Texas Democrats leave state to thwart GOP voting bill

Rare political strategy has not been used since 2003

A private plane is readied for Democrats from the Texas Legislature as they arrive by bus to board and head to Washington, D.C , on July 12, 2021, to avoid voting for a GOP-supported voting rights bill they believe is restrictive. AP
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Democrats in the Texas legislature on Monday headed to Washington, DC, and said they were ready to remain there for weeks in a second revolt against a Republican overhaul of election laws.

Private planes carrying a large group of Democrats took off from an airport in Austin, forcing a dramatic new showdown over voting rights in America.

The Texas House of Representatives was days later expected to give early approval to sweeping new voting restrictions in a special legislative session ordered by Republican Governor Greg Abbott.

By leaving, Democrats again deny the GOP majority a quorum to pass bills.

The move came barely a month after a walkout thwarted the first push for voting restrictions in Texas, including outlawing 24-hour polling places, banning ballot drop boxes and empowering partisan poll watchers.

“This is a now-or-never for our democracy. We are holding the line in Texas,” said Democratic state representative Trey Martinez Fischer.

“We’ve left our jobs, we’ve left our families, we’ve left our homes, because there is nothing more important than voting rights in America.”

It was not immediately clear how many of the 67 Democrats in the Texas House left, but party leaders said it would be enough to bring the legislature to a halt.

The decision to move to Washington is aimed at increasing pressure in the nation’s capital on US President Joe Biden and Congress to act on voting at the federal level.

Mr Biden is set to deliver a major address on the issue on Tuesday in Philadelphia, after facing growing criticism for taking what some on the left call too passive a role in the fight.

The legislators are expected to meet Democrats across Washington. But an administration official said there were no current plans for a White House visit.

Democrats are making America’s biggest red state their last stand against the GOP’s rush to enact voting restrictions after former president Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

More than a dozen states this year have already passed tougher election laws — but only in Texas have Democrats put up this kind of fight.

It marks the first time since 2003 that Texas Democrats, shut out of power in the state Capitol for decades, have crossed state lines to break the quorum.

Moments after the Democrats flew out, Mr Abbott criticised them for leaving, while Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan promised to use “every available resource” to secure a quorum.

Mr Phelan did not elaborate, but some House Republicans indicated they would take action when the chamber reconvened on Tuesday.

When Democrats fled the state two decades ago in a failed attempt to stop new GOP-drawn voting maps, state troopers were sent to bring them back.

“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,” Mr Abbott said.

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

He listed property tax relief, and funding for law enforcement, foster care children and retired teachers, but made no mention of new election laws.

At the weekend, Texas Republicans began advancing measures that bring back provisions to ban drive-through voting, add new voter ID requirements to absentee ballots and prohibit local elections officials from sending mail-in ballot applications to voters.

Supporters for Texas Democrats stand outside the Austin Bergstrom International Airport on July 12, 2021 in Austin, Texas. AFP

Mr Abbott also gave legislators a lengthy to-do list this summer, heavy on conservative issues including restrictions over how race is taught in schools and banning transgender athletes from playing in girls’ sports.

The Democrats' decision to flee carries risks and no guarantee of victory in the long run.

Mr Abbott, who is up for re-election in 2022 and has demanded new election laws in Texas, could keep calling 30-day special sessions until a bill is passed.

He also punished Democrats after their May walkout by vetoing pay cheques for about 2,000 Capitol employees, which will begin taking effect in September unless the legislature is in session to restore the funding.

Staying away for a long time could also carry repercussions in next year’s midterm elections, although many Texas Democrats are already expecting a difficult cycle in 2022.

That is particularly true with Republicans set to begin drawing new voting maps that could cement their majorities this autumn.

For weeks, Democrats have indicated that they were ready to draw a line.

Adding to their anger was the news that a Houston man, who gained attention last year after waiting more than six hours to cast a ballot, was arrested on illegal voting charges a day before the special session began on Thursday.

Attorneys for Hervis Rogers, 62, say he did not know that his being on parole for a felony burglary conviction meant he was not allowed to vote.

Vice President Kamala Harris applauded Texas Democrats for their “courage and commitment” before they boarded the flight.

In Texas, Republican Lt Governor Dan Patrick indicated that he would still try to pass a voting bill as early as Tuesday in the Senate.

It was unclear whether Democrats in that chamber would continue to show up.

Updated: July 13, 2021, 12:16 AM