Texas Democrats stage walkout to block passage of sweeping election overhaul package
Texas Democrats walked off the state House floor late Sunday night to prevent the passage of a massive overhaul of state elections procedures that would add new impediments to voting in future elections and limit the availability of certain types of voting predominantly used by low income and handicapped people.
The late-night drama came after hours of debate and procedural objections on Senate Bill 7, which had passed the state’s upper chamber early Sunday morning and looked to be headed to Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) desk for his signature.
The Texas Tribune reported that Democrats appeared to be slowly leaving the floor throughout the night before the remaining members of the party walked out around 10:30 p.m. That left the state House without enough members present for a quorum and Republicans unable to pass the bill before its midnight deadline.
“We decided to come together and say we weren’t going to take it,” state Rep. Jessica González (D) told the Washington Post after the walkout. “We needed to be part of the process. Cutting us out completely — I mean this law will affect every single voter in Texas.”
Abbott quickly vowed to add the elections bill to the agenda of a special session to address redistricting.
“I declared Election Integrity and Bail Reform to be must-pass emergency items for this legislative session,” he said in a tweeted statement, adding, “Ensuring the integrity of our elections and reforming a broken bail system remain emergencies in Texas. They will be added to the special session agenda.”
“Legislators will be expected to have worked out the details when they arrive at the Capitol for the special session,” he said.
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) May 31, 2021
The Texas bill is one of the most sweeping elections bills to come out of a GOP-led legislature this year.
“This bill is the product of years of hard work and deliberation by past and current legislators,” state Sen. Bryan Hughes (R) and state Rep. Briscoe Cain (R) said in a joint statement announcing the final agreement on legislative language on Friday. “Even as the national media minimizes the importance of election integrity, the Texas legislature has not bent to headlines or corporate virtue signaling.”
It places new limits on early voting and curbside voting; prohibits round-the-clock voting centers and voting facilities in outdoor structures like parking garages; and eliminates straight-ticket voting, something Texas voters have used for decades. It limits the use of drop boxes by requiring absentee voters to hand their ballots directly to an elections official.
Some of those provisions are a direct reaction to voting provisions used in Harris County, home of Houston, where elections officials last year opened 24-hour early vote centers and expanded access to drive-in voting facilities.
“This bill does away with that 24-hour voting,” said Lina Hidalgo (D), the Harris County judge. “Drive-through voting in particular is disproportionately used by voters of color, so it’s very transparent what their motivation is.”
The bill would also place new restrictions on access to absentee ballots. Voters who want to vote by mail must prove they are unable to get to the polls because of illness, injury or disability. Voters can no longer cite a lack of transportation or an inability to get out of work on Election Day when requesting an absentee ballot.
Those voters who do qualify to vote by mail must provide proof of their identity, either through their driver’s license or state-issued identification number or by disclosing the last four digits of their Social Security numbers.
Many of the provisions in the Texas bill are similar to provisions passed in states like Georgia, Florida and Arizona this year, all competitive states where Republican-led legislatures have drastically overhauled voting procedures after President Biden beat Trump in November’s elections.
But the Texas legislation stands out in one way: It adds significant criminal liability for election officials who do not comply with orders from the secretary of State. The measure requires large counties to install video surveillance systems and to live-stream vote counts. It gives new powers to poll watchers and imposes a misdemeanor penalty on election officials who refuse to allow poll watchers into designated areas.
The measure also makes a felony of so-called vote harvesting, in which campaign workers collect absentee ballots to be delivered to election officials. Candidates who believe they have lost an election because of vote harvesting would be able to sue, and could win back tens of thousands of dollars in damages. It contains provisions that would lead to jail time for any public official who send out unsolicited voter registration or absentee ballot forms.
The legislation sparked loud protests from Democrats, who accused the Republican-controlled legislature of intentionally targeting minority voters. Democrats pointed to one particular provision that limits access to early voting sites on the final Sunday before an election — a window that Black churches typically use to get their parishioners to a voting center, a practice known as Souls to the Polls.
“I think almost every provision has something in it that is clearly intentionally racially discriminatory,” Rep. Colin Allred (D) said at a press conference on Sunday. “It highlights how sloppy this legislation is and how intentional the discrimination is. And it will end up in court, and it will cost Texans millions of dollars — yes, of your tax dollars — in defending it.”
Independent researchers have already labeled Texas as one of the most difficult states in which to cast a ballot, and voter turnout there lags far behind other states that have more accessible voting rules. Just over 60 percent of the voting eligible population cast a ballot in Texas in 2020, six percentage points lower than the national average.