(CNN)The Texas House on Tuesday passed legislation that would allow election judges to carry a handgun in most polling places on Election Day and during the early voting period.
HB 530, which passed on a vote of 94 to 51, would specifically allow an election judge with a gun license to have a handgun at certain election sites only while executing their duties.Republican state Rep. Jared Patterson says he filed the bill in response to a constituent request. He wanted to codify a state attorney general’s opinion from 2018 that recognized that district court judges can carry firearms to polling places and election judges, who are essentially poll workers, “likewise had the authority to do so.” The opinion stemmed from a 1913 Texas Court of Criminal Appeals case. “Our elections require security to safeguard our voting laws. By codifying this interpretation into law, Texas will improve enforcement of our future elections, discourage bad actors, and further ensure the safety of Texas voters,” said Patterson in a Tuesday news release after the bill passed the House. The bill now heads to the Texas Senate.Read MoreThe legislation comes at a time when the country continues to reckon with the use of force by police on Black and Brown communities and amid a rash of mass shootings across the country. Following the 2018 opinion, the Texas Secretary of State’s office advised that “if presiding judges choose to carry a handgun into a polling place, they MUST do so responsibly. They should NOT be displaying or discussing the weapon in a way that would be intimidating to voters, poll watchers, state inspectors, candidates, or other election workers.” Under the bill, election judges would not be able to carry a gun on private businesses, universities or institutions of higher education, but they would be able to carry them at polling places located in public schools, according to Patterson. Currently, only 10 states — including Texas — and the District of Columbia have explicitly prohibited guns and other weapons in polling places, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many other states have concealed and open carry laws that may restrict or allow the presence of firearms in certain locations that happen to be polling places, such as public schools.”It’s the first time we’ve seen this kind of a bill. Texas is No. 1 in this action,” Wendy Underhill, the director of elections and redistricting at NCSL, told CNN on Wednesday. Underhill noted that Texas election judges are essentially the same as polling place workers on Election Day. “This is not a topic that is at the top of minds in the election world or legislative world, so Texas is the only place we are seeing it at the moment. But it doesn’t mean it won’t happen in other states as well,” she added. Democrats and voting rights advocates argued that the legislation does the opposite of creating a safe voting environment. State Rep. Vikki Goodwin called the legislation “dangerous” and noted that licensed peace officers already help secure polling places ahead of a floor vote on Monday. Charlie Bonner, communications director for MOVE Texas Action Fund, said the legislation could lead to voter intimidation that disproportionately impacts voters of color. “Make no mistake, allowing election judges to carry handguns will intimidate voters and bad actors will use this opportunity to show up in Black and brown precincts and wreak havoc. This is dead wrong,” Bonner said in an emailed statement to CNN on Wednesday. “Texas has a long and racist history of voter intimidation and allowing election judges to carry handguns in polling locations will only add to that ugly history.”The new legislation is also concerning local election officials. Dana DeBeauvoir, Travis County clerk, said that “there is no reason” for election judges “to carry a gun and impose additional risks for themselves and others in the polling place.” Travis County includes the city of Austin.”Election Judges are responsible for conducting the election and ensuring a safe haven for all voters to vote comfortably,” she told CNN in an emailed statement Wednesday. “A gun can quickly escalate partisan tensions. This bill if passed will create fear, distrust, and more tension in the polling place whether it’s the election judge carrying a weapon or any voter walking in the polling place. Firearms do not support the concept of a safe haven for voting for all voters.” CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated who the secretary of state was in 2018. It also incorrectly said which city is in Travis County.