Texas governor signs Republican-backed voting curbs, prompting lawsuit

By Brad Brooks

(Reuters) -Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Tuesday signed a law imposing a series of voting restrictions – the latest such measure enacted in a Republican-led U.S. state – and civil rights groups immediately filed suit to challenge its legality.

During a signing ceremony in the East Texas city of Tyler, Abbott said the voting restrictions are intended to combat voter fraud, while critics contend they are aimed at making it harder for minorities who tend to back Democratic candidates to cast ballots.

Civil rights organizations sued a group of Texas election authorities in federal court in the state capital Austin. The plaintiffs said the law unduly burdens the right to vote in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and 14th Amendment, while also saying it is intended to limit minority voters’ access to the ballot box in violation of a federal law called the Voting Rights Act.

Marc Elias, a Democratic lawyer who spearheaded the party’s election legal efforts last year, represents the groups, which include the League of United Latin American Citizens, Voto Latino and the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans.

It is the latest in numerous laws passed this year in Republican-led states creating new barriers to voting following Republican former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud.

The new Texas law prohibits drive-through and 24-hour voting locations and adds new identification requirements for mail-in voting. It also restricts who can help voters requiring assistance because of language barriers or disabilities, prevents officials from sending out unsolicited mail-in ballot applications and empowers partisan poll-watchers.

The Texas measure won final approval in the Republican-controlled state legislature on Aug. 31 in a special legislative session. Passage came after dozens of Democratic lawmakers fled the state on July 12 to break the legislative quorum, delaying action for more than six weeks.

Abbott and other Texas Republicans have said that the measure balances election integrity with ease of voting.

“It ensures that every eligible voter will have the opportunity to vote,” Abbott said at the signing ceremony. “It does also, however, make sure that it is harder for people to cheat at the ballot box in Texas.”

Election experts have said voting fraud is rare in the United States. Democratic opponents of the Texas measure said Republican legislators during debate over the measure presented no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

President Joe Biden, a Democrat, has likened the voting restrictions enacted in Republican-led states to the so-called Jim Crow laws that once disenfranchised Black voters in Southern states. Democrats in the U.S. Congress have not mustered the votes to pass national voting rights legislation that would counter the new state laws.

Democrats and voting rights advocates have said that the Texas legislation, formally called SB1, disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic voters – important voting blocs for Democrats – a claim denied by its Republican backers.

“Our clients will not waste a minute in fighting against this,” said Ryan Cox, a senior staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project. “We anticipate that numerous organizations and groups of lawyers are going to be challenging different provisions of SB1 for different reasons.”

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Editing by Will Dunham)

Texas House passes voting bill that lawmakers fled state to protest

By Julia Harte

(Reuters) -Texas’ House of Representatives on Friday passed a bill restricting voting access, more than six weeks after Democratic lawmakers fled the state in an effort to deny the legislature the quorum needed to approve the Republican-backed measure.

The House resumed business on Aug. 19 after three of the absentee Democrats returned to the statehouse, saying they had successfully brought national attention to the Texas bill and galvanized U.S. lawmakers to move forward on federal voting rights legislation.

Friday’s vote followed hours of fiery debate late into the night on Thursday, but its outcome was widely expected because the state legislature is dominated by a Republican majority.

The bill, passed on an 80-41 vote, will now proceed to the Texas Senate. It is widely expected to also pass there, clearing the way for Republican Governor Greg Abbott to sign it into law.

The Democratic lawmakers’ exodus on July 12 set up one of the most prolonged political showdowns over U.S. statehouse measures limiting voting access. Republicans have pushed the measures, citing former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims that voter fraud cost him the November election.

The Texas bill would outlaw drive-through and 24-hour voting locations, add new identification requirements to mail-in voting, prevent election officials from sending out unsolicited mail-in ballot applications and empower partisan poll watchers.

Democratic lawmakers and voting rights advocates have warned that limiting flexible voting methods and other provisions of the bill would disproportionately hamper voters of color, a charge denied by its Republican backers.

House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, asked members to refrain from using the word “racism” during Thursday’s House floor debate, and rebuked Democratic Representative Gina Hinojosa when she asked whether intentional discrimination against people of a certain race was “racism.”

“I’m sorry that when we talk about discriminatory impact, it bothers people,” Democratic Representative Rafael Anchia said during the debate, citing federal court rulings that found other recent Texas voting legislation discriminatory.

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday approved the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to update existing federal voting safeguards, though it faces slim chances of passage in the Senate. Senate Democrats vow to push forward with the more expansive For the People Act that has stalled in that chamber.

