When Republican state legislators crafted bills in the Texas House and Senate aimed squarely at reforms like the ones enacted by Harris County in the 2020 election, local leaders expressed outrage, likening the bills to Jim Crow-era laws. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo pulled from Greater Houston Partnership events due to the group’s silence on the matter, and Harris County commissioners even prepared to take legal action against the state.
Now, after House Democrats staged a second walkout to stop the bills from passing, Houston-area leaders are praising the move to stop laws they say infringe on their constituents’ rights.
The move to tighten voting laws comes after record turnout in Harris County, the largest and most diverse county in Texas and one that has trended towards Democrats in recent elections. Local leaders have attributed that 2020 turnout to a $30 million investment in the election, which they put towards increasing the number of voting locations, hiring more poll workers, enacting 24-hour and drive-thru voting, and reaching more people eligible to vote by mail.
As a result, the county shattered previous vote totals before Election Day. About 250,000 mail-in ballots were sent to voters, and more than 127,000 voters cast ballots from their car in the county’s new drive-thru voting program, enacted to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19.
But many of those reforms are specifically targeted by both Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 in the special legislative session. Both bills ban drive-thru and 24-hour voting, and tighten restrictions on mail-in voting — all of which local leaders say were key to expanding voting access in the area.
In Fort Bend County, 67.9% of voters cast early ballots — one of the highest turnout rates in the state of Texas.
Fort Bend County Judge KP George on Monday pointed to extended hours and drive-thru voting as key reasons for that turnout.
“I am yet again adding my voice in alliance with the millions of others who oppose antiquated tactics to suppress our voices and to change voting laws in Texas and other states through slashing extended voting hours, ending drive-through voting, and so much more when Voter ID is already the law,” George wrote in a statement.
Republicans, meanwhile, say the laws were meant to make voting more secure, and blasted Democrats for breaking quorum.
Gov. Greg Abbott said the move by Texas Democrats to fly to D.C. and break quorum “inflicts harm on the very Texans who elected them to serve.”
“As they fly across the country on kushy private planes, they leave undone issues that can help their districts as well as help the entire state,” Abbott said in a video posted to Twitter.
Texas Freedom Caucus Chairman Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, filed a bill that would block pay for any state lawmaker that breaks quorum.
“Texas House Democrats quit during work hours, and even made sure to get beer for the private plane ride to Washington, D.C., all while still expecting to be paid for a job they refuse to do,” Middleton wrote in a statement. “They’ve abandoned their constituents, they’ve abandoned their jobs, and they’ve abandoned the state they took a solemn oath to protect.”
Texas Democrats previously walked out on May 31, with just a short time left in the regular session — killing a number of GOP priority bills.
As a result, Abbott vetoed Article 10 of the state budget, effectively defunding the state legislature.
In a series of tweets, Mayor Turner called Abbott’s move to defund the legislature “unconstitutional,” while praising Democrats’ efforts to to block the bills.
Harris County Precint 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis echoed that sentiment, saying Democrats had “no other choice” but to block the vote on SB 1 and HB 3.
“Texans need resources to recover from this pandemic, they need a functioning electric grid, and they need Medicaid expansion for affordable health care,” Ellis wrote in a statement. “This session will provide none of that. Democrats are right to refuse to take part in this sham session, and I hope that lawmakers in D.C. will listen to what they have to say.”