© 2021
background_fid.jpg
In touch with the world ... at home on the High Plains
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
HPPR News

Texas Democrats Leave State In Effort To Block GOP Voting Restrictions

Texas Democratic lawmakers join multiple organizations outside the Texas State Capitol to criticize proposed changes to election laws on the 2021 Special Legislative Session agenda in Austin on July 8, 2021.
Texas Democratic lawmakers join multiple organizations outside the Texas State Capitol to criticize proposed changes to election laws on the 2021 Special Legislative Session agenda in Austin on July 8, 2021.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Texas House Democrats announced Monday that they’ve left the state in a second attempt to block controversial GOP legislation that critics have slammed as voter suppression.

Democrats, in an attempt to again break quorum and stop votes on Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3, 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,” read a statement from House Democratic leaders. “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, D-Grand Prairie; Mexican American Legislative Caucus Chair Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas; Texas Legislative Black Caucus Chair Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth; state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston; and state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston.

The statement was attributed to Texas House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie; Mexican American Legislative Caucus Chair Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas; Texas Legislative Black Caucus Chair Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth; state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston; and state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston.

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa also confirmed the news, calling the GOP efforts to change voting laws an “escalation of their attacks on voters.”

"There's no democracy without the right to vote,” Hinojosa said. “Once again, Democrats are standing strong and united to defend the right of every eligible Texas voter to make their voice heard. I'm incredibly proud of our Texas Democratic lawmakers, who continue to fight relentlessly on behalf of Texans, voters, and our democracy.”

In response, Gov. Greg Abbott accused the Democrats of abandoning their responsibilities.

“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,” read a statement from Abbott. “As they fly across the country on cushy private planes, they leave undone issues that can help their districts and our state.”

The two priority voting bills for Texas Republicans would ban drive-thru and 24-hour voting, make mail-in voting more difficult, increase criminal penalties for voting mistakes, and give partisan poll watchers more authority at voting sites.

At least 51 of the 67 Democrats in the state House would need to be absent in order to break quorum. A legislative staffer told Texas Public Radio that the group plans to remain out of the state until the Republican-backed efforts are withdrawn, or until the special session ends.

State Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas — who is among the group to break quorum — told Texas Public Radio last week that she did not believe Texas Democrats should back down, pointing to sacrifices made during of the civil rights movement in the 1960s that led to the Voting Rights Act.

“You saw people willing to die. You saw people willing to go to jail. You saw people beaten,” Corckett said. “You’ve seen the greats in the likes of John Lewis, who was very young when he got started in the movement, and sadly enough, he’s dead in his grave. And this fight is continuing on.”

The late John Lewis, who coined the "good trouble" quote so often repeated over the last year, has a namesake piece of legislation at the federal level — the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. That legislation is stalled because of the filibuster, but if passed, Texas Democrats say they won't need to continue breaking quorum to protect voting rights, since federal protections will be in place for the whole country.

In addition to the Texas Republicans’ voting legislation, a walkout would block passage of other GOP priorities, including a measure that would make it harder for people accused of crimes to bond out of jail. Abbott could again place the agenda items on a planned second session later this year, which is meant to address redistricting.

The first special session is set to run through the beginning of August. 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.

State Senate lawmakers did not appear to be part of the quorum-breaking group on Monday, but Democratic state Sen. Royce West of Dallas said that he nonetheless supported the action.

“We’re using every tool in our toolbox in order to stop and or get concessions concerning draconian measures in these bills that will negatively impact minority voters in the state of Texas,” West said.

During a voting rights “listening session” in Detroit, Vice President Kamala 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 the regular legislative session in May when Democrats walked out in the final moments, breaking quorum. In response, Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed funding for the legislature, and put the voting bill on the agenda for this first of two special sessions.

In a statement, House Speaker Dade Phelan criticized the Democrats’ move, saying their departure now puts that legislative funding at risk.

“The Texas 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 election integrity, bail reform, benefits for retired teachers, Child Protective Services reform, Article X funding, and the other important measures Gov. Abbott placed on the special session agenda,” Phelan said. “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.”

Congressman for Texas' 35th District, Lloyd Doggett, told TPR that the Lone Star State is "already ground zero for voter suppression."

"These courageous leaders are defending our democracy. Looking forward to welcoming these good troublemakers to Washington soon,” he said of the Democratic lawmakers breaking quorum.

This story was produced by Houston Public Media. Additional reporting by Houston Public Media’s Andrew Schneider, and Dominic Walsh and David Martin Davies of Texas Public Radio.

An earlier version of this story indicated lawmakers planned to leave through the end of the special session. It is not immediately clear how long lawmakers planned to remain out of state.

Copyright 2021 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.