Texas Democrats Fly To D.C. Over Voter Restriction Bill — Which Passes Anyway (UPDATED)

By Terrance Turner

July 12, 2021 (updated Aug. 31, 2021)

JUST IN: Despite weeks of wrangling and a dramatic Democratic walkout, the Texas Legislature has passed a voter restrictions bill. The bill now heads to the desk of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who says he will sign it.

The news marks the end of a failed effort by Texas Democrats to stop passage of the bill, which further tightens Texas’ already strict voter laws. The Texas Tribune notes that Democrats fled the state weeks ago to stymie an earlier version of the bill. Democrats see the bill as a tool of voter suppression; Republicans claim the bill is needed for “voter security” (despite the 2020 election being the most secure in history).

The New York Times reports: “The legislation forbids balloting methods that the county introduced last year to make voting easier during the pandemic, including drive-through polling places and 24-hour voting, as well as temporary voting locations. It also bars election officials from sending voters unsolicited absentee ballot applications and from promoting the use of vote by mail. The bill greatly empowers partisan poll watchers, creates new criminal and civil penalties for poll workers, and erects new barriers for those looking to help voters who need assistance, such as with translations. It requires large Texas counties — where Democrats perform better — to provide live-streaming video at ballot-counting locations.”

Democrats in the Texas Legislature walked out of a special session in Austin back in July over the contentious voting rights bill. Texas journalist Jessica Huseman reported that morning:

A quorum is “the minimum number of members of an assembly or society that must be present at any of its meetings to make the proceedings of that meeting valid,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The Texas State Constitution requires that two-thirds of legislators in the House and Senate be present for proceedings. According to NBC Austin affiliate KXAN, “The House must have two-thirds of its members, or 100 people, present. The Senate also needs two-thirds, or 21 members, present.” The Democrats have elected to break quorum, meaning that no bills can be passed without them.

They made the move in protest of controversial voting rights bills, HB 3 and SB 1. According to the Texas Tribune, the bills would ban drive-thru voting (offered last year by Harris County). They would also ban election officials from sending applications for a mail-in ballot unless requested. (Harris County sent out proactive applications to 2.4 million registered voters; the new bill would make that a felony!) They would alter early voting hours, preempting the 24-hour voting sites pioneered in Harris County last October. And they would require voters to provide driver’s license numbers or Social Security numbers to vote by mail.

Democratic lawmakers walked out of session over SB7, a similar bill, in May. They left the Capitol. This time, they’ve upped the ante by leaving the state! The Tribune reports that 51 Texas Democrats boarded a bus to a private terminal at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Then they flew out, boarding two private flights to Washington, D.C. The flights left at around 3:10 pm Central Time.

NBC News says that the lawmakers plan to spend more than three weeks in Washington. They risk arrest by taking flight. Senate rules state that “Those for whom no sufficient excuse is made […] may be sent for and arrested.” A source told NBC News that the Democrats expect Republicans to request that the Department of Public Safety track them down. But Democrats remain unbowed. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer said the lawmakers are advocating that Congress pass the For the People Act.

JUST IN (7:01 pm): A CNN reporter told Anderson Cooper just now that the first of the two planes landed at Dulles Airport in Virginia, just minutes ago; the other is expected to land momentarily. She told Cooper that the House Democratic Caucus is footing the bill for the flights.

UPDATE (7:30 pm): Texas House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Chris Turner (D-TX) told Cooper that the mission is simple. “Our objective is very simple: to kill this bill,” he said. He added that they intend to deliver a message to Congress. “We need Congress to enact strong federal voting rights legislation to save our democracy because these Republican attacks will continue to occur.”

Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) has vowed to arrest them. “I’ll tell you what the House of Representatives can do. What the speaker can do is issue a call to have these members arrested,” Abbott told Austin station KVUE. “In addition to that, however, I can and I will continue to call a special session after special session after special session, all the way up until the election next year. And so if these people want to be hanging out wherever they’re hanging out on this taxpayer-paid junket, they’re going to have to be prepared to do it for well over a year. 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.”

