AUSTIN — Democrats left the Texas House in protest late Sunday in an effort to kill a sweeping GOP-backed voting bill that would make it easier to overturn an election and create several new crimes.
At around 10:45 p.m., the last remaining Democrats needed to keep a quorum of 100 members streamed out of the chamber. Debate on the bill abruptly stopped as Republicans huddled around Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont. Rep. Carl Sherman, D-DeSoto, said they had no choice but to remove themselves from the vote.
"Unfortunately it looks like that the only option we have, according to a senior member of the Republican Party who said we would not have an opportunity to speak against the bill," Sherman told The Dallas Morning News. "And that's not a democracy to me. I guess they were sick and tired of hearing our views on this. They decided they were going to ram this down our throats."
Democrats walked out without fanfare, trickling out in groups and heading to an area church.
This is only the fourth time Texas lawmakers have broken quorum to protest passage of a bill. The last time time was in 2003, when a group of about 50 Democrats fled the state in the middle of the night to Oklahoma in protest of redistricting. The rare show of protest occurred twice before that, in 1979 and 1870.
It was unclear where or for how long Democrats will secret themselves away. The 2021 legislative session ends on Monday and anything not passed by midnight is effectively dead for the year — unless the governor revives it in a special session.
Late Sunday, Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted that he would do just that.
"Election Integrity & Bail Reform were emergency items for this legislative session. They STILL must pass," Abbott tweeted. "They will be added to the special session agenda. Legislators will be expected to have worked out the details when they arrive at the Capitol for the special session."
A special session could also open up consideration again for other bills besides election changes and bail reform that died: Social media censorship, preempting local ordinances on employee benefits, ERCOT securitization for power generation and a proposal to make transgender student athletes participate in sports under th gender on their birth certificates.
House Republicans brought the elections bill up for debate just after 8:00 p.m.
Rep. Travis Clardy introduced the legislation, the final version of which Democrats complain was largely hashed out without their input, calling the bill "an earnest attempt" to address concerns by all parties.
"This bill makes it easier for Texans to vote, but for those determined to break the law, makes it harder to cheat," Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, said.
Democrats balked at their GOP colleagues' decision to include new provisions in the final version of the bill that were not in any of the original drafts, saying elected officials and the public were unable to weigh in on divisive
"The right to vote is the most fundamental piece of our democracy," said Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Carrollton. "This body should be looking for ways to expand everyone's opportunity to vote."
The bill was debated, with several delays due to Democrats' stalling tactics, for less than three hours. After the Democrats' walk out, Clardy said he heard rumors they might break quorum but didn't believe it.
"We didn't elect you to go up there and quit and leave," he told The News, adding the bill could get "even better" by Republican standards if they have more time to work on it.
Rep. Jasmine Crockett, a freshman from Dallas, said on her way out of the Capitol that Democrats are been steamrolled this session.
"We tried to be as diplomatic as we can. Sometime everyone needs to reach their breaking point," she said. "when you start talking about not only depriving Texans of their right to vote, adding insult to injury by deciding you're going to make them felons for simple mistakes, we finally got fed up. And it's the only thing we have the numbers to do."
Just after dawn on Sunday, the Senate advanced the bill after a similar overnight debate. Democrats blasted the GOP majority for releasing just hours earlier a new version of the legislation that expanded its restrictions and penalties and for a provision that allowed overturning of elections by no longer requiring evidence that fraud actually altered the outcome of a race but rather only that enough ballots were illegally cast that could have made a difference.
In the Senate, discussion on the bill kicked off just after 10:30 p.m. Saturday. It went on for more than seven hours, with Democrats peppering the bill's author with questions about what the legislation would entail. In the end, the bill passed shortly after 6 a.m. Sunday by a vote of 18-13 with all Senate Democrats voting against it.
Senate Democrats bemoaned yet another late night debate, and complained they only had a few hours to digest new additions to the bill. The final version of the bill clocked in at 67 pages — 44 pages longer than an earlier draft. They said the bill targets voters of color, reduces access to the ballot and will ultimately land the state in court. The Texas chapter of the NAACP is ready to file a legal challenge if the bill is signed into law, President Gary Bledsoe said Sunday.
"We're going to run as soon as we can," he said. "This is that important. We need to get injunctive relief to try to make sure this doesn't take effect because we have very important elections coming up next year."
Bledsoe's comments were echoed by other Texas Democrats at a virtual news conference later in the afternoon that included former Rep. Beto O'Rourke of El Paso, former San Antonio mayor and HUD Secretary Julin Castro, and Dallas Rep. Colin Allred.
"Texas has a pretty tragic past of suppressing voters. We've been in the courts for decades," Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, said just after 2:30 a.m. "I have grave concerns about any bill that was crafted in the shadows or passed late at night."
