Texas walkout sets up epic battle over voting rights

Texas legislators are gearing up for a titanic battle over a Republican effort to overhaul voting procedures after Democrats conspired to block its passage late Sunday night.

The omnibus legislative package came to a screeching halt after Democrats quietly abandoned the floor of the state House, denying Republicans the quorum they needed to pass the bill in the session’s waning hours.

In an echo of a previous exodus 18 years ago, when state House members fled across state lines to Oklahoma to delay a redistricting plan led by then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R), Democrats managed to exit the legislature on Sunday without attracting Republican attention. 

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Democrats began considering walking out earlier on Sunday, when senior Black and Latino members started urging their colleagues to slip out. Those minority Democrats were enraged by last-minute provisions added to the House version of the election overhaul that more closely mirrored the Senate version, which would have made it easier for a judge to overturn election results.

About 45 House Democrats were off the floor before 9 p.m. By the time a final text message to Democratic members urged them to clear out at 10:35 p.m., the House faced a midnight deadline that the elections overhaul failed to meet.

“Not only was there a will to do this but we had a way to do it successfully,” state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D), one of the ringleaders of the exodus, told The Hill.

The proposal, a priority for both Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), represented one of the most sweeping efforts to change voting laws after an election that even Trump administration officials called the safest and most secure in American history. 

Abbott pledged Monday to call legislators back into special session to consider the measure anew, though he did not say when he would order members back to Austin. In a tweet Monday, Abbott said he would use the legislature’s own budget as leverage to force action.

“I will veto Article 10 of the budget passed by the legislature. Article 10 funds the legislative branch. No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities,” Abbott wrote on Twitter. “Stay tuned.”

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This time, Democrats recognize their victory is only temporary, a delay tactic that cannot overcome the Republican majority in the state legislature.

“This quorum break is the equivalent of us begging on our knees for the federal government to give us the For the People Act, the John LewisJohn LewisThe Memo: Left pins hopes on Nina Turner in Ohio after recent defeats Manchin 'can't imagine' supporting change to filibuster for voting rights House ethics panel decides against probe after Hank Johnson civil disobedience MORE Act,” Martinez Fischer said. “There is an assault on democracy going on in this country.”

The Texas bill would place new limits on early voting and curbside voting; prohibit round-the-clock voting centers and voting facilities in outdoor structures such as parking garages; and eliminate straight-ticket voting, something Texas voters have used for decades. It would limit the use of drop boxes by requiring absentee voters to hand their ballots directly to an election official.

Some of those provisions are a direct reaction to voting provisions used in Harris County, home of Houston, where election officials last year held 24-hour early vote centers and expanded access to drive-in voting facilities.

“If folks don’t trust the system, they’re not going to vote,” state Sen. Bryan Hughes (R), the chief architect of the election overhaul, told The Hill last month. “We want a system that people can trust, we want it to be accurate, and we want folks to know that it’s accurate.”

The bill would also place new restrictions on access to absentee ballots. Voters who want to vote by mail would be required to prove they are unable to get to the polls because of illness, injury or disability. Voters would no longer be allowed to 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 Georgia, Florida and Arizona this year, all competitive states where Republican-led legislatures have drastically overhauled voting procedures after President BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries FDA aims to give full approval to Pfizer vaccine by Labor Day: report Overnight Defense: Police officer killed in violence outside Pentagon | Biden officials back repeal of Iraq War authorization | NSC pushed to oversee 'Havana Syndrome' response MORE beat former President TrumpDonald TrumpFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Missouri Rep. Billy Long enters Senate GOP primary Trump-backed Mike Carey wins GOP primary in Ohio special election MORE in November’s election.

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.

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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 could lead to jail time for any public official who sends out unsolicited voter registration or absentee ballot forms.

Democrats used the spotlight shown on Austin to renew their push for the most ambitious federal overhaul of election laws since the Voting Rights Act. That bill, the For The People Act, has passed the House, though it has stalled in the Senate in the face of Republican threats of a filibuster.

“I urge my colleagues in the House of Representatives and also the United States senators most especially to look at what is going on in places like Arizona, Georgia and Texas and realize that Republicans keep moving to the extreme right, but they keep changing the law to keep winning,” Rep. Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroLawmakers can't reconcile weakening the SALT cap with progressive goals House Democrats reintroduce bill addressing diversity at State Department Julian Castro joins NBC and MSNBC as political analyst MORE (D-Texas) said at a Saturday news conference in Austin. “All we have to do to make it easier to vote is not change any law, we just have to change a custom: the Senate filibuster. If we don’t act now, then our democracy is not going to look the same, either in 2022 or 2024.”

Texas Republicans have not yet finalized their plans for a special session, though one could be held in conjunction with an already-planned session to handle the decennial redistricting process later this year. Democrats said they hoped to negotiate with Republicans to return to a bill that more closely resembled the earlier House version.

“This will be a time to reflect and go find that common ground that will at least bring us a less offensive bill that will disrupt fewer lives,” Martinez Fischer said. “There’s obviously a postmortem going on right now.”

But Martinez Fischer and other Democrats are conscious that they do not have the numbers to kill the election overhaul altogether. He said he is taking solace in a different arm of government these days.

“The president seems to be talking about voting rights more and more,” Martinez Fischer said. “I’m just hopeful.”