UPDATE (July 13, 2021): Just minutes ago, ABC 13 Houston ran a story on the Texas Democrats’ trip to D.C. They passed the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. That caught the attention of Texas State Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-TX). She spoke to ABC 13 about her perspective.

”When I looked at the African American museum, I thought about the struggle of my people who fought in this country to get the right to vote. And that vote is sacred to my constituents that I represent back in Houston, Texas,” Thompson said. It is a right that was once denied to her own parents. They had to pay a poll tax — a flat-rate tax that charges people money to vote.

The Fifteenth Amendment prohibits denial of the right to vote based on race. After the 15th Amendment passed in 1870, states including Texas used methods like poll taxes to restrict minority voting. In Texas, eligible voters had to pay between $1.50 and $1.75 in order to vote. The poll tax disproportionately affected African-Americans and Mexican-Americans, but poor whites were impacted as well. The 24th Amendment, passed in 1964, banned poll taxes in federal elections. The 1965 Voting Rights Act authorized the Attorney General to investigate their use in state and local elections.

“I know what it was like when my parents had to pay and buy a poll tax. I know what it was like when the people were beat[en], dogs were leased on them, fire hose [was used] — and we were mistreated. And I know the struggle that came along before that bill was signed in 1965,” Thompson said.

Texas State Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-TX) explains her decision to leave Austin. (Photo from ABC)

Today, the legislators met with Vice President Kamala Harris — all 57 representatives. Harris commended them for their “bold, courageous action”. And late this afternoon, West Virginia senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) said he will meet with the representatives. Manchin is a key vote for any voting rights legislation that reaches the Senate.

UPDATE (July 17): Three of the Texas Democrats have tested positive for COVID-19, according to multiple sources including Axios. The House Democratic Caucus says that the three unnamed lawmakers are all vaccinated. One tested positive on Friday night; two more tested positive this morning, after a rapid test. The Caucus says it is following COVID-19 protocols:

UPDATE (Sept. 7, 2021): The lawmakers have returned to Texas, and the legislation has been signed. The lawmakers had sought help from Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. But according to CNN, “measures to expand voting rights are stalled on Capitol Hill with Senate Democrats unable to break the 60-vote filibuster threshold — and unable to eliminate the filibuster, due to opposition within the party.”

Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill today after it was passed on Aug. 31. In a signing ceremony in Tyler, Texas today, the governor said the law will protect voter integrity. “It ensures that every eligible voter will have the opportunity to vote,” Abbott said at the signing ceremony. “It does also, however, make sure that it is harder for people to cheat at the ballot box in Texas.”

Within minutes of the bill’s passage, lawsuits were filed against it. A group involving LULAC filed a suit against Texas Secretary of State Jose Esparza, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, and Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria. The plaintiffs allege violations of the 1st and 14th Amendments.

“In Harris County, over 350,000 more voters cast ballots than in 2016—a nearly 7 percent increase in turnout. Minority voters accounted for over 56 percent of this additional turnout. Rather than celebrate this record-setting turnout and laud these innovations that helped remedy Texas’s historic suppression of minority voters, the Texas Legislature has instead chosen to write the latest chapter in the State’s long, troubling history of discrimination and disenfranchisement,” the lawsuit states.

Additionally, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has filed a lawsuit challenging SB1, on behalf of the Houston Urban League and Delta Sigma Theta (among others). The suit was filed in the Southern District of Texas, naming Gov. Abbott, Ken Paxton, and Esparza as defendants. According to a release on the NAACP LDF’s website:

“S.B. 1 includes a series of suppressive voting-related provisions that will make it much harder for Texas residents to vote and disenfranchise some altogether, particularly Black and Latino voters and voters with disabilities. The lawsuit, which was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, argues that S.B. 1 violates the First, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by intentionally targeting and burdening methods and means of voting used by voters of color.”

“The Plaintiffs also claim that the law violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act by imposing voting barriers that will discriminate against voters with disabilities,” the release continues.

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