AUSTIN — The Texas Senate on Wednesday advanced two of Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s top priorities: a bill to increase broadband access to underserved regions of the state and one that supporters say is necessary to protect peoples’ faith in the electoral process.
Senate Bill 7, by Mineola Senator Bryan Hughes, would implement a number of new regulations regarding voting by mail, drive-through voting and electoral monitoring. Opponents of this measure said these regulations will unfairly impact voters from marginalized communities, while advocates argued that local authorities took too many liberties in changing the election code in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, opening the door for fraud and eroding public confidence in the electoral process.
“We want to make sure that people know when they vote, their vote will be counted and be counted accurately and that the system is fair and the system is transparent,” said Hughes. “If folks do not have that confidence, they’ll cease participating and everybody loses when that happens.”
The bill would implement uniform election times for all precincts. Early voting hours could only run for 9 hours per day in the first week and 12 in week two, with local officials given the discretion to set that window sometime between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. Counties would be barred from sending applications for mail-in ballots to ineligible voters. Only seniors, active military, those with disabilities or those out of the county on election day are allowed to vote-by-mail in Texas. Voting from a car would be prohibited unless the voter has a disability that prevents them from entering the polling location.
Cameras would be required in all central vote counting centers, and poll watchers would be permitted to take video of election officials they reasonably believe are violating election code, but the bill affirms existing state law forbidding the recording of voters casting ballots. Hughes said that any video taken could only be submitted to the Secretary of State and not otherwise released.
Opponents of the bill contended that cities were only acting in the face of an unprecedented crisis to ensure that every eligible voter had an opportunity to exercise the franchise. They say that these changes will lead to unacceptable reductions in voter participation.
“We need to be encouraging people to go vote,” said Houston Senator John Whitmire. “I believe this legislation just puts significant roadblocks and deterrence to people having a smooth process to vote.” Ultimately, the bill passed by a vote of 18-13 and will now head to the House for consideration.
Less controversial was a measure to bring high-speed internet access to every corner of the state. Bill sponsor and Jacksonville Senator Robert Nichols told colleagues that the pandemic has shown that access to broadband internet has become a necessity in modern life.
“We’ve learned in the last year that children cannot learn, employees can’t work, businesses can’t run, and access to healthcare is severely limited without broadband,” he said. Though most Texans have broadband, Nichols said there are still a million who have no access, and another three million who can’t afford the service.
The bill, SB 5, would create a special department within the University of Texas system. This office would create new maps of broadband coverage in the state in order to pinpoint where fewer than 80 percent of households have access to broadband internet.
The office would be empowered to create a program that would offer grants and low-interest loans to incentivize expansion in underserved areas. This office would also be charged with developing a statewide broadband plan, working with industry representatives and other stakeholders, to help draw down more federal funds and develop a strategy to ensure all Texans have high-speed broadband internet. Nichols said he couldn’t give a fair estimate of the cost of this program until the mapping process is complete. The bill passed unanimously and will now head to the House for consideration.
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, April 6 at 11 a.m.