Politics

Texas Democrats Are Begging for Help From Congress

They killed S.B. 7 by walking out, but they can’t hold off Republican voting restrictions forever.

Two people hold up signs that say "Save Our Elections."
Protesters at a May 8 rally in Austin, Texas, against proposed state voting restrictions. Reuters/Mikala Compton/File Photo

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S.B. 7, the Texas election legislation that would have limited how, when, and where Texans can vote, died on the floor late Sunday when Democrats walked out of the Capitol, breaking quorum. But the fight over voting rights in Texas, as in many Republican-controlled statehouses around the country, is far from over: Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has said that he will call a special session to pass S.B. 7. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Texas Tribune reporter Alexa Ura about what, if anything, state Democrats can do to stop the Republican assault on voting, and what this battle means for the future of Texas politics. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Mary Harris: How did this voting bill get on the agenda?

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Alexa Ura: Texas is a state that has a very long history of making it harder to vote or tightening the rules around voting. And with that history has come a pretty bad track record of discriminating against Black and Hispanic voters in the process. That’s our starting point here. This time around, following the 2020 election, there was some pretty open hostility from Republicans about Harris County, which is home to Houston, the largest county in the state under Democratic control now—they had tried a bunch of different voting initiatives that Republicans responded to in a very hostile way.

And these were because of COVID, right? Stuff like drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting.

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Yeah, but it was also things like moving to countywide voting, which predated the pandemic, basically letting voters cast their ballot anywhere in the county as opposed to being stuck within their precincts. It’s something that’s available in a whole lot of other counties, but leading up to the 2020 election, a lot of the remaining urban counties that weren’t doing that moved to that model. And so you had locals trying different voting options. You had the pressure of the 2020 election and Donald Trump making baseless claims of widespread voter fraud, a lot of claims of widespread voter fraud that Republicans in Texas have seized onto in the past, even before this. It was this combination of things, the final product of which was S.B. 7, this massive bill that touched nearly the entire voting process. And from the beginning of the session, Gov. Greg Abbott said that he supported a bill like this. He hadn’t exactly said what he wanted in it, but it was clear that he wanted to sign a voting bill into law. And at that point, and even up until, honestly, the beginning of May, the odds were that this was going to become law.

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Can you tick off some of the restrictions that eventually made it into this bill?

Yes, there are quite a few of them. Some of the ones that have emerged more significantly: You had limitations to early voting hours. You had limitations to voting options, basically trying to ban things like drive-thru voting. In the original bill, there was a provision that regulated the distribution of polling places in the five big urban counties that leaned Democrat. The formula would have led to a pretty big cut in polling places in Democratic-held areas in some of those counties. You had things to ratchet up voting-by-mail rules. It made it a state jail felony to distribute an application to request a ballot to a voter who didn’t request the application. It touched everything from early voting to vote tabulations.

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Once both chambers passed their own version, it went behind closed-door negotiations and came back even bigger, adding new ID requirements for voting by mail, limiting Sunday early voting hours, which wasn’t originally there. And so it was a massive, massive bill, one that we really hadn’t seen despite the state’s history of really tightening the rules to vote. We had not seen one, at least in recent history, that was so massive in this way.

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For most of the session, it seemed pretty certain that S.B. 7 would end up signed into law. Where the plan really started to fall apart was when the House and Senate had to reconcile their differences. Both had passed the bill, but very different versions of it. That led to some intense, closed-door negotiations between the chambers.

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Ultimately, you got a combined version plus an additional 12 pages of changes to voting that weren’t originally in either of the bills and that weren’t made public until 48 hours before they had to be signed off on. And so the tension at the Capitol really escalated in the last 48 hours because that’s when this final version of the bill came out, and it was so beyond what either chamber had passed that the reaction from Democrats in particular, who felt they hadn’t really been part of the process, was pretty intense. And so the tension escalated and ultimately culminated in this walkout.

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It seems the Republicans really pushed the Democrats almost like a test, like, what happens if we push you this far?

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Breaking quorum is an extraordinary measure. It doesn’t happen often. You’re basically walking out on the job. And I think the impact of that was weighing on Democrats in the lead-up to this.

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Some Democrats didn’t want to do it.

They had prepared points of order, which are these procedural challenges to the bill that can in many cases end up derailing it or even killing it if it’s close enough to a deadline like S.B. 7 was. I think that would have been the way a lot of Democrats wanted it to go down. Ultimately, though, as the clock was ticking, Republicans were going to use their own procedural motion to essentially cut off debate. So even if Democrats wanted to talk until midnight to leave them without a vote on this bill, Republicans were going to force a vote. And it was when Democrats saw that they were about to do that that the last few people who were on the floor walked out. At the end of the day, the only reason they were in a position to do that was because Republicans left the final vote on this bill so close to the deadline. This bill was in backdoor negotiations for more than a week. It was bottled up in those negotiations, and had that conference committee finished its work sooner and reported the bill out sooner, then this bill would never have been in reach of dying on a quorum break, because Democrats would have had to leave and not come back for other important bills that they themselves were still trying to vote out before the end of the session.

