For nearly five months, Democrats in state legislatures across the country have been scraping to do everything they can to stop an unprecedented onslaught of new voting restrictions from Republicans.
They have given searing speeches on the floors of state legislatures. They have supported protests and even gotten arrested demonstrating against the bills. They have filed lawsuits challenging new restrictions almost immediately after they were signed into law. But despite their efforts, Democrats have not been able to stop sweeping new voting restrictions from going into place in states such as Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Iowa and Montana, where Republicans have used their legislative majorities to ram through the bills.
But late on Sunday night something different happened in Texas.
With Republicans on the verge of passing one of the most restrictive new voting laws in the country, Democrats in the state house of representatives walked out of the legislature, denying Republicans a quorum and killing the legislation. Governor Greg Abbott has fumed over the development and has pledged to call a special session to pass the bill.
Even if the victory is short-lived, the walkout still marked a significant moment for Democrats. It was their most muscular effort to date to stop Republican efforts to make it harder to vote. Those hardball efforts come at a particularly crucial time for Democrats as they face pressure to modify the rules of the US Senate so they can pass a sweeping voting rights bill. Some top Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema refuse to back those changes, leading to increasing worry that Democrats are abdicating their responsibility to protect American democracy when Republicans are going to unprecedented lengths to undermine it.
“I hope it sends a really strong message to Democrats in Congress, especially in the Senate, that these fights are especially important. Democracy is literally at risk and you have to do absolutely everything you possibly can do,” said Anthony Gutierrez, the executive director of the Texas chapter of Common Cause, a government watchdog group. “This wasn’t Democrats shutting down the rules. This was them using every single thing to their advantage, taking a stand to protect voting rights.”
The move offered a jolt for Democrats who have despaired as they watched Republicans relentlessly push through restrictive voting laws, said Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic party.
“Certainly the base wanted to see this. The loyal Democratic activists across Texas were expecting the legislature to just stand up and do what’s necessary to kill this bill,” he said. He added that the episode offered a concrete example for Democrats of how they could resist Republican efforts in Washington to make it harder to vote.
After the bill failed, Texas Democrats begged their counterparts in the US Senate to pass the For the People Act, an expansive bill that would set national standards for voting, including requirements for early voting, automatic and same-day registration, as well as limit excessive manipulation of political districts for partisan gain. They also called on Democrats to pass a separate bill that would reinstate a provision in the Voting Rights Act requiring certain places where there is significant evidence of voting discrimination to have voting changes pre-cleared by the federal government.
The Democratic stand came after Republicans spent the last few weeks negotiating a final version of the bill, known as senate bill 7, behind closed doors.
The final version of the bill that emerged on Saturday would have put new ID requirements in place for voting by mail, blocked election officials from sending unsolicited mail-in ballot applications, barred drop boxes, 24-hour and drive-thru voting, and curtailed early voting hours on Sundays, a day widely known to be popular among Black voters who cast their ballots after church.
Many of the provisions appeared targeted at Harris county, the most populous in the state, where election officials moved aggressively to expand voting access last year. The bill would also have made it easier for courts to step in to overturn elections.
Democrats in the legislature found some of those provisions newly inserted into the measure when the final text was released on Saturday morning. When Democrats huddled at noon on Sunday, there wasn’t yet a universal sentiment that lawmakers should deploy the “nuclear” option and walk out of the legislature, said Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democratic representative from San Antonio.
Support for the idea later grew during a Sunday afternoon meeting of Black, Hispanic and Asian American Pacific Islander lawmakers and increased even more on Sunday evening when it became clear Republicans were trying to end debate on the bill to ram it through.
“It was like ‘Republicans are hellbent on passing this thing and they would want nothing more than for us to sit in our chairs and just take our medicine.’ The response that we came up with was ‘OK, well, if you’re gonna go there with a nuclear option, well, OK we have a nuclear option tool as well and that is to leave.’”
Texas, which is seen as increasingly politically competitive, already ranks among the bottom US states when it comes to voting access and had some of the lowest voter turnout in the country in 2020. The state has some of the most severe restrictions on mail-in voting in the country, only allowing those who are age 65 and up or who meet certain other criteria to cast a mail-in ballot. Abbott and the attorney general, Ken Paxton, have spent years hunting for voter fraud, but have turned up little evidence to support their claims.
Chris Turner, the chair of the house Democratic caucus, said in an interview he was unfazed by the prospect that Republicans could come back and pass a restrictive voting bill in special session that may be more severe than the one Democrats killed on Sunday.
“We can’t control what Republicans do, we can’t control what the governor does, we can only control what we do and how we respond,” he said. “We need federal help to stop these voter suppression efforts.”
Hinojosa, the Democratic party chair, predicted that Democrats in the legislature would refuse to go along with a new bill to make it harder to vote in a special session, and could potentially force Abbott to send law enforcement officers to bring them to the capitol. The optics of Democrats being dragged to the capitol to ram through a voter suppression bill, he said, would not look good.
“It’s not over yet,” he said. “These guys are not gonna come back and sit through this bullshit.”