Texas House Democrats’ historic quorum break unexpectedly ended Thursday evening when at least three new Democrats returned to the floor, paving the way for state Republicans to pass restrictive voting legislation.
The surprise turn of events quickly led to public accusations of betrayal among Democrats, as the House now has the required two-thirds of members necessary for a quorum. The voting legislation, which had been recently passed in the state’s Republican-controlled Senate, was among the bills quickly referred to committees for action. The current special session ends early next month, and a public House committee hearing on the voting bill was originally scheduled for Saturday, but has since been rescheduled for Monday.
It’s the first time the Texas House has reached quorum since Democrats fled the state 38 days ago, which held up legislative business in the chamber and prompted Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan to sign civil arrest warrants for the 52 House Democrats who had fled the state in an effort to compel their return.
Democratic Reps. Garnet Coleman, Ana Hernandez and Armando Walle released a joint statement explaining their return to the floor on Thursday, saying they were “proud of the heroic work” accomplished by breaking quorum but “Now, we continue the fight on the House floor.” The statement noted the need to manage the Covid-19 surge in the state as behind the decision.
Coleman, who previously broke quorum but did not join others in DC due to a recent leg amputation, gave the invocation Thursday, saying in part, “I pray that we, all of us look inside about where we want this world to go, this state, this House, and look at it from the perspective of trying to find as much common ground as can be found.”
At least two members publicly accused their three colleagues of blindsiding them with the decision to return, with Rep. Donna Howard replying to the statement on Twitter, “This could have been shared with Caucus members beforehand.”
Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos went further, tweeting that, “we were literally on caucus calls for 2 hours this morning and none of the defecting Democrats mentioned they were planning on helping the Republicans pass voter suppression bills. Guess what the other defecting Democrats have accomplished by going back—NOTHING!”
Texas House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner said Democrats’ efforts had helped bring voting rights additional national awareness and vowed to continue to fight the GOP-led bill.
“By taking bold action and breaking quorum, House Democrats secured major victories for Texans and for voters across the country. Through our determination and unity, we derailed Gov. Abbott’s entire first special session, preventing passage of anti-voter bills and other pointless, partisan legislation,” Turner said in a statement. “Through our continued efforts, we have already burned up a third of Abbott’s second special session, which is nothing more than a prop for his re-election campaign.”
The speaker of the House signed 52 civil arrest warrants last week for Democrats absent without excuse. The House sergeant-at-arms deputized law enforcement to find the members and compel their attendance on the floor. While warrants have been delivered to the members, no arrests have been made. Several lawsuits and temporary orders preventing their arrests have been filed over the past week and a half, but Democrats’ efforts have been repeatedly dashed by the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court.
The Texas House Democrats successfully killed election overhaul bills during the regular session when they walked out in the final hours and in the first special session when they left the state last month. The members fled to Washington, DC, then, in part to avoid arrest since Texas law enforcement does not have jurisdiction outside of the state to execute a civil warrant. They spent weeks trying to put pressure on congressional lawmakers to pass federal voting rights protections. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott had vowed to call “special session after special session” until Democrats return and complete the agenda.
The Texas Senate passed its version of the election overhaul bill, SB1, last week after a mostly symbolic 15-hour filibuster from Democratic state Sen. Carol Alvarado. It has since been effectively paralyzed, like all legislation coming out of the Senate, due to the lack of quorum in the House.
SB1 includes broad new protection and access for partisan poll watchers, mail-in ballot restrictions, a drive-thru voting ban, restrictions to the early voting time frame, video surveillance and assistance restrictions. While the bill does add one extra required hour per day of early voting, it sets a specific time frame in which voting must be done – banning extended hours and 24-hour voting, a measure used during the pandemic in Harris County that local officials testified was especially popular with voters of color. SB1 also further restricts local election officials, for example, adding criminal penalties for sending unsolicited ballot request forms. Some Democratic amendments, like a cure process for mail-in ballot mistakes, were accepted in the final version of the bill.
This story has been updated to reflect the rescheduled public hearing on the voting bill.