Bill author Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, described the legislation as a common sense approach to keeping elections safe and voting honest.
"We want elections to be secure and accessible," Hughes said.
Senate Bill 7, if it becomes law, would set uniform early voting hours, further empower partisan poll watchers, and put new criminal penalties on voting officials and assistants who break the rules.
The final version, released this weekend after Democrats said they were largely locked out of the process, would ban 24-hour and drive-through voting, penalize election officials that send mail-in ballot applications to those who do not ask for them, and require some people who drive voters to the polls to hand over their personal information.
During closed-door discussions on the final bill this past week, Republicans stripped many of the concessions Democrats won during a late night House debate earlier this month. They added provisions culled from GOP bills that died this session, such as a requirement that mail-in ballot applicants provide an identification number on their documentation, or pledge they do not have an ID.
They also added several new sections not found in any early version of the legislation, including provisions to make it easier to overturn the results of an election and to allow partisan poll watchers who believe they are illegally impeded from observing an election to seek legal relief. While Hughes said the bill no longer expressly allowed watchers — who work for political parties to observe elections — to videotape and photograph the proceedings, the final version also axed a direct prohibition on such activities.
A section detailing what behavior would get a poll watcher kicked out of a polling place was removed from the final version of the bill.
Hughes also insisted there were no new penalties in the bill for voters. But election workers and those who assist voters could face new crimes if this passes. Notably, while poll watchers would now be required to take an oath not to impede or intimidate voters, they would not do so under penalty of perjury, while people who assist voters with disabilities would be required to swear under oath under threat of criminal charges.
The bill also narrows the definition of "disabled" for the purposes of mail-in voting.
If the bill becomes law, Texas will join several red states that have overhauled their voting procedures to enhance "election integrity" since the 2020 presidential election, perpetuating an unfounded claim that voter fraud was widespread in that contest. On Saturday, President Joe Biden likened the Texas legislation to recent laws passed in Georgia and Florida that he said were "wrong and un-American" and "an assault on democracy" targeting "Black and Brown" voters.
The first five hours of Senate debate were a tense, yet cordial, slugfest with Hughes on the receiving end of several rounds of volleys from indignant Democrats.
Sen. Nathan Johnson of Dallas criticized Republicans for tacking failed bills onto the elections legislation.
"This seems more like you're trying to get in bills that you couldn't pass, or you thought of some other way to do some things that many of the members of this chamber don't want you to do," he told Hughes. "Is the process worth anything?"
Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, wondered aloud why there were more than a dozen law enforcement officers stationed in the Senate gallery when there were only a handful of spectators.
"Do you feel threatened by the 13 people who oppose this report in any way?" Zaffirini, who has served in the Senate since 1987, asked, referring to the chamber's Democrats.
"Do I feel threatened? No, senator. Should I?" Hughes responded. "I always feel safe at the Capitol."
"Good," Zaffirini said, smiling. "I hope we don't look dangerous."
Just after 3 a.m., Hughes and Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, had a tense exchange about the bill's effects on minority communities and whether the chamber's Black and Latino members were appropriately consulted.
"You're making it harder for people of color to cast their vote," Miles shot out, to which Hughes insisted, "No, sir, we're not."
"Over and over again, this session, legislation has been passed that is harmful to people of color," Miles said, adding sarcastically, "Thank you for bringing this horrible bill to the voters of the state of Texas."
Hughes said he took Democrats' concerns into account, axing a provision that would have cut the number of polling places serving voters of color in urban areas.
Several Democrats peppered Hughes with tough questions about other specific provisions that were left or added in. Rep. Royce West of Dallas asked why the bill expanded early voting on Sundays from five to six hours — but restricted opening hours to between 1 and 9 p.m.
"You don't find that kind of disingenuous? The greatest number of people that vote on Sunday is African American," West asked Hughes. Referring to legislation that could expand the hours Texans can buy alcohol on Sunday, he then quipped, "So, we're going to be able to buy beer at 10 o'clock in the morning but we can't vote until 1 o'clock?"
Hughes voted against the bill moving up alcohol sales, but told West it was too late to change the legislation now.
Democrats also asked Hughes which portions of the bill specifically targeted voting measures Harris County implemented in 2020.
"Those provisions about drive-through voting and 24-hour voting and unsolicited mail-in ballot applications came from Harris County. But there's a whole bunch more in the bill," Hughes responded.
As the main defender of the bill, he said it is the Legislature's priority and prerogative to make voting laws more uniform. He repeatedly said the provisions in the bill would apply to all voters equally, "across the board."
"One county doesn't get to make up the rules," he said. "The state decides what the Election Code is, and then the county has to follow that."
(Political writer Gromer Jeffers Jr. contgributed to this report.)
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