As Texas Republicans prepare to force votes next week on far-reaching legislation that would introduce new restrictions on voting, Democrats are left facing a gnawing question: Should they fight or flee?
The issue dominated internal discussions on video calls among Democrats in the Texas Legislature this week as lawmakers began a special session, with an aggressive group of progressive members pushing for a repeat of the dramatic late-night walkout that ended the regular session in late May. The walkout denied Republicans a quorum and blocked a vote on the elections bill in the final hours.
But a more cautious coterie of Democrats, many of whom hold powerful leadership positions, have argued for staying and fighting the bill on procedural grounds.
The conundrum for Texas Democrats is that even if they flee the state to prevent the passage of a raft of new voting restrictions, it would most likely be only a temporary maneuver. The special session that began Thursday can last up to 30 days, and even if Democrats did not return to the Capitol for that long, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, can call another session — as he is likely to do later this year to deal with redistricting and distributing billions in federal pandemic relief to the state.
The faction of Democrats lobbying to flee the state are arguing in internal conversations that doing so would bring a renewed spotlight to voting rights in Texas, according to more than half a dozen Democratic lawmakers with knowledge of the discussions. They also claim that it would apply pressure on Senate Democrats in Washington to pass their own voting reforms that have been stalled by moderates who have resisted calls to enact major legislation with a simple majority threshold.
“Part of the calculus is how we shape the narrative because all eyes are on the state of Texas when it comes to our voting rights,” said State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat who is a leader of the group that organized the May walkout.
Hearings on the voting bill are scheduled to begin Saturday morning at the State Capitol in Austin. Former United States Representative Beto O’Rourke, who remains the biggest draw among Texas Democrats, said Friday that he planned to testify at both the State House and State Senate hearings.
“We’re encouraging as many of our volunteers and other Texans of good conscience to show up and be heard,” Mr. O’Rourke, who is weighing a challenge to Mr. Abbott next year, said in an interview. “If we want free and fair elections in 2022 then we have to fight for voting rights in 2021.”
The bills unveiled on Thursday include many provisions that provoked Democratic outrage back in May. They would ban 24-hour voting and drive-through voting; add new voter identification requirements for voting by mail; limit third-party ballot collection; increase the criminal penalties for election workers who run afoul of regulations; and greatly expand the authority and autonomy of partisan poll watchers.
The new bills omit two of the most contentious measures, however: There is no longer a limitation on Sunday voting and there is no provision making it easier to overturn an election.
Texas House Democrats on Friday were assessing essentially three options: flee the state before voting begins, denying Republicans a quorum and staying out of Texas for a month; stay and engage in procedural fights over amendments aimed at watering down the legislation; or allow a vote to take place and delay making a decision on how to respond until after a conference committee meets to hash out differences in the versions of voting bills passed by the House and Senate. The last maneuver carries the risk of the Senate simply approving the House bill without any changes to it.
Virtually all of the discussion about fleeing and denying a quorum has come from Democrats in the House, where 55 of 67 Democrats would have to leave the state to block a vote. In the Senate, where there are 13 Democrats, 11 of them would have to stay away to prevent a vote.
The people with knowledge of the discussions said there had been preliminary conversations about how Democrats would leave the state to avoid being forced back to the State Capitol. That’s what happened back in 2003 when the Texas Rangers were dispatched to track down Democrats who fled to Oklahoma in an ultimately futile effort to stop Republicans from redrawing congressional district lines in their favor.
Democratic caucus leaders have argued privately against an early walkout, pushing instead to try to slow the legislative process with an array of amendments to the bill that they feel would make it less onerous. They’ve also counseled that leaving the state for a month could lead to a public relations catastrophe if they are portrayed as abdicating their responsibilities as legislators.
There are financial considerations as well. Walking out would deny lawmakers the opportunity to pass legislation authorizing salaries for themselves and their staff — a part of the bill Mr. Abbott vetoed in response to the May walkout.
Chris Turner, the Texas House Democratic chairman, reiterated that he is open to all options to stop the voting bill, but noted that the dynamics in the special legislative session are different.
“It’s a very different dynamic when you’re talking about, instead of hours and minutes, days or weeks,” said Mr. Turner.
After former President Donald J. Trump returned in recent months to making false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, Republican lawmakers in many states have marched ahead to pass laws making it harder to vote and change how elections are run, frustrating Democrats and even some election officials in their own party.
