The Austin Chronicle

Texas Dems Take the Voting Rights Fight to D.C.

Breaking quorum again, lawmakers leave state to thwart Abbott’s restrictive bill

By Kimberly Reeves, July 16, 2021, News

Depending on your partisan bent, the departure of Texas House Democrats to Washington, D.C., this week can be seen in one of two ways. For Democrats, the 51 lawmakers that fled the state are bold public servants taking a stand to preserve the right to vote in Texas. For Republicans, they are misguided crybabies who have abandoned their duty so they could fly to D.C. on a beer-soaked party plane.

The broad outlines of this tale are familiar by now: In May, House Democrats broke quorum – that is, they left the Texas Capitol so there wouldn't be enough members to vote on bills – to kill a punitive elections bill at the tail end of the 87th legislative session. In response, Gov. Greg Abbott convened a 30-day special session to pass the elections bill, along with 10 other GOP grievance issues. Over the weekend, a newly formed House select committee rammed House Bill 3, the special session version of the voter suppression bill, through committee in a single meeting, following almost 24 hours of testimony, 14 of which were devoted to HB 3. Every amendment proposed by a Democrat was rejected, without comment, on a party-line vote.

The HB 3 vote took place early Sunday morning; by that afternoon, House Democrats had agreed to a self-funded quorum-busting jaunt to D.C., where they would press their counterparts in the U.S. Senate to pass federal voting protections. They promised not to return to Texas for the entirety of the current special session, which ends on Aug. 6. By Tuesday afternoon, nine Democrats in the Texas Senate – including Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin – had joined their colleagues.

That same afternoon, the 80 House members remaining in Austin voted 76-4 to send Texas Department of Public Safety troopers after the Democrats, so they could be arrested and dragged back to the Capitol. House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, instituted a lockdown in the House chamber, requiring lawmakers to ask for a hall pass before leaving the floor. It is unclear what will result from the House vote, since DPS troopers do not have jurisdiction outside of the state. As the Chronicle went to press Wednesday evening, no Democratic legislators had been arrested.

Fleeing to D.C. was an unexpected diversion for Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin. She planned to marry her partner of 26 years, Celinda Garza, on the House floor today, July 15. Instead, she's looking for a majority in the U.S. Senate to pass a federal voting rights bill, which will take the support of more moderate Dems like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. "I'm of the mind that if Congress can find two or three things that they like – meaning with Manchin and Sinema – then it would be a huge signal that there is a role for the federal government to create common sense reforms," said Israel, on her way to meet U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. "Just two or three things. That would change the game in every state in the country."

The fact that Texas Democrats have resorted to lobbying Congress – a body widely viewed as even more dysfunctional than either Texas chamber – reflects the desperation they feel in their effort to fight GOP attempts at voter suppression.

President Joe Biden, meanwhile, urged federal lawmakers Tuesday to pass election reform, but stopped short of calling for elimination of the filibuster, which appears to be the only way to get a bill out of the U.S. Senate. Abbott has pledged to keep lawmakers in Austin until they pass his priority bills, so if Congress fails to act, then the trip to D.C. by Texas Democrats may have been in vain.

Monday evening, Texas House Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said Republican voter suppression efforts had reached a crisis point. "Republicans are rushing through new anti-voter bills in the House and the Senate, through marathon hearings over the weekend that lasted all night," Turner said. "[They're] ignoring the voices of the diverse [people] in Texas who are pleading with the Legislature and saying, 'Do not make it harder to vote in Texas,' which is the hardest state to vote in already."

In a Fox News hit Monday night, Abbott mocked the Democrats as sore losers, saying that extra money for property tax cuts and foster care – items thrown on his priority list to mask the more odious bills – were out the window with the Democrats' departure. "Isn't that the most un-Texan thing you've ever heard – Texans running from a fight?" Abbott said on The Ingraham Angle. "They're quitters. It's like during a football game or baseball game, taking their equipment when they're behind and just leaving the field."

Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, wasn't buying Abbott's folksy Texas kitsch. "He says he's going to round us up, corral us and 'cabin' us, whatever that means," Goodwin said. "It's just threats until he gets his way. And that's not the way democracy works."

Among its sweeping changes, HB 3 would prohibit the drive-through and 24-hour voting options implemented by Harris County election officials in 2020. Those options were welcomed by voters, but Republicans say they are prone to fraud; in Nov. 2020, the Texas Supreme Court threw out a case from conservatives alleging drive-through voting was illegal. Proposed requirements for mail-in ballots would result in counties dumping ballots, according to Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria. But lawmakers may not remember that, because Longoria testified at 5am on Sunday.

According to CNN, 17 states have enacted 28 laws to make it tougher to vote since the 2020 election. Republicans bristle when Biden and Texas Democrats refer to the GOP's efforts as a "Jim Crow assault" or "Jim Crow 2.0." Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, echoed that era in a tweet. "We left behind our families, our livelihoods, & our beloved Texas," Talarico wrote. "But our sacrifice is nothing compared to the sacrifices brave Americans have made throughout history to protect the sacred right to vote."

Despite Talarico's attempt to evoke civil rights history, it was a 12-pack of beer that grabbed the attention of some observers. A now-deleted tweet from Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Farmers Branch, showed a picture of smiling Democrats – with a seat reserved for 12 Miller Lites. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn seized on the viral tweet and mocked Democrats in a Tuesday morning floor speech.

"All eyes are now on Washington D.C.'s newest asylum seekers, the members of the Texas House of Representatives," Cornyn said. "Rather than do their jobs in Texas, yesterday House Democrats abandoned both our state and the millions of Texans that they represent. They got on two chartered jets, maskless, with at least one case of lite beer, and hopped on the jets to come to Washington, D.C."

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