Editor’s Note: James C. Moore has been writing and reporting on Texas politics, history, and culture since the 1970s. He is a bestselling author of multiple books who writes a weekly newsletter on Texas and its wider influence at Texas to the World. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Texans are often accused of an over-inflated sense of self, and they rarely make nuanced political gestures. The standoff over voting rights in Texas may end up offering proof the state can influence policies beyond its own borders. The latest tactic by Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives to protect the voting rights of their constituents by leaving the state to stop restrictive legislation will either be a catalyst for an historic national law or set up a devastating defeat for supporters of expanded voting rights.
Compromise does not appear to be an option.
This is not only a critical moment for Texan Democrats, but also for President Joe Biden. His speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday was his first broad confrontation of conservative attempts to change voting laws at the state level. But Biden was also pushing new federal voting rights legislation, a move that can make his presidency appear weakened if he fails, and his best odds of success may come from supporting a change or an end to the Senate filibuster rules.
If the President refuses to make changes to the filibuster to pass voting rights and infrastructure, the chances of enthusiastic Democratic support in the midterms and during 2024 will likely be reduced. Facilitating monumental laws will place him in the pantheon of leaders who have had historic influence on the direction of the country. Believing they could influence the President and Congress to make critical decisions to pass voting rights laws is what prompted Texas Democrats to risk their reputations by leaving their legislative posts and traveling to Washington.
On Monday, the Democratic lawmakers disappeared from the state capitol when it became clear there was no other way to stop their Republican colleagues from passing a measure to change voting regulations for elections. Without the 59 members who walked out of a 30-day special session, there were not enough votes to establish a quorum to conduct any legislative business. No “election integrity” bills – which Democrats insist were designed to reduce Democratic turnout – could be debated or passed.
The systemic changes in the legislation are clearly written to allow officials to restrict mail-in ballot rules and ban 24-hour and drive-through voting options, which tend to favor Democrats.
Democrats had already evaded passage of a more stringent set of measures by leaving at the last minute of a regular 140-day legislative session in May. Their absence prevented the adoption of laws that would have made it a felony for a local election official to send out unrequested absentee ballots. The language also simplified overturning election results with claims of fraud and set limits for early voting hours.
Texas Democrats took off for Washington when an only slightly modified voting restrictions bill was introduced in a special legislative session. That dramatic decision raised the profile of the public discourse on voting rights and the need for national reform just as Biden was preparing to give his speech describing new state laws as attacks on democracy. The fact that 17 states have passed 28 laws that increase hurdles to be overcome before voting is more widely known after the news coverage surrounding the president’s speech and the defiant Texans.
But will it change votes in Congress?
The President and Democrats are pressing for passage of the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which are likely to increase voter turnout if made into law. Neither measure is expected to survive unless the Democratic Senate majority moves to create a “carveout” to end the filibuster on the voting rights acts, and, possibly, Biden’s sweeping infrastructure bill. The President has not forced the filibuster issue, but it’s possible his own speech on voting rights and the publicity surrounding the Texans leaving their posts will increase political pressure on the White House.
Biden may have forced himself into a corner.
The Texans, either inadvertently or by design, have placed the President’s situation in graphic relief. Biden seems to believe in a collegial Senate and a spirit of compromise that no longer exists. His desire is to convince Republicans that a bipartisan voting rights and infrastructure bill will be good for America even as the GOP unabashedly admits it is determined to thwart any meaningful accomplishments during the current administration.
The Texas Democrats made a move to force the President into a position that requires him to confront the filibuster. Such a moment was coming, inevitably, but the recent drama in Texas appears to be enhancing the issue. If Republicans end up passing laws in one of the largest states to make voting more challenging, they will certainly be emboldened to attempt the same elsewhere.
It’s no surprise, then, that Democrats want to avoid that outcome. But their diversionary tactics come with great risks.
After Democrats broke quorum in May, Gov. Greg Abbott decided he was going to veto the budget for the House of Representatives. This is, arguably, akin to a dictator eliminating a branch of government that disagrees with his policies and the decision is demonstrably unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the salaries of officeholders are constitutionally mandated, and those who will suffer financially are staffers.
Absent the Democrats needed for a quorum, the mostly GOP members present voted to have the Texas Department of Public Safety arrest the AWOL lawmakers. This might not matter since the Texas star has no jurisdiction in Washington, DC, and Texas Rangers would need a cooperating warrant from the jurisdiction where the lawmakers are to be arrested. Governor Abbott, however, insists the truant legislators will be arrested once they return to Texas and forced to vote on laws the Democrats view as unconstitutional.
If that happens, the Democrats will lose this political stalemate.
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The tactic of leaving to avoid a vote is not without precedent. Texas Dems ran away in 1979 and hid in a garage a few blocks from the capitol, watching TV and waiting for a Department of Public Safety knock on the door. Known as the “Killer Bees,” the evasive lawmakers were trying to stop a presidential primary bill they considered more favorable to conservatives. Democrats were more creative in 2003 and ran off to Oklahoma to protest redistricting of congressional boundaries.
This time, there is more at stake, as restrictive voting laws in Texas could spur similar legislation in other states. And if walking out on their state obligations changes the political dynamics and blocks the passage of these measures, Democrats will be happy to be considered petulant politicians.
Who cares what they call you when you win?