Politics

Texas Democrats Leave State In Effort To Block GOP Voting Restrictions

Two priority bills for Texas Republicans — Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 — would ban drive-thru and 24-hour voting, makes mail-in voting more difficult, increase criminal penalties for voting mistakes, and give partisan poll watchers more authority at voting sites.

Democrats from the Texas Legislature arrive by bus to board a private plane headed for Washington, D.C., Monday, July 12, 2021, in Austin, Texas. By leaving, Democrats again deny the GOP majority a quorum to pass bills, barely a month after their walkout thwarted the first push for sweeping new voting restrictions in Texas.

Texas House Democrats announced Monday that they’ve left the state in a second attempt to block controversial GOP legislation that critics have slammed as voter suppression.

Democrats, in an attempt to again break quorum and stop votes on Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3, said they were flying to Washington, D.C., where they planned to push for federal voter protections.

“Today, Texas House Democrats stand united in our decision to break quorum and refuse to let the Republican-led legislature force through dangerous legislation that would trample on Texans' freedom to vote,” read a statement from House Democratic leaders. “We are now taking the fight to our nation's Capitol. We are living on borrowed time in Texas. We need Congress to act now to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to protect Texans — and all Americans — from the Trump Republicans' nationwide war on democracy.”

The statement was attributed to Texas House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie; Mexican American Legislative Caucus Chair Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas; Texas Legislative Black Caucus Chair Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth; state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston; and state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston.

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa also confirmed the news, calling the GOP efforts to change voting laws an “escalation of their attacks on voters.”

"There's no democracy without the right to vote,” Hinojosa said. “Once again, Democrats are standing strong and united to defend the right of every eligible Texas voter to make their voice heard. I'm incredibly proud of our Texas Democratic lawmakers, who continue to fight relentlessly on behalf of Texans, voters, and our democracy.”

In response, Gov. Greg Abbott accused the Democrats of abandoning their responsibilities.

“Texas Democrats' decision to break a quorum of the Texas Legislature and abandon the Texas State Capitol inflicts harm on the very Texans who elected them to serve,” read a statement from Abbott. “As they fly across the country on cushy private planes, they leave undone issues that can help their districts and our state.”

The two priority voting bills for Texas Republicans would ban drive-thru and 24-hour voting, make mail-in voting more difficult, increase criminal penalties for voting mistakes, and give partisan poll watchers more authority at voting sites.

At least 51 of the 67 Democrats in the state House would need to be absent in order to break quorum. A legislative staffer told Texas Public Radio that the group plans to remain out of the state until the Republican-backed efforts are withdrawn, or until the special session ends.

Supporters gather on the street as Democrats from the Texas Legislature arrive by bus to board a private plane headed for Washington, D.C., Monday, July 12, 2021, in Austin, Texas. By leaving, Democrats again deny the GOP majority a quorum to pass bills, barely a month after their walkout thwarted the first push for sweeping new voting restrictions in Texas.

State Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas — who is among the group to break quorum — told Texas Public Radio last week that she did not believe Texas Democrats should back down, pointing to sacrifices made during of the civil rights movement in the 1960s that led to the Voting Rights Act.

“You saw people willing to die. You saw people willing to go to jail. You saw people beaten,” Corckett said. “You’ve seen the greats in the likes of John Lewis, who was very young when he got started in the movement, and sadly enough, he’s dead in his grave. And this fight is continuing on.”

The late John Lewis, who coined the "good trouble" quote so often repeated over the last year, has a namesake piece of legislation at the federal level — the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. That legislation is stalled because of the filibuster, but if passed, Texas Democrats say they won't need to continue breaking quorum to protect voting rights, since federal protections will be in place for the whole country.

In addition to the Texas Republicans’ voting legislation, a walkout would block passage of other GOP priorities, including a measure that would make it harder for people accused of crimes to bond out of jail. Abbott could again place the agenda items on a planned second session later this year, which is meant to address redistricting.

Under the Texas Constitution, if lawmakers are anywhere in the state while the special session is ongoing, they can be arrested and physically brought back to the Capitol to provide a quorum.

State Rep. John Bucy, one of the Texas Democrats who fled the state, said he and the others are willing to stay out of Texas for the rest of the special session, if needed.

The first special session is set to run through the beginning of August. If successful, it would be the first time in 18 years that Democrats left the state to break quorum.In 2003, lawmakers fled to New Mexico to block Republican-led redistricting efforts — before one of the Democratic legislators ultimately returned, allowing the Legislature to proceed.

State Senate lawmakers did not appear to be part of the quorum-breaking group on Monday, but Democratic state Sen. Royce West of Dallas said that he nonetheless supported the action.

“We’re using every tool in our toolbox in order to stop and or get concessions concerning draconian measures in these bills that will negatively impact minority voters in the state of Texas,” West said.

In this Tuesday, June 8, 2021, file photo, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a news conference in Austin, Texas. Abbott criticized a move by Texas Democrats to break quorum as part of a plan to block GOP priority voting laws in a special legislative session. Democrats temporarily derailed a restrictive bill with a late-night walkout in the state Capitol in May.

During a voting rights “listening session” in Detroit, Vice President Kamala Harris praised the Texas Democrats, saying they were showing “extraordinary courage and commitment.”

“I applaud them for standing for the rights of all Americans and all Texans to express their voice through their vote unencumbered,” she said. “They are leaders who are marching in the path that so many others before did, when they fought and many died for our right to vote.”

Similar voting legislation was killed at the end of the regular legislative session in May when Democrats walked out in the final moments, breaking quorum.

Texas Democrats then visited Washington and met with Harris and others to push for federal voting protections. The following week, Republicans in the U.S. Senate blocked consideration of Democrats’ sweeping For the People Act.

In response to the May walkout, Abbott vetoed Article 10 of the state budget, which provided funding for the legislature, and put the voting bill on the agenda for this first of two special sessions.

In a statement, House Speaker Dade Phelan criticized the Democrats’ move, saying their departure now puts that legislative funding at risk.

“The Texas House will use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously-passed House Rules to secure a quorum to meaningfully debate and consider election integrity, bail reform, benefits for retired teachers, Child Protective Services reform, (legislative) funding, and the other important measures Gov. Abbott placed on the special session agenda,” Phelan said. “The special session clock is ticking — I expect all Members to be present in our Capitol in order to immediately get to work on these issues.”

Additional reporting by Houston Public Media’s Andrew Schneider, David Martin Davies of Texas Public Radio, and Ashley Lopez of KUT.

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