On May 30, Texas Republicans came extremely close to passing a sweeping voter suppression bill. The bill, known as SB7, was approved by the Texas Senate. All that needed to happen was for the Texas House to approve the bill before midnight.
Republicans control a majority of the Texas House and appeared to have the votes they needed. But shortly before midnight, Democrats left the chamber en mass, denying the legislature a quorum. Under the rules, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) was forced to adjourn. Since SB7 did not pass the Texas House by midnight, the bill failed.
The actions of the Democrats were derided as a "stunt" by Governor Greg Abbott (R). Abbott suggested the move would only delay the inevitable and the same bill would pass in a special session that he would call later this year.
But that is not what is happening.
Earlier this year, the Texas Senate and Texas House each passed separate versions of SB7. A conference committee met behind closed doors to work out the differences. But the final version of the bill "grew well beyond what the House and Senate originally passed into a wide-ranging 67-page bill with many additions that were only revealed" hours before the vote.
After the session ended, it became clear that Republicans were unprepared to defend some of these new provisions.
First, Texas Republicans had no explanation for a last-minute addition to the bill that would have banned voting on Sundays before 1 PM. This provision would limit the ability of people to vote after attending church services — known colloquially as "souls to the polls" — which is particularly popular in the Black community.
One of the authors of the legislation, Texas Senator Bryan Hughes (R), now says the "intent" of the bill was actually "to increase Sunday voting." Hughes blamed the Texas House for adding the ban on voting before 1 PM at the last minute. But it was actually added during a conference committee of Texas House and Senate members that included Hughes.
Hughes' explanation is not particularly credible since he explicitly defended the ban on voting before 1 PM on Sundays during the floor debate. Other Republicans now say the provision was a "typo" and meant to ban voting before 11 AM. Hughes says that when the bill is reintroduced, voting will be limited only before "11 AM if there is any limit at all… we want to make sure people aren't limited in what they can do for souls to the polls."
Abbott also signaled the provision would be gone, saying that he "doesn't want to hinder anybody’s ability to vote on that one Sunday that we do have for early voting."
Had the Texas House Democrats not walked out, voting would be banned in Texas before 1 PM on Sundays.
Another last-minute provision of the bill would have allowed Texas judges to declare an election "void" without bothering to determine if allegations of fraud would have had any impact on the outcome of the election. The provision in the bill was literally called "OVERTURNING ELECTIONS."
OVERTURNING ELECTION. If the number of votes illegally cast in the election is equal to or greater than the number of votes necessary to change the outcome of an election, the court may declare the election void without attempting to determine how individual voters voted.
But less than two weeks later, the Houston Chronicle reports, top Republicans in the Texas House and Senate are denouncing the provision, calling it "horrendous policy."
What’s more, [Texas Representative Travis] Clardy — and chief author Sen. Bryan Hughes — now denounces the measures related to overturning elections and says Republicans don’t plan to revive them in a future bill.
“There was zero appetite or intent or willingness to create some low bar where a single judge can overturn the results of an election,” Clardy said in an interview with Hearst Newspapers. “That would be horrendous policy, and it would never be healthy for the democracy.”
Clardy now claims he had no idea who wrote the provision or how it was inserted into the bill, even though he served on the conference committee that approved its inclusion. Thus far, no one has taken responsibility.
On the evening of May 30, Phelan visited with the Democratic caucus and tried to convince them not to break quorum. His argument was that breaking quorum would only delay, not stop, the legislation. And when the legislation was reintroduced it could get worse.
Fortunately, Texas House Democrats didn't listen and delayed passage of the bill. The sequence of events in Austin holds important lessons for members of Congress fighting for voting rights in Washington, DC.
What Texas can teach Congress about voting rights
Voting rights are under attack not just in Texas, but around the country. The only way to protect voting rights over the long term is federal legislation. The House of Representatives has already passed comprehensive legislation, but the Senate is struggling to follow suit.
Senate Republicans have made clear they will filibuster the For The People Act or any similar legislation that protects voting rights. That means Senate Democrats either need to find ten Republicans to break a filibuster or convince all 50 Democrats to amend the rules to eliminate the filibuster rule for a voting rights bill.
There is no clear path to success now for either option. Only one Republican (Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)) is publicly supporting voting rights legislation. And multiple Democrats — including Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) — are opposed to altering the filibuster.
Currently, the Senate is scheduled to be on recess for much of the summer — from June 28 to July 9 and from August 9 to September 10.
Even though there isn't a clear path to success at present, Texas Democrats illustrated the power of doing everything possible to protect voting rights. Keeping the Senate in session until it takes action on voting rights would underscore the importance of the issue, require Republicans to take tough votes, and create pressure to reach a compromise so everyone could go home. One thing is for sure: the Senate can't protect voting rights while it is on recess.
It just so happens that the Texas House Democrats who led the charge to break quorum "are visiting Capitol Hill this Tuesday to drum up support for voting rights legislation." So far the group has not been able to secure meetings with Manchin or Sinema. But you can bet they will keep trying.