AUSTIN, Texas — Democrats in the Texas Legislature on Monday afternoon bolted for Washington, D.C., and said they were ready to remain there for weeks in a second revolt against a GOP overhaul of election laws, forcing a dramatic new showdown over voting rights in America.
At least 51 of the 67 Democratic representatives took off at 3:10 p.m. CT/2:10 p.m. aboard a chartered flight from Austin’s airport. The state House was set to reconvene Tuesday morning, but it would lack the number of members needed to conduct business.
Former El Paso Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke posted video on Twitter Monday afternoon of some of the Dem lawmakers aboard a bus apparently headed to the airport for the trip to D.C. as he touted a fundraising effort to back them.
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) July 12, 2021
The bolting of the lawmakers will bring the Legislature to a halt before the GOP can pass a voting bill in the special legislative session ordered by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott that began days ago.
“Today, Texas House Democrats stand united in our decision to break quorum and refuse to let the Republican-led legislature force through dangerous legislation that would trample on Texans’ freedom to vote,” Democratic leaders said in a joint statement released Monday.
“This is a now-or-never for our democracy. We are holding the line in Texas,” added Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer. “We’ve left our jobs, we’ve left our families, we’ve left our homes. Because there is nothing more important than voting rights in America.”
By leaving, Democrats again deny the GOP majority a quorum to pass bills, barely a month after their walkout thwarted the first push for sweeping new voting restrictions in Texas, including outlawing 24-hour polling places, banning ballot drop boxes and empowering partisan poll watchers.
The decision to hole up in Washington is aimed at ratcheting up pressure in the nation’s capital on President Joe Biden and Congress to act on voting at the federal level. Biden is due to deliver a major address on the issue Tuesday in Philadelphia, after facing growing criticism for taking what some of the left call too passive a role in the fight.
It marked the first time since 2003 that Texas Democrats, shut out of power in the state Capitol for decades, have crossed state lines to break quorum.
Former state Rep. Joe Pickett of El Paso participated in that 2003 walkout and told ABC-7 that such a move gives legislators on both sides time to step back and perhaps negotiate a bill to get an agreeable outcome.
“Ultimately, because there is a Republican majority, at some point my feeling is they will pass a voter suppression bill,” Pickett explained. “However, what the democrats are doing right now is bringing attention to, not just their local communities, but the state, we know its nationwide. This is the first time they’ve taken a step like this, making a point and going to Washington.”
The drastic move lays bare how Democrats are making America’s biggest red state their last stand against 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.
Abbott panned the House Democrats over their move to leave the state in an attempt to block passage of the controversial election bill.
Later, Abbott told an Austin television station he would simply keep calling special sessions through next year if necessary, and raised the possibility of Democrats facing arrest upon returning home.
“As soon as they come back in the state of Texas, they will be arrested, they will be cabined inside the Texas Capitol until they get their job done,” Abbott said.
As they arrived in Washington on Monday evening, the Democratic lawmakers said they would not be swayed.
“We are determined to kill this bill,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, who said he and his colleagues were prepared to run out the clock on the current special session that ends early next month.
State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, called the Texas GOP voting bill “toxic piece of legislation,” adding: “We’re here to fight,” Moody said, referring to Congress. “We just hope we’re not alone.”
After addressing the media, some Black Texas lawmakers led the Democratic group in singing ”We Shall Overcome.”
Over the weekend, Texas Republicans began advancing measures that also bring back provisions to ban drive-thru voting, add new voter ID requirements to absentee ballots and prohibit local elections officials from proactively sending mail-in ballot applications to voters. Abbott also gave lawmakers a lengthy to-do list this summer heavy on hot-button conservative issues, including restrictions over how race is taught in schools and banning transgender athletes from playing in girls’ sports.
The agenda is widely opposed by Democrats. A first key vote on the new voting measures had been expected this week, hastening their scramble to leave town.
The move carries risks and no guarantee of victory in the long run. Ultimately, Democrats lack the votes to keep the Republican-controlled Legislature from passing new voting restrictions.
Abbott, who is up for re-election in 2022 and has demanded new election laws in Texas, could keep calling 30-day special sessions until a bill is passed. He also punished Democrats after their May walkout by vetoing paychecks for roughly 2,000 Capitol employees, which will begin taking effect in September unless the Legislature is in session to restore the funding.
Staying away for an extended time could also carry repercussions in next year’s midterm elections, although many Texas Democrats are already expecting a difficult cycle in 2022, particularly with Republicans set to begin drawing new voting maps this fall that could cement their majorities.
But for weeks, Democrats have signaled they were ready to draw a line. Adding to their anger: A Houston man who gained attention last year after waiting more than six hours to cast a ballot was arrested on illegal voting charges, and put in jail one day before the special session began Thursday. Attorneys for Hervis Rogers say the 62-year-old did not know that his being on parole for a felony burglary conviction meant he wasn’t allowed to vote.
How Republicans respond next will be a major test of their resolve.
Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan said in a statement that the chamber “will use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously-passed House rules to secure a quorum to meaningfully debate and consider” the various issues included on the special session agenda.
When Democrats last fled the state two decades ago — in a failed attempt to stop new GOP-drawn voting maps — state troopers were deployed to bring them back.
State Sen. Bryan Hughes, the author of both GOP attempts to pass election changes in Texas, said over the weekend that the legislation had become “bitterly partisan.” He defended the new version, which leaves out contentious attempts to ban Sunday morning early voting and make it easier for judges to overturn an election.
“Your ballot is sacrosanct,” Hughes said while introducing the bill over the weekend. “Everything else in the election process should be bathed in sunshine.”
Last week, Vice President Kamala Harris announced $25 million in new spending by the Democratic National Committee on actions to protect voting access ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
Biden and his team are stressing ongoing legal efforts to safeguard voting rights. They’ve also promised a major legislative push after Senate Republicans blocked a sweeping election overhaul last month. The president has told reporters he plans on “speaking extensively” on voting rights and that he would be “going on the road on this issue.”