When Texas House Democrats realized they couldn’t stop the progress of a bill placing tighter restrictions on voting in Texas, more than 50 of them left Austin break quorum and block the bill. Most of them chartered a jet to Washington, D.C.
House Bill 3 — which passed in the Texas Senate on a party line vote, but is set to die without a quorum in the House — would ban 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting, make it harder to vote by mail, increase the power of partisan poll watchers, and increase criminal penalties for voting mistakes. Democrats criticized the bill as voter suppression.They acknowledged they can’t stay away forever and urged Congress to act on voting rights, while Republican Gov. Greg Abbott threatened them with arrest the moment they return.
As Democrats gathered at the U.S. Capitol, Republicans back here at home authorized finding and bringing back more than 50 lawmakers “under warrant of arrest if necessary.” However, state troopers have no jurisdiction beyond Texas, making it unclear what if any actions would immediately be taken.
In Washington, the Democrats pressured President Joe Biden and Congress to act on voting at the federal level while rejecting the idea of returning to Texas anytime soon, promising to “stay out and kill this bill.”
State Rep. Chris Turner, the Texas House Democratic leader, predicted their efforts would ultimately be futile unless congressional Democrats take bolder action to overcome a Senate Republican blockade of their sweeping voting bill. The legislation, known as the For the People Act, would create national standards for voting that could roll back some restrictions that have been approved or are advancing in the Republican-led states, including Texas.
“We can’t hold this tide back forever. We’re buying some time. We need Congress and all of our federal leaders to use that time wisely,” he said.
The cross-country exodus was the second time that Democratic lawmakers have staged a walkout over the voting overhaul, a measure of their fierce opposition to proposals they say will make it harder for young people, people of color and people with disabilities to vote. Like last month’s effort, there remains no clear path for Democrats to permanently block the voting measures.
The Texas legislation would outlaw 24-hour polling places, ban ballot drop boxes used to deposit mail ballots and empower partisan poll watchers.
The measures are part of the GOP’s rush to enact new voting restrictions in response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. More than a dozen states this year have already passed tougher election laws — but only in Texas have Democrats put up this kind of fight.
It’s not the first time this year that House Democrats have walked out. Lawmakers walked out of the House chambers in the closing hours of business of the regular session, killing a previous version of the voting bill.
In response, the governor vetoed funding for the Legislature, including pay and benefits for more than 2,100 state employees who support the Legislature’s work.
On the agenda
The voting issues aren’t the only things the legislature was taking up. Other lighting-rod conservative issues that Abbott put on the agenda (but remain shelved as well) include:
- Bail overhaul
- Border security
- Social media censorship
- Legislative branch funding
- Family violence prevention
- Limiting access to school sports teams for transgender students
- Abortion-inducing drugs
- An additional payment for retired Texas teachers
- Critical race theory
- Other budgetary issues
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Why it matters
By the numbers
2020 Election | Harris County
–250,000 mail-in ballots sent to voters
-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.
Local leaders applaud Democratic walkout
Houston-area leaders are praising the move to stop laws they say infringe on their constituents’ rights. Here some local leaders weigh in on the move.
“For people who are Trump supporters, they’ll never understand. They believe an election was stolen so they certainly won’t understand this. The reality is advocacy takes different forms. Sometimes you write a letter, sometimes you make a phone call, and sometimes you leave the state in order to keep bills from passing that would send us back in time. And that’s what I would tell them. If they ever get to a point where they believe that something is going on, then they have to stop it. We have done nothing illegal. We have done nothing that impedes anything except try to stop very bad bills.”
-State Rep. Garnet Coleman
What would it have been like if our forefathers had stood by and said they could not win the right to gain access to voting. We’re not going to stand by and be threatened by the Lt. Governor or the Governor in any kind of way to allow suppression and intimidation to our voters. We have come too far. We’re not going to allow them to roll back the hand of time as it relates to civil rights and our right to vote. There’s no way that I can represent my district properly if I allow people outsiders to come into my district, to intimidate and harass and stand over and watch and violate the privacy of my senior citizen as they exercise the right to vote democracy. It’s tearing down our democracy. So we’ve got to stand and fight. We’ve got to take a position. It may not be a position everyone wants us to take, but that’s all we have at this particular time.”
-State Rep. Borris Miles
“We had gone through a period where they had actually looked at expanding the reach of the Second Amendment. We spent a good bit of time trying to figure out how to let everybody in Texas carry a gun. We say when we as Democrats look at the 13, 14 and 15 amendement we don’t need to be looking at expanding the reach of that so we have more people voting because that s what the saving grace of Democracy is. The Governor is talking about trying to force the proverbial square peg into a round hole. I think what he needs to do is step back and take a look at what he’s trying to do and what he’s attempting to do with the bills. These bills are going to affect everybody in Texas. It’s a travesty. And at the end of the day, irrespective of whatever they do, we’re going to go vote and we’re going to make sure we vote for the people who wanted all of us to have the right to vote.”
-State Rep. Harold Dutton
“I want legislators to do any and all things within their toolbox to make sure people in this city have a right to exercise their right to participate in the Democratic process,”
-Mayor Sylvester Turner
“Immensely proud of TX legislators breaking quorum to kill the voter suppression bill AND going to DC to work for Congressional action. The bills attack the reforms we made in Harris County to tear down barriers to the ballot box. Democracy is on the line. There’s no other option.”
-Lina Hidalgo, Fort Bend County Judge
“Texans need resources to recover from this pandemic, they need a functioning electric grid, and they need Medicaid expansion for affordable health care. 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.”
-Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis