AUSTIN, Texas – In a rebellion against GOP plans to pass sweeping changes to voting and elections, Democrats in the Texas House left the state Monday to derail a special session of the Legislature that Gov. Greg Abbott had called to consider the voting measure and other bills.
The Democrats chartered two flights to Washington, and the House Democratic Caucus picked up the tab of about $100,000, sources said.
“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.
In addition to drawing national attention to the voting fight, the Democrats said they hoped to pressure Congress to pass federal legislation “to protect Texans – and all Americans – from the Trump Republicans’ nationwide war on democracy.”
“We are living on borrowed time in Texas,” said the statement from Democratic Reps. Chris Turner, Rafael Anchía, Nicole Collier, Garnet Coleman and Senfronia Thompson.
The Democrats’ departure, which broke a needed legislative quorum, came days after Abbott convened the special session. They again denied the GOP majority a quorum to pass bills, barely a month after their walkout in the state House of Representatives thwarted the first push for sweeping voting restrictions in Texas – including outlawing 24-hour polling places, banning ballot drop boxes and empowering partisan poll watchers.
It’s 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.
Legislators leave Texas to avoid arrest
Under House rules, absent legislators could be arrested by the sergeant-at-arms “or an officer appointed by the sergeant-at-arms” and returned to the House floor, but once quorum-busting representatives are out of state, Texas law enforcement lacks jurisdiction.
An order to arrest House members must be voted on by a majority of lawmakers present after the lack of a quorum is established.
The Texas House was not scheduled to meet until 10 a.m. Tuesday, allowing the Democrats to leave Texas on Monday without fear of reprisal.
House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said he planned to use “every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously passed House Rules to secure a quorum.”
In the closing hours of the Legislature’s regular session May 31, Democrats killed a sweeping GOP-led the elections bill, Senate Bill 7, by walking off the floor in the middle of debate, breaking quorum and forcing the House to adjourn.
Bail system, critical race theory, state funding also on agenda
The Democrats’ unusual move might not only block passage of the elections bill, it could mean the demise of legislation to change the state’s bail system – bringing the hammer down on two of Abbott’s legislative priorities.
Abbott added a host of conservative Republican priorities to the agenda of the 30-day special session that began Thursday, including border security, transgender student athletes, critical race theory, abortion regulations and complaints that social media companies censor conservatives.
Leaving the state also could endanger funding for the Legislature and associated agencies – not to mention pay and benefits for several thousand employees – that Abbott vetoed in retaliation for the House Democrats’ walkout at the close of the regular session.
Abbott’s special session agenda allowed lawmakers to restore the funding before the next budget begins Sept. 1, and Republicans hoped the opportunity would keep Democrats from fleeing.
Democrats remained committed to killing two wide-ranging GOP elections bills – both of which were passed by House and Senate committees Sunday after marathon public hearings. Senate Republicans planned to bring their version of the voting bill up for a floor vote Tuesday.
It and a similar House measure would ban 24-hour and late-night voting, prohibit drive-thru voting, add an identification requirement to mail-in ballots, protect partisan poll watchers’ ability to move freely in polling places and create new or stiffer penalties for voter fraud, among other provisions.
Republicans insist the changes are needed to bolster eroded confidence in election results, particularly by limiting opportunities for voter fraud.
Democrats argue that the limits would suppress the vote in deference to the “big lie” that widespread voter fraud denied Donald Trump a second term in the White House. Lawmakers should act to make it easier, not harder, to cast a ballot, they say.
The Texas Senate had a quorum present for its brief meeting Monday morning when three Democrats – Sens. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa of McAllen, John Whitmire of Houston and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo – joined 18 Republicans to reach the required 21 senators present.
Senate Democrats’ plans are unclear.
Staying away and grinding the Legislature to a halt for an extended time could carry repercussions in next year’s midterm elections, although many Texas Democrats already expect a difficult cycle in 2022, particularly since Republicans are set to draw new voting maps this fall that could cement their majorities.
Challenges to voter access
A Houston man who waited more than six hours to cast a ballot last year was arrested on illegal voting charges and put in jail one day before the special session began Thursday. Attorneys for Hervis Rogers, 62, said he did not know that being on parole for a felony burglary conviction meant he wasn’t allowed to vote.
Last week, Vice President Kamala Harris announced $25 million in spending by the Democratic National Committee on actions to protect voting access before the 2022 midterm elections.
Biden and his team stress legal efforts to safeguard voting rights, promising a major legislative push after Senate Republicans blocked an election overhaul last month. The president said he plans on “speaking extensively” on voting rights and will be “going on the road on this issue.”
Contributing: The Associated Press