By PAUL J. WEBER
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Democrats in the Texas Legislature on Monday began bolting for Washington, D.C., and said they were ready to remain there for weeks in a second revolt against a GOP overhaul of election laws, forcing a dramatic new showdown over voting rights in America.
One large group was set to leave Austin on private planes before the GOP could pass a voting bill in a special legislative session ordered by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott that began days ago. It was not immediately clear how many of the 67 Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives planned to go, but it was expected to be enough to bring the Legislature to a halt.
“This is a now-or-never for our democracy. We are holding the line in Texas,” said Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer. “We’ve left our jobs, we’ve left our families, we’ve left our homes. Because there is nothing more important than voting rights in America.”
By leaving, Democrats would again deny the GOP majority a quorum to pass bills, barely a month after their walkout thwarted the first push for sweeping new voting restrictions in Texas, including outlawing 24-hour polling places, banning ballot drop boxes and empowering partisan poll watchers.
The decision to hole up in Washington is aimed at ratcheting up pressure in the nation’s capital on President Joe Biden and Congress to act on voting at the federal level. Biden is due to deliver a major address on the issue Tuesday in Philadelphia, after facing growing criticism for taking what some of the left call too passive a role in the fight.
It would mark the first time since 2003 that Texas Democrats, shut out of power in the state Capitol for decades, have crossed state lines to break quorum.
The drastic move lays bare how Democrats are making America’s biggest red state their last stand against the GOP’s rush to enact new voting restrictions in response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. More than a dozen states this year have already passed tougher election laws — but only in Texas have Democrats put up this kind of fight.
Neither Abbott nor Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan offered public reaction in the hours since word of the trip leaked out Monday, and their offices did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Over the weekend, Texas Republicans began advancing measures that also bring back provisions to ban drive-thru voting, add new voter ID requirements to absentee ballots and prohibit local elections officials from proactively sending mail-in ballot applications to voters. Abbott also gave lawmakers a lengthy to-do list this summer heavy on hot-button conservative issues, including restrictions over how race is taught in schools and banning transgender athletes from playing in girls’ sports.
The agenda is widely opposed by Democrats. A first key vote on the new voting measures had been expected this week, hastening their scramble to leave town.
The move carries risks and no guarantee of victory in the long run.
Abbott, who is up for reelection in 2022 and has demanded new election laws in Texas, could keep calling 30-day special sessions until a bill is passed. He also punished Democrats after their May walkout by vetoing paychecks for roughly 2,000 Capitol employees, which will begin taking effect in September unless the Legislature is in session to restore the funding.
Staying away for an extended time could also carry repercussions in next year’s midterm elections, although many Texas Democrats are already expecting a difficult cycle in 2022, particularly with Republicans set to begin drawing new voting maps this fall that could cement their majorities.
But for weeks, Democrats have signaled they were ready to draw a line. Adding to their anger: A Houston man who gained attention last year after waiting more than six hours to cast a ballot was arrested on illegal voting charges, and put in jail one day before the special session began Thursday. Attorneys for Hervis Rogers say the 62-year-old did not know that his being on parole for a felony burglary conviction meant he wasn’t allowed to vote.
How Republicans respond next will be a major test of their resolve.
Phelan told Austin television station KXAN last week that “all options are on the table” if Democrats revolt a second time but did not elaborate. When Democrats last fled the state two decades ago — in a failed attempt to stop new GOP-drawn voting maps — state troopers were deployed to bring them back.
State Sen. Bryan Hughes, the author of both GOP attempts to pass election changes in Texas, said over the weekend that the legislation had become “bitterly partisan.” He defended the new version, which leaves out contentious attempts to ban Sunday morning early voting and make it easier for judges to overturn an election.
“Your ballot is sacrosanct,” Hughes said while introducing a bill Saturday. “Everything else in the election process should be bathed in sunshine.”
Last week, Vice President Kamala Harris announced $25 million in new spending by the Democratic National Committee on actions to protect voting access ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
Biden and his team are stressing ongoing legal efforts to safeguard voting rights. They’ve also promised a major legislative push after Senate Republicans blocked a sweeping election overhaul last month. The president has told reporters he plans on “speaking extensively” on voting rights and that he would be “going on the road on this issue.”