(Reporting and writing by Julia Harte in New York; Additional reporting by Bhargav Acharya; Editing by Chris Reese and Jonathan Oatis)

Florida, Texas schools defy governors’ bans on mask mandates as COVID cases soar

By Sharon Bernstein

(Reuters) – School districts in Florida and Texas are bucking their Republican governors’ bans on requiring masks for children and teachers as coronavirus cases soar in conservative areas with low vaccination rates.

The Broward County school board in Florida on Tuesday became the latest major district to flout an order by Republican Governor Rick DeSantis outlawing mask requirements in that state. The Dallas Independent School District said late Monday that it would also require masks, despite an order banning such mandates from Republican Governor Greg Abbott.

The acts of rebellion by school officials come as these states — along with Louisiana, Arkansas and others — are flooded with new cases after people resisted vaccines and mask mandates. Teachers and administrators are seeking to protect students, many of whom are under 12 years old and cannot get vaccinated.

Fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant, U.S. cases and hospitalizations have soared to six-month highs with no flattening of the curve in sight.

Based on population, Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas are leading the nation with new cases and how many COVID patients fill their hospitals. Texas is not far behind.

In Arkansas, where only eight intensive care beds were available for COVID patients on Monday, Republican Governor Asa Hutchison said he regrets supporting a ban on mask mandates in his state.

In Florida, where nearly one out of every three hospital beds are occupied by a coronavirus patient, a surgeon in Orlando said hospitals in the area were “overflowing” with the unvaccinated.

“We need a field hospital. Please help us,” Sam Atallah, a surgeon at AdventHealth wrote on Twitter on Monday. “We are in a state of emergency in Orlando.”

In Dallas, where some staff had threatened to quit if masks were not mandated to protect children, teachers and others, school district officials said they did not believe the governor’s order should be applied to them. Schools in Austin also plan to require masks.

“Governor Abbott’s order does not limit the district’s rights as an employer and educational institution to establish reasonable and necessary safety rules for its staff and student,” the Dallas district said on its website.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, the county’s top executive, said late on Monday that he asked a district court to block Governor Greg Abbott’s July order that prevents local governments from implementing mask mandates.

“The enemy is not each other,” Jenkins said in a statement. “The enemy is the virus, and we must all do all that we can to protect public health.”

In Florida, where lawsuits have also been filed challenging the anti-mask order, DeSantis has threatened to withhold salaries from school district officials who flout his ban.

The threat prompted a response from the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, which is considering reimbursing school officials who lose their pay if DeSantis follows through on his threat.

“We’re continuing to look into what our options are to help protect and help support these teachers and administrators who are taking steps to protect the people in their communities,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday.

DeSantis stood by his statewide order banning mask mandates on Tuesday, saying it would allow parents to decide whether to mask their children for class.

“It’s about parental choice, not government mandate, and I think ultimately, parents will be able to exercise the choices that they deem appropriate for their kids,” DeSantis said at a briefing.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani and Peter Szekely in New York and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Texas Supreme Court blocks ruling protecting Democratic lawmakers from arrest -Washington Post

(Reuters) -The Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked a rule protecting state Democratic lawmakers from arrest after they went to Washington to avoid a quorum as state Republicans attempt to pass voting restriction measures, the Washington Post reported.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, vowed to arrest more than 50 Democratic lawmakers who left the state on July 12, denying the state House of Representatives the quorum required to approve the voting limits and other measures on his special-session agenda.

On Sunday, Texas District Judge Brad Urrutia issued a temporary restraining order in a case filed by 19 Texas House Democrats against Abbott, challenging the state’s power to arrest them for political purposes, the Washington Post reported.

Texas is among several Republican-led states pursuing new voting restrictions in the name of enhancing election security. Former President Donald Trump has claimed that the presidential election last November was stolen from him through widespread fraud.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Matthew Lewis)

Toddler in tow, Texas Democrats face hurdles in flight to fight voter law

By Brad Brooks

(Reuters) -In a bid to thwart legislation she fears will make it harder for Texans to vote, Erin Zwiener fled the state with dozens of her fellow Democrats in the state legislature – and one young companion.

“Every member is having to make different considerations to be here,” Zwiener said. “For me, that meant bringing my three-year-old daughter with me, because we don’t have very solid childcare arrangements at home.”

So she had no time to linger on Tuesday after meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, where the Texas Democrats are holding out.

“I need to relieve my babysitter, ok?” she shouted into her phone as she hustled into a rideshare with a gaggle of staffers. Her daughter, Lark, was being watched by a friend.

