Texas Democrats’ flight out of state temporarily scuttled Republican efforts to tighten ballot access, increasing national focus on an issue that has swept Republican-led legislatures. The plan – last tried during a 2003 redistricting fight – has no good exit strategy.

The escape from Austin to Washington denied Republican Gov. Greg Abbott the quorum to vote on legislation in a special session he called after Democrats walked out of the regular one in May. But Abbott can convene an unlimited number of 30-day special sessions. And two looming issues may persuade enough Democrats to return: redistricting and a measure to pay lawmakers and their staffs. Without a vote, the legislature will run out of cash at the end of the fiscal year on Aug. 31.

“They seem pretty emboldened – they got on an airplane to fly to Washington. That’s a pretty aggressive step,” said Randall Erben, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas School of Law and a former legislative director for Abbott. “My sense is that they’re postponing the inevitable.”

A majority of the Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives landed Monday evening in Washington, where caucus chairman Chris Turner said they would stay “until this session is over” to deliver a message to Congress: pass a new federal law bolstering voter rights because Republicans “will keep calling these sessions to pass voter suppression legislation.”

Texas House rules state that any absent members can be “sent for and arrested,” but that jurisdiction is limited to the state boundaries, Erben said. Once lawmakers cross state lines, there is no recourse for forcing them to come back.

The bills the Democrats are trying to stop are among the toughest of scores filed nationwide in the wake of President Trump’s false claims of a stolen election. It would roll back many practices used in Texas’s Democratic-leaning cities to encourage turnout during the pandemic, and follows years of friction between Republican lawmakers and the urban areas that are among the state’s biggest economic drivers.


The Lone Star Democrats are calling on their counterparts in Congress to pass a measure languishing in the Senate that would strengthen voting rights. President Biden is scheduled to deliver a speech on the topic Tuesday, and Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday decried the Republican-pushed bills in dozens of states.

“Fighting for the right to vote is as American as apple pie,” Harris said in Detroit, applauding the Texans who flew to Washington.

After landing at Washington’s Dulles International Airport, Turner told reporters: “We are not going to sit in Austin in the House chamber and watch the Republican majority steamroll the voting rights of our constituents. We’re leaving so they can’t do that.”

Abbott implored the legislators to return to their jobs, saying the move “inflicts harm on the very Texans who elected them to serve.”

While the election bill being debated doesn’t include some of the more controversial measures of the regular-session proposal, it would ban drive-thru voting – a pandemic-era favorite in Democrat-leaning Harris County – and strengthen protections for partisan poll watchers, among other measures.

“What Democrats are looking for is leverage – leverage to make changes to this voting legislation and continue to make it more palatable,” said Sherri Greenberg, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.


Republicans already have made concessions, including removing a provision offered in regular session that would have limited Sunday early-voting hours, effectively targeting the “souls to the polls” get-out-the-vote strategy used by Black churches. But Democrats have argued that they’ve been excluded from much of the bill-writing.

“The Republicans put us in this position,” said Gene Wu, a Texas Democratic state representative from Houston. “They set us up to be standing in the middle of the road with them driving a truck toward us. We could either move or get hit.”

Wu spoke as he was on his way to the airport Monday afternoon and planned to meet his colleagues in Washington later that night. He said leaving the state was the only tool left to stop Republicans from pushing through a bill that would restrict voting, especially in minority and poor communities. Wu, an attorney, said he doesn’t know how long he’ll be separated from his wife and two sons.

Democratic lawmakers didn’t disclose how long they think they can extend their out-of-state foray, and lodging for the exiles was still being worked out late Monday.

“I don’t think they are thinking about coming back any time soon,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in an interview. “Many of these men and women are people of color and don’t want to be part of an effort by the Republican Party to be part of a big lie and deprive people of the right to vote.”

Hinojosa, formerly the highest-ranking county executive in an area that included the poorest U.S. city, Brownsville, said he plans to join his fellow party members in Washington in coming days.


Abbott, he said, is pushing election-law changes to “throw red meat at his base because he has very conservative people to his right running against him” in next year’s gubernatorial primary.

‘Boutique’ Voting

James White, a state Republican legislator from Hillister, about 115 miles northeast of Houston, said the bill clarifies voting rules that were changed at the county level in the last election because of COVID-19 and isn’t intended to restrict the ability to vote. Local elected officials shouldn’t be able to devise “so-called boutique and novel approaches to voting,” he said.

House Republicans said they expect all 150 legislators to be in attendance when the chamber reconvenes Tuesday morning. “It is our duty and our covenant with our constituents to be present,” the Texas House Republican Caucus said in a statement. “All options for completing the business of Texas are still on the table.”

House Speaker Dade Phelan echoed the sentiment. “The Texas House will use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously passed House Rules to secure a quorum.”

Wu, the Houston Democrat, said the lawmakers are hoping to buy time and draw attention to an issue that has swept the nation.

“Because of how important this legislation is to Republicans, they will keep trying and trying and trying,” Wu said. “What we’re doing is buying time and hopefully gaining attention on this issue. What we really need is for Congress to act.”

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