Texas Democrats leave state to prevent vote on GOP election bill

Democratic lawmakers from the Texas Legislature left the state Monday so there won’t be enough lawmakers present to hold a vote on Republican election bills.

They plan to head to Washington, D.C., to prevent a quorum during the special legislative session that is being held because they scuttled the May legislative session —  also by leaving —  to block a sweeping election bill

Both bills would eliminate drive-thru and 24-hour early voting, expand early voting hours to some medium-sized counties, add identification requirements for voting by mail, increase criminal penalties for some election officials who don’t follow regulations and give more powers to poll watchers. 

Opponents say the bills would make it more difficult for thousands of Texans, especially in minority communities, to vote. On Saturday into early Sunday, Texas lawmakers heard hundreds of hours of testimony from state residents against the proposals. 

Texas lawmakers returned to Austin last week to start a special session. Governor Greg Abbott asked lawmakers to address election integrity, bail reform, border security, social media censorship, transgender sports and critical race theory. Passing an election bill is one of the top priorities for Republican lawmakers during the special session.

Texas Governor Abbott Convenes Special Session Of State Legislature
AUSTIN, TX – JULY 08: The Texas State Capitol is seen on the first day of the 87th Legislature’s special session on July 8, 2021 in Austin, Texas.  / Getty Images

Texas House Democratic leaders said in a statement that they stand “united in our decision to break quorum and refuse to let the Republican-led legislature force through legislation that would trample on Texans’ freedom to vote.” They urged Congress to pass the For the People Act, a sweeping federal election bill, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which is aimed at shoring up a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. 

“We are now taking the fight to our nation’s capital. We are living on borrowed time in Texas,” Texas House Democratic caucus chair Chris Turner and other leaders said in a statement Monday. 

Abbott slammed the decision to leave in a statement Monday and said Democrats need to “put aside partisan political games that they were elected to do.”

“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,” Abbott said, noting that the Legislature also won’t be able to work on property taxes and foster care funding as well. “Their constituents must not be denied these important resources simply because their elected representative refused to show up to work.”

GOP House Speaker Dade Phelan issued a statement Monday that condemned the Democrats, and he said the Texas House will “use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously-passed House Rules to secure a quorum.” 

“The special session clock is ticking – I expect all Members to be present at our Capitol in order to immediately get to work on these issues,” Phelan said. 

According to the House Rules, “when a call of the house is moved for one of the above purposes and seconded by 15 members (of whom the speaker may be one) and ordered by a majority vote, the main entrance to the hall and all other doors leading out of the hall shall be locked and no member permitted to leave the house without the written permission of the speaker. The names of members present shall be recorded. All absentees for whom no sufficient excuse is made may, by order of a majority of those present, be sent for and arrested, wherever they may be found, by the sergeant-at-arms or an officer appointed by the sergeant-at-arms for that purpose, and their attendance shall be secured and retained.”

The decision to leave the state echoes a move by Democratic lawmakers in 2003 who fled to Oklahoma during a fight over redistricting. Leaving the state would prevent law enforcement officials from rounding up lawmakers and forcing them to go back to work. 

Republicans lawmakers in the House and Senate introduced the major election bills last week that were largely similar to the bill Democrats blocked in May. Committees in both chambers heard hours of testimony before ultimately advancing the bills. They were slated to receive floor votes as early as this week. 

And even if Democrats remain out of the state for the rest of the 30-day special session, Abbott is able to call additional special sessions to tackle his legislative priorities. 

The Texas Democratic Party applauded the lawmakers’ plans to leave Texas. 

“Our lawmakers have refused to be complicit in Republicans’ destructive attacks — and they’re doing what Texans need them to do: hold the line so that not one more anti-voter law can be passed in Texas,” Texas Democratic Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. 

President Biden is scheduled to give a major address on voting rights in Philadelphia on Tuesday. During her press briefing Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she was going to check if anyone from the White House would meet with the lawmakers. Texas Democratic state lawmakers also went to Washington, D.C., in June to meet with Vice President Kamala Harris and members of Congress. 

During a voting rights listening session in Detroit, Harris said the Texas Democratic lawmakers are showing, “extraordinary courage and commitment.” Harris added that she applauds their “standing for the rights of all Americans.”

“I applaud their standing for the rights of all Americans and all Texans to express their voice through their vote unencumbered,” Harris 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.”

Ed O’Keefe and Tim Perry contributed to this report.