Texas House Democrats left the state on Monday in a second high-profile effort to block controversial GOP legislation that critics have slammed as voter suppression.
The Democrats, in an attempt again to break quorum and stop votes on two election bills, said they were flying to Washington, D.C., where they planned to push for federal voter protections.
“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,” a statement from several House Democratic leaders said. “We are now taking the fight to our nation’s Capitol. We are living on borrowed time in Texas. We need Congress to act now to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to protect Texans — and all Americans — from the Trump Republicans’ nationwide war on democracy.”
The statement was attributed to Texas House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner, Mexican American Legislative Caucus Chair Rafael Anchía, Texas Legislative Black Caucus Chair Nicole Collier, and state Reps. Garnet Coleman and Senfronia Thompson.
What the bills would do
Texas already has some of the toughest voting laws in the country.
The two new priority voting bills for the state’s Republicans would ban drive-through and 24-hour voting, make mail-in voting more difficult and give partisan poll watchers more authority at voting sites.
Another provision, which would increase criminal penalties for voting mistakes, has garnered additional attention after the arrest last week of a Houston man, Hervis Rogers, over allegedly voting while on parole, which is illegal in Texas.
What happens now
It was not immediately clear if Democrats would remain out of the state through the end of the session, which is set to run through the beginning of August.
Under the Texas Constitution, if lawmakers are anywhere in the state while the special session is ongoing, they can be arrested and physically brought back to the Capitol to provide a quorum.
State Rep. John Bucy, one of the Texas Democrats who fled the state, said he and the others are willing to stay out of Texas for the rest of the special session, if needed.
If successful, it would be the first time in 18 years that Democrats left the state to break quorum. In 2003, lawmakers fled to New Mexico to block Republican-led redistricting efforts — before one of the Democratic legislators ultimately returned, allowing the Legislature to proceed.
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Additional GOP priorities blocked
In response to their move, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott accused the Democrats of abandoning their responsibilities.
In addition to the voting bills, a walkout would block passage of other GOP priority legislation, including a measure that would make it harder for people accused of crimes to bond out of jail.
“Texas Democrats’ decision to break a quorum of the Texas Legislature and abandon the Texas State Capitol inflicts harm on the very Texans who elected them to serve,” a statement from Abbott said. “As they fly across the country on cushy private planes, they leave undone issues that can help their districts and our state.”
Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan said the House “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 bills that were on the agenda.
“The special session clock is ticking — I expect all Members to be present in our Capitol in order to immediately get to work on these issues,” Phelan said.
Harris shows support
During a voting rights “listening session” Monday in Detroit, Vice President Harris praised the Texas Democrats, saying they were showing “extraordinary courage and commitment.”
“I applaud them for standing for the rights of all Americans and all Texans to express their voice through their vote unencumbered,” she said. “They are leaders who are marching in the path that so many others before did, when they fought and many died for our right to vote.”
Similar voting legislation was killed at the end of Texas’ regular legislative session in May when Democrats walked out in the final moments, breaking quorum.
Texas Democrats then visited Washington and met with Harris and others to push for federal voting protections. The following week, Republicans in the U.S. Senate blocked consideration of Democrats’ sweeping For the People Act.
In response to the May Democratic walkout, Abbott vetoed funding for the Legislature and put the voting bill on the agenda for this first of two special sessions.
Abbott could again place the agenda items on a planned second session later this year, which is meant to address redistricting.
Houston Public Media’s Andrew Schneider, David Martin Davies of Texas Public Radio and Ashley Lopez of KUT in Austin contributed to this report.