Politics

Texas Democrats Are Still in D.C.

When will they be forced back home?

A man, backed by various people in face masks, speaks at a lectern with a sign reading, "TXHDC: Texas House Democratic Caucus."
Texas state Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, speaks at a press conference on voting rights with fellow Democratic Texas state representatives on July 30 in D.C. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

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For a couple months now, Democratic lawmakers for Texas have been locked in a struggle with the state’s Republicans over proposed restrictions on voting. In July, the battle intensified when a bunch of the state House Democrats fled to D.C., denying their chamber a quorum and making it impossible for the rest of the statehouse to even consider legislation. But the Dems weren’t in D.C. to hide out—they were also there to lobby Congress to pass federal voting protections. What they left behind was a hamstrung state Legislature and a ticked-off governor, Greg Abbott, who has promised to wait out this whole thing. Texas Republicans have also struck back: Last week, the Legislature passed arrest warrants for the absent Dems, and on Tuesday the state Supreme Court affirmed the Texas government’s power to detain those lawmakers and bring them to the statehouse. So what happens to the fleeing Texas Democrats now? How long can they stay in D.C., what’s their endgame, and what happens if they’re forced back to Texas? To find out I spoke with Ashley Lopez, a reporter for the KUT public radio station in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Wilson: How long has the Texas statehouse been without a quorum now?

Ashley Lopez: Technically, since the beginning of June. But it’s been several weeks now that the House has been unable to do practically anything. It’s really messy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen state governance so chaotic here. Texas politics has always been nuts, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it like this.

These Democrats all have jobs outside of the Texas Legislature—lawmaking is only a part-time gig, because state representatives are not full-time lawmakers in Texas. And they all have family, too, here in Texas. You can’t indefinitely live in another state forever, and I think that’s what the Republicans are counting on.

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What is happening in Austin these days? What is the Capitol building like right now?

Well, it’s very wet right now. There was a storm that came through, and so there is flooding in the Capitol on top of everything. The state Senate, however, has been hard at work. It’s passed most of its agenda—I think pretty much all of it at this point. But it just can’t send it anywhere. So lawmakers have been holding committee hearings, passing bills, voting them out on the floor. There was even a filibuster on that big voting bill that the Democrats left to avoid passing. So it’s strange. One part of the Capitol is completely at a standstill, but the Senate has gotten some stuff done. And it’s been pretty interesting to watch.

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I want to talk a little bit about the voting bill that is at the center of this stalemate. This is all about stopping a plan that would narrow voting access in Texas. Is it fair to say this proposal is a lot like the proposals popping up in GOP-led states across the country where Republicans want to restrict voting access?

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I think it’s reacting to the same thing as the other bills: to 2020 and the Republican base voters who believe the election was stolen. But I think people need to remember that Texas already outlawed a lot of the things that other states are outlawing. This is already one of the most restrictive places to cast a ballot. Other states are limiting vote by mail and drop boxes, but we already had one of the most limited vote-by-mail programs in the country, and mail-vote drop boxes were always illegal here.

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It sounds like it’s rather draconian.

Democrats are upset about this because if you give people an opportunity to vote in one way and then remove it, that’s just making it harder to vote from one election to the next. But overall, would this affect long-term traditions of voting statewide? The truth is, there are not a lot of places to cut. It’s already hard to like to appeal to people to understand how hard it is to vote here. We don’t have online voter registration, even though most of the country does. So to Democrats, the bill feels draconian because it’s making it harder to vote in the few ways that people actually can vote here. I think the bigger thing to watch for is just how much is being criminalized in the voting process: assisting voters and stuff like that. I think that is where the most eyebrows will be raised in the long run.

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Would the bill criminalize sending applications to people to vote by mail?

Yeah. It would outlaw the ability of county election officials to send people applications for vote by mail—not for sending a vote-by-mail ballot, just the application for one.

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So people have to ask for that application if they’re going to get it.

Yes, they have to apply to apply, basically. When we didn’t have the vaccine, county election officials were really nervous about people showing up in person at one time to vote. They wanted to keep the numbers of in-person voters down, especially for those who are disabled or older—who happened to be one of the few communities allowed to vote by mail in Texas. So county election officials preemptively sent these voters mail-ballot applications because in most counties, that form of voting is underutilized. They thought this would have the added benefits of keeping those populations safe and keeping in-person numbers low. So lawmakers came back and are now trying to basically make that illegal.

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And the lobbying of senators and Congress for national voting legislation isn’t going well. So if you’re one of quorum breakers, your sense of resolve is the only leverage you have.

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The power hasn’t shifted. Republicans still have the ability to pass legislation. This is just more like a stalling tactic. But once everything is said and done, Republicans still have the numbers, they still have the power to pass legislation.

How was the Texas House able to call a quorum to send out arrest warrants but not to do legislative work?

Well, they called a quorum to take a vote to see if they have a quorum, basically. Once they fell short, Republicans were like, OK, now we can send out arrest warrants to have state police bring these people back, if they’re in the state. The reason why Democrats are in Washington is because Texas State Police obviously have no jurisdiction there. But presumably, if any of those Democrats were to set foot in Texas, they could be arrested and brought back to the Capitol. They’re not going to be put in jail, but what’s likely is to happen is state police will grab them and put them in the state Capitol to vote.

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Greg Abbott—who recently tested positive for COVID-19—has said he will keep calling special sessions to try to get Democrats who have fled the state to come back and vote on this on this voting bill. And, maybe more to the point, this makes it hard for Dems to stay outside the state and away from their homes and families. Is there any backstop? Is there anything that could stop the constant Groundhog Day of another special session and another special session?

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Well, according to the governor, the only thing that will stop it is if a voting bill gets passed and sent to his desk. That’s kind of where we’re at. I don’t think anyone right now is looking at what the middle ground could look like.

What’s probably going to happen is someone’s going to have to give in. And I don’t think it’s going to be Republicans. They have all the power. They have the ability to wait out Democrats. So it’s going to likely be that at some point, Democrats are going to have to come back to the state, go back to the Capitol and vote against bills they’re really concerned about. That’s what’s likely to happen.

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