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A strategy, not a stunt
To demonstrate their support for Trump's false claims about voter fraud, Republican elected officials in Texas are determined to make it harder to vote. There is no evidence that voter fraud is a problem in Texas. Nor do Texas voters think it's a problem. But Trump wants new voting restrictions and so it has become a top priority.
Separate, sweeping voter suppression bills passed the Texas House and Senate earlier this year. But Republicans were outmaneuvered by Texas House Democrats, who ran out the clock before Republicans could secure passage of consolidated legislation.
In a fit of pique, Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) then vetoed funding for the entire legislature and called a special session, which convened on July 8, to push through voting restrictions and other right-wing priorities. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Texas House 83-67 in the Texas House and 18-13 in the Texas Senate. A revised bill to restrict voting was quickly approved by House and Senate committees on party-line votes.
So this week, Texas Democrats did the only thing they could do to stop the legislation: they left town. The Texas House requires two-thirds of its members — 100 representatives — to be present in order for it to have a quorum and conduct business. So when more than 50 Texas House Democrats left the state for Washington, DC on Monday, the Texas House could no longer do business. (The Texas Senate passed the bill on Tuesday night.)
The maneuvering by the Texas House Democrats may stop the bill from being passed in this special session. But it's unlikely they will be able to block the bill indefinitely. Instead, they are calling on Congress — specifically the Senate — to take the action necessary to thwart discriminatory and unnecessary state legislation to restrict voting.
"We can’t stay here indefinitely," Texas Representative Rhetta Bowers (D) said on the steps of the United States Capitol. "Texas Democrats will use everything in our power to fight back. But we need Congress to act now."
Her sentiments were echoed by Texas Representative John Bucy (D). "We are coming to DC to put pressure on them to act, because this isn't just Texas. All over the South and in Republican states, we are seeing voter suppression bills," Bucy said.
This was not an act of "political theater." Texas Democrats are executing a political strategy. They are using the quorum to delay the Republican voting bill, highlight the national attack on voting rights, and provide a window for Democrats in Congress and at the White House to match their bold action.
It is a decision that requires substantial personal sacrifice. Members of the Texas legislature make only $7200 per year. The Texas Democrats who traveled to DC are away from their families and have to pay their expenses. Nearly all have other full-time employment and might find it difficult to work away from their home state. But they came to DC anyway because they believe the issue of voting rights is critically important.
On Tuesday, the remaining members of the Texas House "voted 76-4 to send law enforcement to find and return absent Democrats 'under warrant of arrest, if necessary.'" This likely won't be an issue as long as Texas House Democrats remain out of state where Texas law enforcement lacks jurisdiction. But it underscores that the stakes are very high.
How will DC Democrats respond?
Democrats in Washington, DC have welcomed the visiting Texans. "I applaud them [for] standing for the rights of all Americans and all Texans to express their voice through their vote unencumbered," Vice President Kamala Harris said on Monday. Harris will reportedly meet with the group later this week.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (R-NY) also praised the group. "They are brave, they are bold, they are courageous and history will show them on the side of right," Schumer said on the Senate floor shortly before meeting with them on Monday.
Speaking in Philadelphia on Tuesday, President Biden described the assault on voting rights in Texas and elsewhere “the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War” and called for a “coalition of Americans of every background and political party.”
So Democratic leaders in Washington, DC are more than willing to say the right things about voting rights. But what are they willing to do?
"We’ll be asking my Republican friends in Congress and states and cities and counties to stand up for God’s sake," Biden said. But it is safe to say that simply asking Republicans to do the right thing on voting rights will not work.
Notably absent from Biden's speech was any mention of reforming the filibuster. Biden has never publicly favored changing the filibuster rule, which sets a 60 vote threshold for a bill to proceed. But such a change is the only way voting rights legislation will clear the Senate. While changing the filibuster rule does not require Biden's support, his position could have some influence over two key Democratic Senators who oppose eliminating the filibuster — Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ).
Schumer also has a role here. He could force Manchin and Sinema to vote on a limited exception to the filibuster rule to allow passage of voting legislation by majority vote. It's easy to write an op-ed calling for bipartisanship. But it's harder to take a vote that would effectively kill voting protections you (and many of your constituents) support.
Exceptions to the filibuster rule are increasingly common to pass items of significance. Republicans used exceptions to the filibuster rule to pass corporate and income tax cuts in 2017 and confirm multiple Supreme Court Justices. Democrats used an exception to the filibuster rule to pass a massive coronavirus recovery bill.
You miss 100% of the shots you don't take
Texas House Democrats used a similar tactic in May to block the Republican bill to restrict voting. They left the chamber and denied the Texas House a quorum as the regular legislative session expired. At the time, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) reportedly attempted to convince the House Democrats not to leave. Phelan claimed they would only delay the inevitable and that the bill would get worse in a special session.
But that is not what happened.
In the last six weeks, Republicans could not defend two major provisions of the bill, which have been dropped from the legislation under consideration in the special session:
1. A provision to ban voting on Sunday before 1PM.
2. A provision that would make it easier for judges to overturn the results of an election.
These provisions would be the law in Texas right now had Texas House Democrats not broken quorum in March. Because Texas House Democrats used the power they had to delay passage of the bill, these provisions did not become law.
This isn't to say there aren't significant issues with the legislation that remains. The current version of the bill still targets voting methods — including drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting — that proved popular with minority voters in Harris County. The bill still prevents election officials or third-party groups from distributing absentee ballot applications absent a request. And the bill still gives broad authority to partisan "poll watchers" to harass voters or otherwise disrupt the process.
But Texas Republicans are not budging on these provisions. They potentially could be thwarted by federal action. But for that to happen, Democrats in DC have to try.