- A Key Topic: The rules and procedures of elections have become central issues in American politics. As of May 14, lawmakers had passed 22 new laws in 14 states to make the process of voting more difficult, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute.
- The Basic Measures: The restrictions vary by state but can include limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, adding identification requirements for voters requesting absentee ballots, and doing away with local laws that allow automatic registration for absentee voting.
- More Extreme Measures: Some measures go beyond altering how one votes, including tweaking Electoral College and judicial election rules, clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives, and outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections.
- Pushback: This Republican effort has led Democrats in Congress to find a way to pass federal voting laws. A sweeping voting rights bill passed the House in March, but faces difficult obstacles in the Senate, including from Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia. Republicans have remained united against the proposal and even if the bill became law, it would most likely face steep legal challenges.
- Florida: Measures here include limiting the use of drop boxes, adding more identification requirements for absentee ballots, requiring voters to request an absentee ballot for each election, limiting who could collect and drop off ballots, and further empowering partisan observers during the ballot-counting process.
- Texas: Texas Democrats successfully blocked the state’s expansive voting bill, known as S.B. 7, in a late-night walkout and are starting a major statewide registration program focused on racially diverse communities. But Republicans in the state have pledged to return in a special session and pass a similar voting bill. S.B. 7 included new restrictions on absentee voting; granted broad new autonomy and authority to partisan poll watchers; escalated punishments for mistakes or offenses by election officials; and banned both drive-through voting and 24-hour voting.
- Other States: Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill that would limit the distribution of mail ballots. The bill, which includes removing voters from the state’s Permanent Early Voting List if they do not cast a ballot at least once every two years, may be only the first in a series of voting restrictions to be enacted there. Georgia Republicans in March enacted far-reaching new voting laws that limit ballot drop-boxes and make the distribution of water within certain boundaries of a polling station a misdemeanor. And Iowa has imposed new limits, including reducing the period for early voting and in-person voting hours on Election Day.
Democrats in the State Senate on Friday signaled their intention to remain in the chamber, at least at the start, rather then taking the more drastic step of fleeing.
“I think it’s a little bit early for that option to be discussed in a wholehearted way,” Beverly Powell, who represents the Fort Worth suburbs, said in an interview. “We want to air this out. We want the opportunity to hear it out in committee tomorrow, allow the public to hear about this bill in its entirety, and to do everything that we can in an attempt to make this bill better for our citizens.”
Nine of the 13 Senate Democrats appeared at a news conference to offer an alternative voting bill that has little chance of passing the Republican-controlled chamber, signaling that they may prefer to offer their own proposal amid a flurry of amendments rather than flee the state.
“What we need to do to fight back inside of a legislative context is throw up as many amendments as we possibly can and try and make this bad bill not as bad,” State Senator Sarah Eckhardt of Austin said in an interview. “Procedurally, we’ll throw everything that we have at it.”
The prospect of any Democratic amendments being added to the bill is a long shot in chambers controlled by Republicans. Even if the Democratic amendments were adopted, it remains unlikely any Democrats would end up supporting the broader Republican voting legislation — especially as long as they are using the Texas fight to put a spotlight on voting rights legislation in Congress.
“The whole purpose is to kill this terrible bill but also to hopefully start a movement,” said State Representative Claudia Ordaz Perez of El Paso. “The end goal is to ensure that we continue that fight and work not only with our Democratic colleagues but with our partners in the administration and in Congress to really join us in this fight.”
Adding to the tension within the Texas House Democratic caucus is the reality that many of the group’s senior members have been appointed committee chairmen by the Republican speaker, Dade Phelan, who was elected in January with bipartisan support.
A faction of Democrats — primarily young legislators of color — spent this week arguing they should seek to deny a quorum early next week before any procedural maneuvers or votes can take place, even if it means leaving the state for a month. Staying at the State Capitol, they argue, runs the risk of the State House calling a vote on the elections bill.
“We should leave,” Jasmine Crockett, a freshman legislator from Dallas, said on Friday. “Our constituency wants us to fight to the bitter end.”
Ms. Crockett said that Texas Democrats should force Mr. Abbott, who is facing a primary challenge from the right, to keep calling special sessions until he gives up trying to implement voting restrictions.
“The cat and mouse game needs to go on until somebody is tired,” she said. “I can’t say when that happens for our side, but hopefully it will get to the point where our Republican colleagues will say to the governor, ‘Can we chill out a bit?’”
Dave Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin.