They’re trying to save democracy by walking out on it.
Texas state lawmakers, enacting an intricately plotted escape, left their posts and the Lone Star state itself and took flight to Washington on Monday on an extraordinary mission to halt Republican restrictive voting bills built on former President Donald Trump’s fraud lies.
After stepping off two chartered jets, they insisted they planned to stay until a highly unlikely scenario unfolds in which moderate Democratic senators kill filibuster rules used by the GOP to block voting rights reform.
“We are coming to DC to put pressure on them to act, because this isn’t just Texas,” Texas Democratic state Rep. John Bucy III told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Monday.
“All over the South and in Republican states, we are seeing voter suppression bills. We need Congress to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act,” said Bucy, who unlike his colleagues set off the long drive from Texas to the US capital.
The spectacle is the latest stunning example of how the US political system is on the edge of meltdown as a result of turmoil triggered by Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, which are now taken as fact by millions of Republican voters. The move also represents the growing desperation of Democrats who believe that their chances of winning future elections, including in 2022 and 2024, are being undermined by orchestrated assaults on the voting system by the GOP.
In effect, the fleeing Texas House Democrats are denying Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott a quorum in a special session he called partly to pass a new measure that critics say severely curtails access to voting, especially for Democratic and Black voters. The dramatic gambit is the ultimate act of civil disobedience by the Texas lawmakers. It is intended to provide a stark contrast with federal Democrats – like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin – who are unwilling to break their own conventions to overturn the Senate filibuster.
The lawmakers hope that they can hold off the passage of the Texas law to give them time to somehow convince senators to pass new federal measures that would supersede their state’s legislation, which is likely to eventually pass.
Chris Turner, chairman of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper after landing at Dulles International Airport outside Washington that he had a clear message for the US Senate.
“You have to act, and you have to act now. There’s no more waiting,” he said. “We need Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation to save our democracy because these Republican attacks will continue to occur, over and over again, in Texas and across the country.”
But the action of the Texas Democrats raises its own uncomfortable questions about the health of American democracy – as did walkouts by state Republican lawmakers in Oregon in recent years, for example, to block the passage of progressive legislation by Democratic majorities.
While the sincerity of Texas Republicans appears tainted by political opportunism, their majorities in the state legislature and Abbott’s position in the governor’s mansion were themselves the product of fair and democratic elections. In this case it is Democrats, rather than Republicans, disrupting regular order and challenging the principle that power follows certified elections in which the will of voters are expressed.
Biden to address voting rights
The walkout – which could force the lawmakers to stay out their home state until the end of the special session, well into August – also comes as President Joe Biden travels to the incubator of US democracy in Philadelphia Tuesday. He will give a major speech devoted to what the White House says is the “sacred, constitutional right to vote.”
Biden however so far is not in favor of abolishing the Senate filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation, despite warning parts of the US are falling back into the days of Jim Crow laws that established barriers Black Americans had to surmount before voting.
Given Abbott’s capacity to call any number of special sessions and to take other steps to potentially compel attendance from lawmakers, their exodus may be hard to sustain in the long-term. Democrats are accusing Abbott of rushing through voting measures – and a raft of other controversial legislation, including a ban on the teaching of critical race theory in schools – to boost his own reelection race next year among Republican voters and potentially a presidential run in 2024.
Their protests – along with the GOP’s success in thwarting broad voting rights legislation in the Senate and a recent Supreme Court decision further neutering the Voting Rights Act – might add up to Democratic futility.
Such an outcome could mean that the only chance that Democrats in Texas and elsewhere will have in countering Republican restrictive voting laws will be in using them to supercharge turnout in the midterms and the next presidential election. That will be a tall task since the Brennan Center for Justice, a law and policy institute, says there are now 28 new restrictive voting laws in 17 states.
Lawmakers allege racial motive in new voting laws
The Texas lawmakers say they had no choice but to take desperate measures after walking out of a regular session of the legislature in June to prevent the passage of Senate Bill 7, which would have made mail-in voting more difficult, banned drive-thru voting introduced in the pandemic and prevented 24-hour voting allowed by Houston, one of the state’s most populous Democratic strongholds that is key to that party’s hopes of turning Texas blue.
“This bill will make it harder for the people of Texas to vote. The secretary of state’s office in Texas told us that our elections ran smoothly, securely, and were a success,” Bucy said as he drove from Texas to Washington.
“So, you have to question what is the problem these bills are trying to solve? Clearly, all they are trying to do is make it harder for the people of Texas to vote, specifically individuals with disabilities, women and people of color.”
The previous Democratic boycott did appear to work in removing several of the most contentious measures from the legislation. It does not contain new restrictions on the Sunday voting that is popular with Democratic Party activists for maximizing turnout from Black churchgoers. But it does make it harder to cast ballots by limiting the collection of ballots by third parties, introduces new restrictions for voting by mail and takes further steps to water down the non-partisan nature of the counting and certification of ballots.
Abbott reacted to the departure of the Texas Democrats by accusing them of failing to show up to work on behalf of their constituents.
“As they fly across the country on cushy private planes, they leave undone issues that can help their districts and our state,” the governor said.
So far, Abbott has not mentioned potential sanctions, including the use of law enforcement officers or the possible use of fines against the lawmakers to compel attendance. Texas Republican House leader Dade Phelan vowed to use “every available resource under the Texas Constitution” to establish a quorum – the minimum number of members legally required to hold a valid legislative session. And Texas US Sen. John Cornyn mocked the Democrats, saying their behavior insulted the self-image of hard-driving Texans. “It’s not very Texan. “You stay and you fight – you don’t run away,” he told CNN’s Manu Raju.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, meanwhile, hit the angle that the “immature” behavior by the Democrats was in itself an affront to the political process. “It is a disgrace to democracy,” Paxton said in a statement.
Harris praises Texas Democrats
A source familiar with the group’s plans said they hoped to set up meetings with Democratic senators in Washington.
But they have already had a strong endorsement from Vice President Kamala Harris, who mentioned their “extraordinary courage and commitment,” during a voting rights event in Michigan on Monday.
“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,” said Harris who has been tasked by Biden with leading the administration’s voting rights battle.
“I do believe that fighting for the right to vote is as American as apple pie.”
Texas Republicans have argued that Democrats should not have advantages – such as increased voting hours – that are not available to conservative voters in sparsely populated rural areas. That principle effectively makes it harder to vote in high density cities long known for long lines on Election Day than in regions where polling places are less crowded.
There is no evidence of widespread fraud in Texas or anywhere else in last November’s election. Multiple efforts by Trump to prove there was have been thrown out of court – often by judges appointed by GOP presidents.