Texas: Democrat walkout blocks passage of voting restriction law
Critics say the law, like many recently passed across the US, would make it more difficult for some people to vote.
Protesters opposing restrictive voter legislation gather outside the Texas House Chamber in Austin [File: Eric Gay/The Associated Press]
31 May 2021
Democrats in the US state of Texas have pulled off a last-ditch boycott in the state House of Representatives, walking out and thus blocking the passage of what critics say is one of the most restrictive voting bills in the country.
The collective action by Democrats on Sunday night ensured that the chamber would not have the quorum needed to vote on the legislation, giving the Republicans no choice but to abandon a midnight deadline and declare the legislative session essentially over.
The legislation is the most recent attempt in state legislatures across the US to pass voting restrictions, which many Republican legislators have argued are needed to increase security at the polls.
Democrats and civil rights groups say such legislation disproportionately burdens or discourages voters of colour, as well as the elderly and people with disabilities, and accuse Republicans of continuing to amplify the false narrative of former President Donald Trump, who claims that the 2020 presidential election was marred by widespread fraud. There has been no evidence to support that claim.
The legislation in question in Texas would empower poll watchers, eliminate drive-through voting and 24-hour polling centres, among other restrictions.
Republicans also added language to the 67-page measure that could have made it easier for a judge to overturn an election.
The proposed bill states that the changes “are not intended to impair the right of free suffrage” but are necessary to “prevent fraud in the electoral process”.
“We’ve said for so many years that we want more people to participate in our democracy. And it just seems that’s not the case,” Democratic state Representative Carl Sherman said of the legislation.
Meanwhile, the state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, who had declared new voting laws a priority in Texas, quickly announced that he would order a special session in the coming months to pass the legislation.
He called the failure of the bill “deeply disappointing” but did not say when he would bring legislators back to work.
‘Eyes of the nation watching’
One by one on Sunday night, Democrats left the House chamber until there was no longer the 100-member quorum needed to pass the bill.
They gathered later outside a Black church, driving home their anger over a last-minute change to the Texas bill that would have also prohibited Sunday voting before 1pm, which is when many Black worshippers go to the polls.
Democrats said they did not go into the House vote intending to break quorum but rather that they were fed up after Republicans repeatedly refused to take their questions while racing to pass the bill.
It was a stunning turnabout from just 24 hours earlier, when the bill seemed all but guaranteed to reach Abbott’s desk.
The Texas Senate had signed off before sunrise earlier on Sunday after Republicans, who hold an 18-13 majority in the chamber, used a procedural move to suspend the rules and take up the measure in the middle of the night.
But as the day wore on in the House, the Republicans’ chances wobbled.
State Representative Chris Turner, the Democratic House leader, said he sent a text message to members of his caucus at 10:35pm telling them to leave the chamber. But by that point, the exodus had already been well under way.
Major corporations have also joined the backlash to the bill, including Texas-based American Airlines and Dell, warning that it could harm democracy and the economic climate.
Some legislators said their dramatic action underscores the need for national voting rights legislation.
Since Trump’s defeat, at least 14 states have enacted more restrictive voting laws, according to the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice. The group has also counted nearly 400 bills filed this year nationwide that would restrict voting.
“We knew today, with the eyes of the nation watching actions in Austin, that we needed to send a message,” Democratic state Representative Trey Martinez Fischer said, “and that message is very, very clear: Mr President, we need a national response to federal voting rights.”