now says was wrong, and it was about overturning democratic elections. And we discussed it briefly yesterday. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

INSKEEP: Do I understand it correctly that under the new rules a judge can find there is a preponderance of evidence - not proof but a preponderance of evidence, which is a lower standard of proof - that some ballots were illegal, and without actually trying to find out who won the election, he can change the result of the election? Is that correct?

CLARDY: No, that's really not accurate, Steve.

INSKEEP: It really is accurate. The bill text says that if enough votes were not cast in accordance with the law, a judge may, quote, "void" an election, quote, "without attempting to determine how individual voters voted." It's on Page 54, Section 232.063. After the interview, I called Representative Clardy. He agreed the bill text says that, but that it, quote, "was lost in translation." He says Republicans do not intend to lower the legal standard for overturning an election, even though they almost did. Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School read the bill.

MICHAEL WALDMAN: You don't have to prove that there was some tsunami of illegal ballots that swung an election. What you have to show is there was some problem somewhere, and a partisan judge may be able to simply declare that the person who lost the election really won. That would be really dangerous.

INSKEEP: We should say that Waldman is not a fan of the Texas bill.

WALDMAN: You know, it's such a terrible problem when you're pulling an all-nighter to do your voter-suppression bill, and you keep making - you know, making the mistake of making clear what you're trying to do.

INSKEEP: The Brennan Center advocates for voting rights and greater ballot access. This year, it's been counting state proposals that restrict voting, and more than 20 have become law nationwide. Waldman was skeptical when we told him a lawmaker feels that parts of the Texas legislation were mistaken.

And he says, I'm sorry; that was a typo. That was something we ought to fix later. What do you think of that?

WALDMAN: (Laughter) It's a very coincidental typo that the same typos keeps showing up in Georgia, in Texas and in all the other states where people are trying to pass laws making it harder for Black people and Latinos and Asians and others to vote.

INSKEEP: Do you see these measures in general as making it more inconvenient for one set of voters or potentially changing the results of elections from what they otherwise would be?

WALDMAN: It's hard to know what the impact of any bill like this is going to be because voters sometimes respond and get angry and actually mobilize. But we know that these bills, for example, target local officials with legal penalties if they try to help people vote. They, over and over again now, try to change the rules of who does the counting to make sure that if the favored candidate doesn't win with the voters, they can win at the very end with the politicians. Texas already has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country. This makes that problem worse in Texas.

INSKEEP: That's Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center. Ashley Lopez of KUT is still with us. And, Ashley, where does all of this leave the Texas bill?

LOPEZ: Well, this particular bill, Senate Bill 7, is dead. But what we know now is that perhaps not all Republicans are on board for how far they went. But they will be bringing back some of these other provisions that died, and what I do know is that Democrats will have a tougher time blocking whatever comes their way the next time.

INSKEEP: Ashley, thanks for your reporting on this all week.

LOPEZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Ashley Lopez of KUT in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF TINGVALL TRIO'S "DANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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