Texas Democrats flee state to highlight GOP voting restrictions
WASHINGTON – Texas Democrats fled the state on Monday in a last-ditch effort to prevent the passage of a new restrictive voting law in the Republican-controlled legislature, traveling to Washington to call attention to what they describe it as a prejudicial attack on the right to vote.
The group left Austin mid-afternoon on two chartered flights that were scheduled to arrive in the early evening. An official involved in the effort said more than 51 of the 67 Democratic members of the State House had signed, enough to prevent Republicans in Texas from reaching a quorum, which is necessary for the conduct of state business.
But the Democrats’ move also exposes their limited options in a legislature where Republicans hold a majority in both chambers. Parliamentary procedures and efforts to add amendments may delay the process but not derail it, and letting the state prevent the quorum, Republicans said on Monday, would also ultimately fail.
Rep. Briscoe Cain, a Houston-area Republican who chairs the House Elections Committee, said the departure of Democrats from the state “slows things down” but will not prevent Republicans from ultimately adopting the Voter review bill backed by GOP at 30-day special session. .
“It only delays the inevitable,” Cain said, calling the Democrats’ move a “political theater.”
By going en masse to Washington, the group hoped pressure the Democrats in the US Senate who so far have been unable to pass federal legislation to address the problem.
“We have to decide whether we are going to defend democracy,” said state representative Trey Martinez Fischer, who organized the effort to leave the state. “We want the nation to join us and we want the US Senate to hear us and act.”
The move comes just a day before President Biden delivers a major speech on voting rights in Philadelphia. Campaigners recently pleaded with the administration to deal with the problem with greater urgency.
At a White House press conference Monday, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Mr. Biden would focus his speech Tuesday in Philadelphia on a broad and pointed response to the new voting legislation restrictive adopted across the country. The recently adopted election laws, Ms. Psaki said, were “the worst challenge for our democracy since the civil war”.
In Texas, leaving the state has a long political history. In 2003, Democratic lawmakers fled to New Mexico and Oklahoma in an attempt to avoid Republican legislation to redraw the state’s congressional districts.
A departure of dozens of Democrats would be the second time in six weeks that Democrats in Texas have used this tactic in an attempt to prevent the passage of a new voting bill. Hours before the regularly scheduled session of the state legislature ended in May, State House Democrats left the Capitol Chamber, denying Republicans a quorum.
Vice President Kamala Harris praised the effort, as did the Texas Democratic Party and the voting rights groups. Some Democratic groups also took the opportunity to step up pressure on Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation.
“Texas Democrats are showing how seriously they take their commitment to their constituents and to their country,” said Guy Cecil, president of Priorities USA, one of the biggest Democratic super PACs. “It is up to all of us, including Democrats in Congress, to respond with renewed determination to do our part to protect the sacred right to vote.”
In Texas, blocking a legislative quorum requires not only abandoning the State Capitol, but also leaving the state. If lawmakers stay in Texas, state law enforcement officials, including the Texas Rangers, may be dispatched to round them up and send them back to State House for votes – a process that takes place. occurred when Democrats fled in 2003.
There was no indication from Republicans on Monday that they would pursue this course of action. But some GOP members have suggested Democrats abdicate their responsibilities by leaving the state.
Tony Tinderholt, a conservative Republican from Arlington, said Democratic lawmakers “should be held accountable” if they do not return to their seats when the House resumes at 10 a.m. on Tuesday. Mr Tinderholt introduced a resolution that would punish members who leave the chamber during deliberations to break the quorum.
“We have all taken an oath, we have a duty,” he said. “If you work for a company and didn’t like what they were doing that day and decided not to work. I think most people would be fired and punished.
No member of the Senate of a Democratic state accompanied his colleagues in the House.
Over the past few months, Democrats across the country have been grappling with one of the most drastic contractions in access to the vote in generations. Republican-controlled legislatures in more than 14 states have passed new election laws that include new general restrictions on voting.
But the Texas bill is among the largest and most sweeping efforts to restrict voting in a state that is already one of the hardest in the country to vote, with Democrats and voting groups claiming that the passage of the bill threatens the very democratic foundations of the state.
Over the weekend, the Republican-controlled Texas House and Senate pushed the legislation out of committee to the plenary chamber, after marathon sessions that, in the House’s case, lasted nearly 24 hours. GOP leaders planned to head for a final vote starting Tuesday.
Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, responded to the initial walkout by calling a special 30-day session that began Thursday. Along with the voting proposals, the governor called on the Legislature to take action to tackle perceived “censorship” on social media platforms; ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools; further limit abortions; put in place new border security policies; and prevent transgender athletes from participating in school sports.
Mr Abbott is running for re-election next year and faces major challenges from several conservative Republicans, including former Rep. Allen West, whose term as Chairman of the Texas Republican Party ended this weekend . He said overhauling the state’s electoral system was one of his top priorities.
Republicans in the legislature, led by Bryan Hughes, chairman of the state Senate affairs committee, say the new legislation aims to create a “better, safe and accessible electoral process.”
Texas Democrats used their temporary victory in May to draw attention to their efforts to block new Republican election laws and the Senate debate over whether to pass federal protections for voters. They traveled to Washington to lobby Senators on Capitol Hill and met with Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House.
But efforts by Congressional Democrats to pass a sweeping new election law, The Law for the People, were stalled last month when Republicans blocked it in the Senate.
There has been little evidence that Texas Democrats have improved their position since their initial walkout.
Despite high hopes last November, Democrats remain in the minority in both Texas legislative chambers and their options are limited. If they stay out of state and decline a quorum until the special session ends at the end of the month, Mr. Abbott can simply call another. He is sure to call at least one more session later this year to pass new congressional and legislative maps and allocate billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief funding.
In addition, there is no indication that there are 50 Senate Democrats ready to pass voter protections on a simple majority vote, a move that would require weakening the filibuster. At least half a dozen Democratic senators, a group whose most vocal personalities are Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have expressed resistance to such a move.
The Texas Democrats’ escape follows days of internal deliberations over how aggressively to resist Republican voting proposals. As a group of young progressive lawmakers advocated leaving the state, the party leadership had been more cautious, pushing for a plan to force a series of votes on amendments to water down the bill.
“We are going to fight to kill the bill, we are going to use the procedure and the rulebook to make sure that a bad bill does not pass,” said state representative Rafael Anchia, chairman of the government. Mexican-American legislative caucus, says Friday. “The first approach is going to be to fight the bill head-on. “
The Republican voting proposals, among other provisions, would ban 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting; add new voter identification requirements for postal voting; increase criminal penalties for election workers who break the rules; and greatly expand the authority and autonomy of pro-election observers.
Most of the talk about quorum prevention has come from State House, which has a larger contingent of younger, more progressive Democrats than the Senate. In the Senate, 11 Democrats out of 13 can refuse a quorum.
Democrats’ reluctance to flee the state evaporated over the weekend as liberal activists, citizens of Texas and Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman who is the most popular figure in the State, testified in a hearing that began Saturday morning and lasted nearly 24 hours.
By the end of Sunday afternoon, there was enough momentum towards the start that Democratic leaders who had privately warned against doing so joined the plan.
While leaving the state is sure to attract attention and boost fundraising, the move is not without risks. In addition to being away from home and their families for several weeks, Texas state lawmakers are part-time and many have other jobs that they may not be able to relate to remotely. And without a quorum, lawmakers won’t be able to authorize payroll funding for themselves or their staff, something Abbott vetoed in June after the first walkout.
David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin, Texas.