Voting Rights Action
Texas Dems storm the Capitol (peacefully!)
Earlier this week, the U.S. Senate deadlocked, as expected, and failed to proceed to debate signature voting rights legislation that promises to dominate national political discourse this summer. While that latest demonstration of the sclerotic Senate's inability to function was a bummer for many, it actually marks real progress upon past outcomes when the other side was in charge, with filibuster reform on the table and a united Democratic caucus. You can thank Beto O'Rourke and the Texas House Democrats for that.
On Sunday, June 20, the former congressman, near-miss Senate candidate, and wider-miss presidential hopeful led a close-packed group of thousands from across the state to the Texas State Capitol, as they sweltered, chanted, cheered, and waved signs for hours behind what's now clearly Topic A for Democrats in Texas and nationwide. "People can connect the dots," O'Rourke told the Chronicle in an interview last week. "Whether it's fixing the electricity grid, or expanding Medicaid so that you don't die of diabetes in the year 2021, or climate, or racial justice, or gun violence, or education – the only way you're going to be able to make a meaningful difference is to get democracy right."
That's a shot across the bow not only at politicians in D.C. but also Gov. Greg Abbott, who on Tuesday announced the long-awaited (first) special session of the 87th Texas Legislature would convene July 8. (See "Austin at Large.") The rally came three weeks after Democrats in the Texas House broke quorum and walked out to scuttle Senate Bill 7, an "election integrity" bill that in its final form tightly restricted voting by mail, directly targeted the Black churches' "Souls to the Polls" traditions by eliminating early voting on Sunday morning, and drastically lowered the legal threshold the state needed to clear to overturn election results. Abbott brought the petty last week by vetoing the Legislature's budget (though not for this special session) and blocking the South Steps of the Capitol on Sunday, forcing O'Rourke's Powered by People group, which organized the rally as the finale of a 18-city barnstorming tour across the state, to resort to an old-fashioned soapbox.
For the crowd and the dozens of speakers, the Texas House Dems were patriots and heroes, standing up against "Jim Crow 2.0" laws. They received a warm homecoming after their star turn in D.C. earlier in the week, lobbying for the For the People Act (already adopted by the U.S. House as H.R.1, now before the Senate as S.1) and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, H.R. 4. The bills include provisions to mandate automatic, online, and same-day voter registration, increase access to absentee ballots, and reform redistricting and campaign finance; the John Lewis Act specifically restores enforcement provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that were struck down in 2015.
Recalling the tense lead-up to the walkout, "I said, 'It's become evident that [state GOP leaders] are actually just terrorizing us. I'm not talking and negotiating with terrorists. It's time to get walking.' And that's what we did," said freshman Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas. "There's going to be a movement in this country because of the work that we do." At the other end of the historical timeline, a surprise guest speaker was Luci Baines Johnson, who recalled watching her father sign the Voting Rights Act into law. "Today, I can't be with my father, who is in heaven I firmly believe, but I know that he is up there applauding every one of you for being here, and especially applauding the Texas legislators who stood up for democracy," she said.
Abbott has promised to get some version of "election integrity" passed to please the GOP primary voters he'll face next year. Will the Dems walk out again? Abbott's calling a special session in time for the Lege to override his veto of its budget can be seen as a defensive move against another quorum break that scuttles his plans. But O'Rourke, who's publicly entertaining running against Abbott (as Sunday's cheering crowd encouraged him to do), said, "These lawmakers have to do whatever it takes to save democracy. It is literally existential here in Texas. If, for example, SB 7 or some other version of that bill passes, and gives the state of Texas the right to overturn future elections, we will no longer have a democracy."
Attendees included Dallas native Lorna Ramsey, who marked Fathers Day with her husband James by protesting on the Capitol lawn. Ramsey, who said she's been involved in activism since she rallied the student body at her integrated high school to protest their graduation speaker, the pastor of a segregationist church, said she saw it as a duty to come and protest. "There are people who are fighting on the battleground for our democracy. The least we can do is be here," Ramsey said. "In my family, [voting] is sacred. It is. So to see someone try to take away the vote – what they're doing is not going to stop people. It's just gonna make us fight harder."