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Hear why some Texas lawmakers are vowing to stay out of their state until August 7
02:57 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

Texas has a lot of crises:

• An electric reliability crisis: millions of Texans lost power in February during a frigid winter storm earlier this year. At least 194 died as a result – though some reports suggest the number is far higher, as many as 700;

• A health insurance crisis: In 2020, about 5 million Texans (29% of the whole state) lacked health insurance – the highest percentage of uninsured in America;

• A rural hospital crisis: Texas leads the nation in rural hospital closures (a function of GOP leaders being unwilling to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act);

• A gun violence crisis: Texas loses more people to gun violence than any other state – 3,353 gun-related deaths per year, according to the gun safety group Texas Gun Sense.

But the Texas Legislature – under the total control of Republicans for nearly two decades – isn’t doing a lot to solve any of those crises. (In fairness, the GOP-led Legislature did pass a law they claim will reform the electrical distribution system, but even the bill’s sponsor seemed to admit it was not adequate. “There’s more to be done,” State Rep. Chris Paddie said. The GOP also passed a multibillion-dollar “blackout bailout” for power companies, so if you think big corporations need more of your money, you should be happy about that).

While the Texas GOP does little or nothing about these very real, life-or-death crises, they are instead fixating on advancing the Big Lie. On June 22, Republican Gov. Greg Abbot (a likely future GOP presidential candidate) summoned lawmakers into a special session to pass a law restricting voting rights. The allegations of rampant voter fraud, as the indispensable folks at the Brennan Center have reported, is itself a fraud. It is more likely, the center notes, that an American “will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”

Indeed, The Texas Attorney General’s office spent more than 22,000 hours working on voter fraud cases (according to an open records request obtained by governmental watchdog, American Oversight, and published in December of last year). They resolved just 16 cases. All 16 of those cases were for a minor violation – giving a false address on a registration form, and none resulted in jail time. Thus far, the Texas voter fraud police have come up with virtually nothing.

But wait, breaking news: Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has one more case: Hervis Rogers. Rogers had been convicted of burglary decades ago. He served his time and was released on parole. On Super Tuesday last year, Rogers waited about six hours to vote. In fact, he was the last person to vote in his polling center, a fact highlighted at the time by CNN’s Ed Lavendera. Standing outside his polling place at Texas Southern University, a historically Black university, Rogers told Lavendera, “I figured like it was my duty to vote. I wanted to get my vote in to voice my opinion. And I wasn’t going to let nothing stop me.”

Turns out, in doing so, Rogers was committing a crime. Texas has made it a felony for folks on parole to knowingly vote. Rogers has been indicted, hit with $100,000 bail and faces up to 40 years in prison. But this is not fraud. It is quite likely an innocent mistake. As State Sen. Boris Miles of Houston told the Washington Post, Rogers “was under the belief in his mind that he really could (legally vote). Served his time, got a nice job, nice family, now, thought he could vote, just thought he was doing his civic duty.”

Fun fact: If you want to meet a Texan who has actually been indicted for serious fraud, check out the Texas Attorney General himself. Paxton has been under indictment for six long years for fraud. “If convicted,” the Texas Tribune reports, “Paxton could face up to 99 years in prison.” Instead of wasting 22,000 hours searching for fraud by the voters who elected him, all Paxton needed to do was look in the mirror. (Paxton has denied any wrongdoing.)

This is diversion by division. They cannot take on the gun lobby. They dare not take on insurance companies. They will not boldly take on the energy industry. So, they distract Texans by dividing them. It is a tried-and-true tactic – especially in the South: Divide White working people from Black and brown working people and hope they don’t notice you’re screwing all of them.

Texas House Democrats, small in numbers but mighty in heart, are not taking this lying down. As they did in May – the last time the GOP was poised to pass a voter suppression law – they have walked out. Well, this time they flew out. House Democrats boarded a plane and took off for Washington.

I caught up with Texas House Democratic Caucus Chairperson Chris Turner as they stopped to refuel in Tennessee, on their way to Washington, DC. “This is an extraordinary move, no question,” he told me. “But our Democratic members believe there are already terrible restrictions on voting in Texas. The idea that they (Republican leaders) are going to pass more is outrageous.” Turner says the GOP has been unable to cite a single instance of abuse in pro-turnout activities like 24-hour voting, which the GOP bill would bar.

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    Republicans have dominated Texas politics since the early 1990s, amassing an unbroken streak of statewide electoral victories for a quarter century. Why would a party that is winning elections suggest the elections they have won were somehow fraudulent? Turner says it’s not about the elections they have won in the past, but about those they fear they’ll lose in the future: “Republicans know,” he said, “that if more Texans vote, they lose. Simple as that.”

    Turner and his band of bravehearts know that, over time, the GOP is likely to prevail. But they’re playing for time. If they can convince Democrats in Washington to restore the Justice Department’s ability to block racially discriminatory voting changes – which they can do by passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act – they will have won a major victory.

    Perhaps getting on a plane will become a new Texas political tactic. Besides, Democrats flying to Washington to fight for voting rights beats GOP Sen. Ted Cruz flying to Cancun to avoid a power loss during a freeze.