'Hoping to light a fire,' Texas Democrats seek to build momentum from walkout

‘Hoping to light a fire,’ Texas Democrats seek to build momentum from walkout

June 20, 2021
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Knowing their victory will be fleeting, Texas Democrats are working hard to build and maintain a sense of momentum from their quorum-busting walkout that killed a GOP elections bill in the closing hours of the Legislature’s regular session. Lone Star Democrats were given a hero’s welcome during a recent […]

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Knowing their victory will be fleeting, Texas Democrats are working hard to build and maintain a sense of momentum from their quorum-busting walkout that killed a GOP elections bill in the closing hours of the Legislature's regular session.

Lone Star Democrats were given a hero's welcome during a recent trip to Washington, where party leaders hope the Texans' chutzpah will light a fire under Democratic efforts to pass national election law changes they call the For the People Act.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday praised the Texas walkout, calling her fellow Democrats "American patriots" and telling reporters outside the Capitol: "The whole country was inspired when it took place."

"Texas Democrats lit a small spark that ignited a national debate," state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said on Twitter after Texans attended well-publicized meetings with Vice President Kamala Harris and congressional leaders.

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"We brought that spark to the nation’s capital hoping to light a fire," he added.

This strike-while-the-iron-is-hot mentality also will be on display Sunday evening, when former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke closes a series of rallies across Texas with a mass gathering on the south steps of the Texas Capitol.

One goal, O'Rourke said, is to begin preparing for the special legislative session that Gov. Greg Abbott said he will call to pass a Republican-written elections bill after the demise of Senate Bill 7 during the regular session that ended May 31.

Backs to the wall

Democrats know their time to shine is now. They'll have few if any opportunities to thwart the GOP majorities in the Texas House and Senate during a 30-day special session, and Abbott can call as many special sessions as needed.

"Ensuring the integrity of our elections," Abbott said, was one of his "must-pass emergency items" in the regular session and remains a high priority for lawmakers.

Republicans insist that flagging confidence in election results is a cancer on democracy that requires immediate attention, particularly in limiting opportunities for election fraud and by severely punishing wrongdoing when discovered.

Democrats and civil rights groups blame former President Donald Trump's "big lie" — the claim that widespread, though unproven, fraud cost him the 2020 election — for undermining confidence in elections. They say efforts should focus on making it easier to vote, not creating additional hurdles.

'Keep that pressure up'

Sunday's voting rights rally at the Capitol will have a national focus as well, said O'Rourke, a former U.S. House member from El Paso and unsuccessful Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate and president.

"They're going to start voting on this bill, the For the People Act, that would roll back so much of this voter suppression and guarantee fairer elections, next week" in the U.S. Senate, O'Rourke told the American-Statesman.

"So let's keep that pressure up," he said. "We've done just about everything Texas can do. We're now asking you, Mr. President and members of the Senate, to finish this work."

The U.S. House-passed version of the For the People Act included same-day and online voter registration; expanded mail-in voting; limits on partisan gerrymandering; and strengthening of ethical standards for elected officials, among other provisions.

Republicans and conservative leaders oppose the bill, saying it would undermine election security, usurp state authority over election laws and disproportionately help Democratic candidates and causes.

The 5:30 p.m. Capitol rally will feature House Democrats who led the walkout that doomed SB 7, as well as senators and labor and civil rights leaders who fought the measure.

Texas special session looms

Abbott has not yet said when the special session will be held, but he has promised to include several conservative-pleasing items for lawmakers to address, including limiting bail opportunities for violent and sex-related crimes, a bill that also was killed by the walkout.

The governor also followed through on his threat to veto money appropriated for the legislative branch in the recently passed budget in retaliation for the Democratic walkout, saying Friday: "Funding should not be provided for those who quit their job early."

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had praised the veto threat, saying it would help ensure that Democrats don't leave the state to break quorum during the special session.

"So if the Democrats don't come back, then every person who works for them — that's hundreds and hundreds of people — will be fired or furloughed on Aug. 31," he told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty on June 2.

Abbott has said he will include other unnamed GOP priorities in the overtime session, dropping a hint last Tuesday when he signed into law House Bill 3979, which limits how race can be discussed in Texas classrooms. The governor called the bill a "strong move to abolish critical race theory in Texas" but added that more needs to be done.

"The issue will be added to a special session agenda," he said.

Supporters say critical race theory seeks an honest exploration of how racism shaped America, but many conservatives see it as a divisive effort to drive a wedge between people of color and white Americans.

Texas Senate Bill 7 explodes session

While Texans await Abbott's list of special session issues, the focus remains on voting and elections.

Last spring, Republican lawmakers poured their efforts into SB 7, which was delayed through a series of mishaps, roiling the closing days of the regular session and giving Democrats the opportunity to break quorum to kill the bill.

Because the House and Senate took different paths, SB 7 went to a conference committee to iron out the differences. A new, and much longer, version of the bill emerged on the afternoon of May 29 — one day before a midnight deadline to pass all legislation — leading to a scramble to understand its contents, then pass or oppose it, a decision made almost entirely along party lines.

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Known as the Election Integrity Protection Act of 2021, the bill grew from 23 pages to 67 pages to include a ban on drive-thru voting, 24-hour voting and extended polling hours.

One newly added provision required polling places to open at 1 p.m. on the last Sunday of early voting, a traditional day of "Souls to the Polls" events that are popular in Black churches. Another addition would have made it easier to overturn election results by showing that fraud more likely than not changed the results, rather than having to prove that fraud changed the outcome.

Other sections beefed up voter ID provisions for mail-in ballots, banned election officials from sending vote-by-mail applications unless requested by a voter, and protected access for partisan poll watchers at polling sites and vote-counting locations.

Criminal penalties for voting fraud and for election officials who act fraudulently were stiffened as well.

Abbott has made it clear that he wants Republicans on the same page, with all details ironed out, before the special session begins.

The governor also has said that he foresees a second special session to deal with redistricting, a required chore that was postponed by data delays from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Due to be released in mid-August, the 2020 census figures are needed to redraw district boundaries for the Texas House and Senate, U.S. House and State Board of Education.

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