AUSTIN, Texas (AP/KXAN/Texas Tribune) — Democrats in the Texas Legislature walked out of the state in the midst of Monday’s special session — in another revolt against a Republican-led overhaul of election laws.
It’s the first time since 2003 that Texas Democrats have crossed state lines to break quorum, flying from Austin to Washington, D.C., the Texas Tribune reports. It’s not currently known when they’ll return.
In 2003, the democratic lawmakers traveled to Oklahoma for five days to kill a redistricting bill. The legislators eventually passed the new maps later that year, but former democratic leader Jim Dunnam said it was all worth it just to bring national attention their mission.
“When we did what we did, it got a lot of national and even international attention. It shone a spotlight on what they were trying to do, to manipulate the electoral system,” Dunnam told KXAN on Monday. “That stopped other states from moving forward and doing something similar.”
Democratic lawmakers planned the move before Republicans could pass the controversial voting bills after Gov. Greg Abbott set the legislation as one of 11 priority items for the special legislative session. Abbott and other state Republicans have zeroed in on “election integrity” bills since the November 2020 Election, although there’s no evidence any widespread voter fraud occurred.
Scott Braddock of the Quorum Report lawmakers can’t technically break quorum until a quorum is needed for legislative business, such as voting.
The Texas Constitution requires a quorum, which has been set as two-thirds of lawmakers present, which lets them conduct state business in the House and Senate. Lawmakers who are not present can be legally compelled to attend.
In May, Democrats walked out of the Texas Capitol to block a sweeping bill that included bans on 24-hour polling places and provisions to empower partisan poll watchers. In June, Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed funding for the Texas legislature because of the walkout.
Last week, House Speaker Dade Phelan signaled he could take a tougher approach if Democrats walk out again, telling KXAN “all options are on the table.” He didn’t elaborate on what those could be, but said in part on Monday: “These actions put at risk state funding that will deny thousands of hard-working staff members and their families a paycheck, health benefits, and retirement investment so that legislators who broke quorum can flee to Washington D.C. in private jets.”
Over the weekend, hundreds of people showed up to testify before the Texas House and Senate as they considered Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3. Those proposals would restrict drive-through and 24-hour voting and tighten rules for voting by mail. It would also increase opportunities for partisan poll watchers to oversee the election process and would not allow local officials to send out applications for people to request mail-in ballots.
The first vote on those bills on the House floor was expected this week. If the measures are not taken up during this special session, Gov. Abbott could call another.
In a statement on Monday, the Texas House Democratic Caucus said:
“Today, Texas House Democrats stand united in our decision to break quorum and refuse to let the Republican-led legislature force through dangerous legislation that would trample Texan’s freedom to vote. We are now taking the fight to our nation’s Capitol. We are living on borrowed time in Texas. We need Congress to act now to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to protect Texans — and all Americans — from the Trump Republicans’ nationwide war on democracy.”
Governor Abbott released a statement on Monday afternoon, saying:
“Texas Democrats’ decision to break a quorum of the Texas Legislature and abandon the Texas State Capitol inflicts harm on the very Texans who elected them to serve. As they fly across the country on cushy private planes, they leave undone issues that can help their districts and our state.”Gov. Greg Abbott
Can they stop the bills?
Ultimately, Democrats lack the votes to keep the Republican-controlled Legislature from passing new voting restrictions, along with the other conservative priorities on Gov. Greg Abbott’s 11-item agenda for the special session.
But some Democrats hope their absence will give them leverage to force good-faith negotiations with Republicans, who they say have largely shut them out of negotiations over the voting bill, and other bills that Democrats call suppressive.
Camille Rey, a Texas mom, was at the Capitol Monday to testify against SB 2, a bill that would require Texas public school athletes to play sports based on their biological sex, not gender identity. She said every time the state legislature brings up bills like this, she worries about how it would affect her 8-year-old transgender son, Leon.
“Every time we mentioned that these bills are coming up at the Texas Legislature he asked does that mean I can’t play on my team?” Rey said.
“They are completely unfair, they really harm our transgender youth and put them even more at risk than they already are. Transgender youth are 50% more likely to attempt suicide. And they also are more likely to be bullied with bills like these,” Rey added.
She was relieved to hear Democratic lawmakers are taking off in an effort to stop that bill from moving forward, but wishes it didn’t take such extreme measures.
“This shouldn’t have to happen. They should be here doing the work that we want them to do. They should be fixing the grid, they should be working for better public health,” Rey said.
Even if Democratic lawmakers stay out of state for the next few weeks, the governor could continue to call 30-day sessions or add voting restrictions to the agenda when the Legislature takes on the redrawing of the state’s political maps later this summer.
If a quorum is not present when the House convenes Tuesday, any House member can move to make what’s known as a call of the House to “to secure and maintain a quorum” to consider a certain piece of legislation, resolution or motion, under chamber rules. That motion must be seconded by 15 members and ordered by a majority vote. If that happens, the missing Democrats will become legislative fugitives.