More than 50 Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives fled their state on Monday to deny that body a quorum to vote on an elections bill.

They believe the bill will make voting more difficult for Blacks and Hispanics, traditional Democratic supporters, by prohibiting drive-through and 24-hour voting locations, adding new identification requirements to mail-in voting and empowering partisan poll watchers.

Republicans in Texas argue their voting bill will make it easier for people to cast ballots, for instance by forcing businesses to give people time off to go vote. Their bill is one of several such measures being pushed in conservative states in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s claim that he lost last year’s election because of fraud.

The Democrats vow to remain outside Texas for the duration of a special legislative session that runs through Aug. 7, and even longer if more sessions are called.

On Wednesday, they planned to meet with at least six Democratic U.S. senators, including Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

A spokesperson for the lawmakers said they were in talks also to meet with Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat whose support is critical to passing voting rights legislation and other bills high on the agenda of President Joe Biden, also a Democrat.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he would have the Democratic lawmakers arrested when they return and force them to remain at the state Capitol to carry out the session.

But none of the Democrats interviewed seemed concerned about that.

“The best policy is to ignore a bully when they bluster,” Zwiener said.

She and other Texas Democrats said they were more concerned about logistical and personal hurdles.

‘NEED MORE MONEY’

Representative Celia Israel was going to marry her partner Celinda Garza on the House floor this week – but delayed the nuptials to flee the state. Many House members care for elderly parents or are parents who have left children behind with spouses. Others run businesses that are now left rudderless.

Texas representatives make $7,200 a year for the job. Most will struggle to afford a long stay in Washington.

“I don’t know how I’m going to pay next month’s mortgage,” said Representative Gene Wu.

Wu said the Texas House Democratic Caucus Committee used donor and member money to fund the group’s flight to Washington. It is also covering food and hotel costs, but that was expected to end within days.

“We are going to need more money to stay,” Wu said. “More than that, we need funds to combat this push by Republicans to pass this legislation around the nation.”

Former presidential candidate and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke and other Democratic leaders are firing up fundraising efforts to help pay for hotel rooms and food.

Representative Gina Hinojosa left a nine-year-old and 15-year-old in Austin.

“I have mom guilt about leaving,” she said. “The absence of family here with me is the hardest part of this.”

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas. Editing by Donna Bryson, Karishma Singh and Howard Goller)

Texas Democrats defy calls for their arrest in voting restrictions fight

By Susan Cornwell and Julia Harte

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Texas Democratic lawmakers who fled their state to thwart Republican efforts to pass new voting restrictions defied calls for their arrest on Tuesday and said they would stay in Washington to push for federal voting reform.

More than 50 Democratic lawmakers left Texas on Monday, denying the state legislature the quorum required to approve the measures on Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s special session agenda.

The remaining members of the Texas House of Representatives voted 76-4 on Tuesday morning to send for the missing lawmakers under a House rule that authorizes the chamber’s sergeant-at-arms to find and arrest absentee members.

“As soon as they come back in the state of Texas, they will be arrested,” Abbott said in an interview with local TV station KVUE ABC. “They will be cabined inside the Texas Capitol until they get their job done.”

Abbott, who slammed the Democratic lawmakers for leaving the state, vowed to continue calling for special sessions “all the way up until election next year” to get the voting bill passed.

Texas is one of a number of Republican-led states pursuing new voting restrictions in the name of enhancing election security following former President Donald Trump’s claims that the presidential election last November was stolen from him through widespread fraud.

On Sunday, Texas House and Senate committees passed new versions of the voting measures, which would prohibit drive-through and 24-hour voting locations, add new identification requirements to mail-in voting and empower partisan poll watchers.

The full Texas Senate is expected to vote on its version of the voting legislation on Tuesday.

The Democratic lawmakers’ exodus from the House brought work there to a halt, with the departed Democrats vowing to stay in Washington indefinitely.

“Our intent is to stay out and kill this bill this session,” Texas House Democratic Caucus Chairman Chris Turner told a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol, where dozens of Texas Democratic lawmakers broke into the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

Special legislative sessions can last up to 30 days in Texas, meaning the current session must end by Aug. 7. There is no limit to how many special sessions a governor can call.

Texas state Representative Alex Dominguez said he was prepared to stay away from Texas even if Abbott continues to call special sessions after the current one ends. Dominguez said he was not deterred by the threat of arrest.

“If that’s what they choose to do, then we’ll be ready,” Dominguez said.

Democratic lawmakers staged a similar walkout on May 30 to boycott a vote on an earlier version of the voting legislation just before the legislature’s regular session ended, prompting Abbott to call the special session.

Turner said the state lawmakers would use their time at the Capitol in Washington “to implore the folks in this building behind us to pass federal voting rights legislation.”

DEMOCRATS PRAISE LAWMAKERS

President Joe Biden in a speech on Tuesday is expected to issue a strong appeal for congressional passage of sweeping Democratic-backed voting rights legislation that has stalled amid Republican opposition.

Republican resistance in the Senate to such reforms has increased pressure on Senate Democrats, who narrowly control the chamber, to pursue a filibuster carve-out that would let them pass sweeping voting rights legislation with a simple majority.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, said he would meet with a group of the Texas Democrats on Tuesday to discuss strategy.

He was among the party’s leaders, including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who praised the state lawmakers for taking a stand. Harris will meet with the lawmakers later this week.

“I think they have shown great courage, and certainly great conviction and commitment,” Harris said in an interview with Reuters.

Asked in a hallway of the Capitol whether he would meet the Texas Democratic lawmakers, Republican U.S. Senator John Cornyn of Texas replied, “Not if I can help it.”

(Reporting by Julia Harte in New York; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Morgan in Washington; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Will Dunham and Paul Simao)

Texas governor signs ‘fetal heartbeat’ abortion ban, exposing abortion providers to lawsuits

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) -Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Wednesday signed into law a “fetal heartbeat” abortion bill that bans the procedure after about six weeks of pregnancy and grants citizens the right to sue doctors who perform abortions past that point.

The new law is part of a wave of similar “heartbeat” abortion bans passed in Republican-led states. Republicans lawmakers who support such legislation have said it is intended to lead to an overturn of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark ruling that guaranteed a woman’s right to end her pregnancy.

The high court this week opened the door for such an overturn, or at least a narrowing, of Roe v. Wade by agreeing to review Mississippi’s bid to ban abortions after 15 weeks.

“Our creator endowed us with the right to life, and yet millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion. In Texas we work to save those lives,” Abbott said before signing the bill, in a video posted on Facebook.

The “fetal heartbeat” law bans abortion once the rhythmic contracting of fetal cardiac tissue can be detected, often at six weeks – sometimes before a woman realizes she is pregnant. The Texas law makes an exception for abortions in cases of medical emergencies.

A fetus that is viable outside the womb, at around 24 weeks into a pregnancy, is widely considered the threshold at which abortion can be prohibited in the United States.

Nearly a dozen states have passed similar “heartbeat” abortion bans, according to reproductive health research organization the Guttmacher Institute, but none have taken effect due to legal challenges.

Abortion is one of the most divisive issues in the United States, with opponents citing religious belief to declare it immoral, and abortion rights advocates prioritizing women’s autonomy.

“It is appalling that in defiance of public opinion and public health, state politicians remain committed to controlling our bodies,” Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Alexis McGill Johnson said in a statement on Wednesday.

Texas’ law, which would take effect in September if it is not stopped by a court, allows citizens to bring a civil lawsuit against anyone who “knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion, including paying for or reimbursing the costs of an abortion through insurance or otherwise,” if the abortion violates the provisions of the law.

In an open letter earlier this month, some 200 Texas physicians voiced concern that the bill would expose doctors to the risk of “frivolous lawsuits that threaten our ability to provide healthcare.”

“Regardless of our personal beliefs about abortion, as licensed physicians in Texas, we implore you to not weaponize the judicial branch against us to make a political point,” the letter said.

(Reporting by Gabriella BorterEditing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Texas governor bars mask mandates for schools, other government entities

(Reuters) -Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Tuesday ordered all government entities in the state, including school districts, to lift mask mandates by week’s end, though existing guidelines for face-coverings in schools may remain in effect through June 4.

Abbott’s executive order puts Texas at odds with the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommending that students in schools across the United States wear masks for the¬†2020-2021¬†academic year because not all will be inoculated against the coronavirus.

Abbott said Texas was making strides against the COVID-19 pandemic through vaccinations, antibody therapeutics and voluntary health-safety practices “utilized by Texans in our communities,” leaving government mask requirements no longer necessary.

“We can continue to mitigate COVID-19 while defending Texans’ liberty to choose whether or not they mask up,” he said in a statement announcing the executive order.

Abbott and many other Republican politicians have cast mask mandates as an imposition on personal freedoms but nevertheless grudgingly required face coverings at the height of the pandemic as hospitalizations and deaths surged out of control.

Texas lifted its state-imposed mask mandate 10 weeks ago but sued officials in Austin, the state’s capital city, for refusing to go along with the lifting of those restrictions.

Abbott said that beginning Friday, local governments or officials that attempt to impose a mask mandate or other restriction in defiance of his latest executive order barring compulsory face-coverings would be subject to a $1,000 fine.

Public school districts are given more time to comply, but after June 4, “no student, teacher, parent or other staff member or visitor can be required to wear a mask while on campus,” his announcement said.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by David Gregorio)

Texas is latest U.S. state to advance Republican-backed voting limits

By Joseph Ax and Steve Gorman

(Reuters) -Texas joined other Republican-controlled states on Friday in advancing a slew of new voting restrictions, defying opposition from many of the state’s businesses and adding to a fierce national debate over voting rights.

The state House of Representatives in Austin gave the legislation preliminary approval at 3 a.m. CDT (0800 GMT) on Friday after hours of debate before delivering final approval around 2:45 p.m. (1945 GMT), largely along party lines.

Members of the House and the state Senate, which passed its own bill imposing voting limits last month, will now work to reconcile the two bills before sending a finalized version to Republican Governor Greg Abbott, who has indicated he will sign it.

Other states, including Georgia and Florida, have also enacted Republican-backed voting curbs after Republican former President Donald Trump falsely claimed his loss to Democrat Joe Biden in last year’s presidential election was the result of massive voter fraud. Republican legislators in numerous other states are pursuing similar changes.

The Texas House bill gives more access to partisan poll watchers and bars election officials from sending unsolicited mail-in ballot applications to voters, among other restrictions. The Senate bill includes limits on early voting and would prohibit 24-hour polling sites and drive-through voting, both changes that Harris County made last year during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sponsors of the bills said they are intended to prevent voter fraud while bolstering election integrity and public confidence in balloting.

“This bill is about protecting voters,” Republican Representative Briscoe Cain said during the House floor debate.

Democrats and civil rights groups counter that there is no evidence of widespread ballot tampering, and argue that such legislation disproportionately burdens or discourages voters of color, as well as the elderly and disabled. Voting rights advocates say Texas already has in place some of the highest barriers to voting of any state.

“In short, this bill is nothing but voter suppression,” Jasmine Crockett, a lawyer and first-term Democrat, said on the House floor.

On Tuesday, dozens of companies – including American Airlines Group Inc, Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co and Microsoft Corp – urged legislators to reject any law restricting access to ballots.

Voting by mail, and early voting in general, surged during the 2020 election as voters sought to avoid ballot-box queues in the midst of the pandemic.

The Texas vote came a day after Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, signed a new law making it more difficult for voters to cast ballots by mail or to use ballot drop boxes.

In March, Georgia adopted a Republican-backed law that included sweeping new restrictions, sparking backlash from major U.S. corporations and prompting Major League Baseball to move its All-Star Game from Atlanta in protest.

More than three months after Biden was sworn in, Trump has continued to assert that the election was stolen. Courts have rejected those claims in more than 60 lawsuits challenging the results.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas, and Bhargav Acharya; Editing by Gerry Doyle, John Stonestreet and Jonathan Oatis)

Texas lawmakers prepare bill to cut $5.1 billion in winter storm power fees

(Reuters) – Texas lawmakers on Monday were preparing legislation to cut about $5.1 billion in disputed electricity and services fees levied on power marketers during a winter freeze that sent the state’s power market into financial crisis.

The cold snap last month spurred a power crisis that pushed the state’s weekly electricity costs by nearly 10 times the usual to about $47 billion. Those costs led at least two bankruptcies and a sparked a battle between lawmakers and the state’s power regulator over the handling of the crisis and resulting prices.

Governor Greg Abbott on Monday submitted an emergency proposal authorizing legislators to address billing errors and service fees that led to a heated battle between lawmakers and the state’s power regulator over who can rescind the charges.

Lawmakers were moving to consider as early as Monday a bill cutting about $3.2 billion in power charges and services fees that state’s market adviser last week testified were improperly levied and should be corrected.

Arthur D’Andrea, the head of the state’s Public Utility Commission (PUC), rejected any change and advised lawmakers they could do it at the risk of a legal backlash. His refusal during a hearing last week to rescind prices sparked a heated comments between senators and the PUC chief.

One state senator, Charles Schwertner, ended his remarks by telling D’Andrea, who was appointed to the commission by Abbott: “My faith in you as chairman is severely, severely lacking.”

(Reporting by Gary McWilliams; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Marguerita Choy)