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Back in January and February, we were talking about voting restrictions in Georgia, and it’s a very different situation than Texas. Joe Biden won in Georgia. You have two Democratic senators from Georgia at this point. And so for Republicans there, you can see the impetus for why you would want to pass voting restrictions—this didn’t work out for you, so let’s rein this in. But in Texas, Republicans won in a pretty big way, they maintained their majority in the state Legislature, and it’s more about these state and local fights that are revving up, between a city like Houston that wants to expand access to voting and the state, which does not. What do you make of that?

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You can’t see any of these fights and not consider the political backdrop here in terms of the distribution of power in an increasingly diverse state like Texas. Republicans have been in control for more than 20 years, full control of the state. But in the last few elections, their margins have narrowed. At the presidential level, Mitt Romney won the state. It was almost 16 percentage points in 2012. In Donald Trump’s last election, he won by only 6 percentage points. In that time period you’ve seen the suburbs, places where Republicans usually counted on voters to support them, shifting, becoming these battlegrounds, if not fully in Democratic control. You had places like Harris County that was once a battleground, and it’s now under Democratic control. And all of these places are experiencing demographic shifts. The growth in these places is driven largely by people of color. And those are people who are more likely to support Democrats. Those are the people who are turning 18 every year. Those are the people who are naturalizing and moving to the state. And so the ground is shifting beneath them to a certain extent. I think the question is, how far are they comfortable with the shift?

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I think that someone in Texas watches the things that happened in a state like Georgia or even in a state like Arizona, these formerly reliably red states that flip to Joe Biden, and you have to stop and wonder, is Texas next? This legislative session for Republicans ended up falling in the sweet spot where they could first try to pass rules that could narrow access to the ballot box for people and then come back in the fall for redistricting and really shore up and cement that power in these districts and maybe even end up with more Republicans running the state and holding these districts, both at the legislative level and at the congressional level. And so all of these things are happening with the backdrop of the politics of the state shifting, of the state becoming politically competitive in ways it has not been in the last quarter-century.

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But it seems to me like expanding voting access was not necessarily bad for Republicans. It’s not just that they maintained control of the state Legislature, but there were some counties where Republicans made inroads, like along the border, with Latino voters, where some people had said, “Oh, well, obviously we don’t have a chance here. These are Democratic areas.” But it seemed like there was a turn there. So are they cutting off their nose to spite their face?

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That’s sort of the X factor here, that’s the unanswered question. When you look at a place like Harris County, where Republicans are trying to ban drive-thru voting, you’ve got the local elections administrators saying, like, “Y’all’s voters are using this too.” I think the site that they set up in sort of this heavily Republican area was among the ones that had the highest use in one of their recent local elections. And so the question here is, do you pull back? Do you tighten the rules so much that it starts hurting your voters? And that’s a question that we just don’t have an answer to at this point.

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A state representative, a Democrat, said what the Democrats did here was the equivalent of crawling on our knees and begging the president to give us the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, to basically come in at the federal level and quash what Texas is trying to do here. How much faith did the Democrats in Texas have that Washington is going to be able to step in and finish the job that they started here?

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In my conversations with Democrats leading up to this night, and even at the beginning of the legislative session, there was always a sort of addendum to every conversation. At the very end, it was always like, “But we’ll have to see what Congress does. Do they bring back preclearance, where the federal government oversees our laws? Do they pass the For the People Act, that does a lot of the things that we want to do to widen access to voting?” I don’t cover Congress, but as someone who covers voting rights litigation quite a bit, I never really understood where their confidence was coming from, particularly with the hurdles that seem to be clear in Congress to get something like this through, especially in the U.S. Senate.

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I think after this walkout, it took about 10 seconds for Democrats to turn around and say, look, here is your Exhibit A for why you need to pass this. And I think if you’re in a state like Texas where you have basically no control of the legislative process, where Republicans can pass anything they want, if you’re a Democrat, your only hope really is for Congress to act on something like this, because you don’t have the power to stop it any other way. And even if you did go to the courts, which obviously remains an option, the shift in the courts under the Trump administration is not something that leaves people with a whole lot of hope about being able to stop a lot of this.

So, going into this special session, if you’re a Democrat, what’s your strategy now?

I think Democrats are in a similar position that they’ve been in on several other fights. They are outnumbered. They can try to use the rules to derail legislation. That doesn’t always work. I think it honestly rarely works for them. And they’re in a sort of delaying tactic at this point. I think there’s a question as to whether this walkout really revs people up to come out and oppose these bills during the special session, to testify against them, to really hammer their representatives on how they feel about this legislation. That doesn’t ultimately change the outcome. But we have seen that public response play a role in the litigation, where courts will say, “You heard from the public and the public was largely against this and you didn’t change any of that.” Obviously, that’s a much longer game than I think a lot of Democrats feel comfortable with. But at the end of the day, they’re outnumbered and they know that.

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