By Joseph Ax and Steve Gorman
May 6 (Reuters) - The Texas House of Representatives opened floor debate on Thursday on a Republican-backed bill barring election officials from sending voters unsolicited mail-in ballot applications and giving partisan poll watchers more access to voting sites.
Following enactment of sweeping new voting restrictions in Georgia and Florida in recent weeks, the lower house of the Texas legislature was expected to give preliminary approval to the bill Thursday night, with final action expected on Friday.
If adopted, Republican lawmakers will most likely seek to reconcile the House bill with companion Senate-passed legislation that imposes limits on the early casting of election ballots, and abolishes drive-through voting and round-the-clock voting, among other provisions.
Both houses of the Texas legislature are controlled by Republicans, and Republican Governor Greg Abbott has expressed support for the effort.
Sponsors of the bills assert they are intended to prevent voter fraud while bolstering election integrity and public confidence in balloting.
"This bill is about protecting voters, making sure the voter rules are clean," Republican Representative Briscoe Cain said during House floor debate.
Democrats and civil liberties advocates counter there is no evidence of widespread ballot tampering and argue the legislation would disproportionately burden or discourage voters of color, as well as the elderly and disabled.
"I'm not sure what kind of problem we're trying to solve today," Democratic Representative Jessica Gonzalez said.
Critics of the bill also say that granting partisan poll-watchers greater access to election sites is meant to intimidate Blacks and Hispanics, who tend to vote more heavily in favor of Democratic candidates than Republicans.
The bill's opponents, branding the bill as tantamount to racially motivated "Jim Crow" voter suppression efforts, have pressured major corporations doing business in Texas to lobby against the measure or face the possibility of consumer boycotts.
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 elections as voters sought to avoid lines in polling places in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Republican legislators in numerous states have since pushed new voting limits in the wake of former President Donald Trump's false claims that his loss to Democrat Joe Biden in November was the result of massive voter fraud.
Earlier on Thursday, 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. Editing by Gerry Doyle)