In drafting SB 7, Senate Republicans made clear some of its proposed restrictions are meant as a response to voting initiatives implemented by Harris County for the 2020 election, but the proposed new restrictions would apply across the state.
Regulating voting hours
Currently, counties with a population of 100,000 or more must provide at least 12 hours of early voting each weekday of the last week of early voting. In Texas, the early voting period usually runs for the two weeks ahead of Election Day. Hours for that last week of early voting are usually set for 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
SB 7 would lower that population threshold to 30,000 so more counties would be required to offer more early voting hours between the newly established window of 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. But the legislation also sets a 12-hour cap on how long early voting can run during that week, so polling places that stay open until 9 p.m. would have to open up later in the morning.
This would directly preempt the expanded early voting hours offered in large, diverse counties last year. Harris County pioneered 24 hours of uninterrupted voting at a few polling places for one day. (Local election officials have indicated they hoped to keep the initiative for future elections.) Harris and other large counties like Bexar County, home to San Antonio, also kept their polling places open until 10 p.m. — three hours past the usual 7 p.m. closing time — for at least a few days last year.
Banning drive-thru voting
SB 7 also attempts to outlaw the sort of drive-thru voting offered by Harris County last year by requiring early voting to occur inside a building, as opposed to a “stationary structure,” as specified in current law. It also prohibits polling places from being located in a “tent or other temporary movable structure or a parking garage, parking lot, or similar facility designed primarily for motor vehicles.”
Harris County first tested drive-thru voting in a summer 2020 primary runoff election with little controversy, but its use of 10 drive-thru polling places for the November general election came under Republican scrutiny.
The county’s drive-thru polling places were mostly set up under large tents. Voters remained in their cars and showed a photo ID and verified their registration before casting ballots on portable voting machines. At the Toyota Center — home of the Houston Rockets — drive-thru voting was located in a garage.
Republicans have argued the arrangements amounted to an illegal expansion of what is known as curbside voting, an option long available in Texas to accommodate people who are unable to enter a polling place without risking their health or without some form of personal assistance. Under this method of voting, posted signs at polling sites typically notify voters to ring a bell, call a number or honk to request curbside assistance.
The county argued its drive-thru locations were separate polling places, distinct from attached curbside spots, and therefore were available to all voters. Keith Ingram, the chief of elections for the state, had said in an unrelated court hearing that drive-thru voting is “a creative approach that is probably OK legally.”
Drive-thru voting proved popular in Harris County, with 1 in 10 in-person early voters casting their ballots at drive-thru locations. A conservative activist and three Republican candidates sued over the process, but were unsuccessful in convincing a federal judge to throw out those nearly 127,000 votes. The litigation at the time did lead to the voluntary shutdown of nine of the 10 drive-thru locations for Election Day, for which voting is already required to occur inside a building.