The Battle For Voting Rights In Texas Isn’t Over

Listen to this episode

S1: Doing business in the Texas legislature means operating under constraints, for one thing, state representatives, they only meet every other year when they do get together. Politicians can’t even consider passing bills for the first couple of months. They’re in the capital. They’re supposed to be in committee meetings and looks soda from the Texas Tribune. She says all this creates a logjam.

S2: All these things sort of come to a head in the last few weeks of the session. There are all these deadlines to pass bills. Otherwise, you know, they have to come back to sort of what we describe as zombie bills attached to something else.

Advertisement

S1: I love that there’s like this forced pressure where like half the session is just like getting to know you time. And then. Yeah, and then it’s like, let’s pass a million things right away.

S2: I mean, I think the legislative session in Texas, like the process, is meant to kill bills. Right? It’s not meant to result in sort of a raft of new legislation. In fact, the only thing they’re actually required to do is to pass the budget for the next two years. And so things get pretty crazy at the end when folks are really hankering to get their priorities through.

S1: This year, one of the priorities Republicans were hankering to get through was an election law the GOP was trying to limit how, when and where Texans can vote. It’s the same fight that’s been going on in a lot of Republican controlled state houses all around the country. And when they came out with a bill called SB seven, just days before the end of the session, things did get pretty crazy. Remember, like Alexis said, the Texas legislature is set up to block bills, not pass them. And it sounds like from everything you’ve told me, Texas loves its rules when it comes to the legislature. And there’s a rule that you need a quorum of people there to pass a bill, right?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: That’s correct. You need two thirds of the chamber to be there to be able to vote. And so Democrats, by walking out, could leave them without that quorum and without that quorum, they can’t vote. And if they don’t vote before midnight, the bill is dead.

S1: Alexa was there this weekend as the fate of SB seven was decided. It went down in flames, not so much because of one lawmaker taking a stand, but because the entire Democratic caucus executed a kind of slow fade on their colleagues. They literally began filing out of the Capitol building in the afternoon. Eventually, it became clear they weren’t coming back.

S2: More and more deaths were empty and not just empty, as in the person maybe, you know, ran to their office, but that their desks were basically locked up. And then at about 10, 30, Chris Turner, who is the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, sent out a text message telling Democrats who were still on the floor, a pretty small amount at that point, honestly saying members take the keys from your voting machines and leave discreetly. And, you know, I try to follow some of them and ask them where they were going. Someone told me they’re going to drop something off at their office. Someone else said they were taking a bathroom break, but in reality, they were breaking quorum.

Advertisement

S1: So the Democrats stopped this bill from passing by, basically picking up their toys and going home. Does that mean the fights over?

S2: Absolutely not. This was basically sort of a surefire way to trigger a special session. Obviously our governor is Republican and that gives him the ability to call lawmakers back.

S1: Today on the show, the fight over voting rules in Texas. It got dirty this week, but for legislators on either side of the aisle, what’s the end game? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Aleksa says the twenty twenty one legislative session in Texas, it was always going to be a hard one, not only was the state dealing with the coronaviruses pandemic, but it was hit by a deadly winter storm back in February. All this set it apart from twenty nineteen when the tone and tenor of the session were a bit milder. There was something else too, though this year there was relief and confidence on the part of Republican lawmakers. That’s because Democrats had been hoping to flip nine state House seats blue back in November. In the end, they flipped to zero.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: You know, I think if you look at this session and compare it to the 2090 in session, they are very, very different. The 2019 session was one where they were really focused on things like school finance reform,

S1: bread and butter issues.

S2: Right. Right. And I think that, you know, you’ve got to think about the fact that that session came after the 2008 election, that an election in which Republicans experienced some pretty big losses, not enough to lose their control. But it was sort of a definitely, I think, a warning shot for a lot of them where some of these Republican strongholds could no longer be called that, where the margins in a lot of places that were important to them maintaining power thinned pretty significantly. And so the 20, 19 session came after that. Flash forward to January twenty twenty one. And despite that election in twenty eighteen, this time they were able to hold on to their majorities. Right. This massive effort to try to flip the Texas House basically ended in the same list, basically almost the same setup as we had before. And they were able to control everything and anything that might have been on the margins of that they were worried about could be shored up during redistricting, where they could redraw and reconfigure some of these districts that maybe were on the borderline to make them safer for Republicans again, since they’ll be in full control of that process. And so I think the the stakes were maybe the same, but I think the sort of baseline for how comfortable they might have felt in that majority of was was definitely different.

Advertisement

S1: How did this voting bill get on the agenda like? It sounds like from the beginning, the governor, Greg Abbott, he he wanted this passed.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Yeah. I mean, 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. Right. That’s our starting point here. I think this time around, you know, following the 20 20 election, there was some pretty open hostility from Republicans about some of the measures that Harris County, which is home to Houston, the largest county in that in the state under Democratic control now, had they had tried a bunch of different voting initiatives that Republicans responded to very, you know, in a very hostile

Advertisement

S1: way, and these were because of covid rights, stuff like drive through voting and 24 hour voting.

S2: Yeah, it was tough like of it, 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. You know, it’s something that’s available in a whole lot of other counties. But leading up to the 2020 election, a lot of the the remaining urban counties that weren’t doing that moved to that model. And so you had sort of locals trying different voting options. You had the pressure of the twenty twenty 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 on to in the past, even before this. And so, you know, it was sort of this combination of things and the final product of which was SB seven, this this massive bill that touched nearly the entire voting process. And from the beginning of the session, Governor 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 was going to sign that he wanted to sign a voting bill into law. And, you know, at that point, and even up until, honestly, the beginning of May, the odds were in the favor that this was going to become law.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Can you tick off some of the restrictions that eventually made it into this bill?

S2: Yes, there are quite a few of them, but some of the the ones that have kind of emerged sort of more significantly, you had limitations to early voting hours. You had limitations to voting options, basically trying to ban things like drive through 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. I mean, we’re talking about a pretty massive bill.

Advertisement

S1: Sounds broad.

S2: It was a broad. You know, it touched everything from early voting to vote tabulations. And then once both chambers passed their own version, it went behind closed door negotiations and came back even bigger, you know, adding new ID requirements for voting by mail, limiting Sunday early voting hours, which wasn’t originally there. And so this was just I mean, 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.

S1: For most of the session, it seemed pretty certain that SB seven would end up signed into law. Alexa says where the plan really started to fall apart was when the House and Senate had to reconcile their differences both and pass the bill, but very different versions of it. That led to some intense closed door negotiations between the chambers.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: 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 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.

S1: Do you think the Republicans just didn’t expect the Democrats to walk out like it seems like they really pushed them and the Republicans really pushed the Democrats almost like a test to see what happens if we push you this far?

Advertisement

S2: Breaking quorum is a pretty extraordinary measure, right? It doesn’t happen often. A, you know, like you said, there are rules that people try to follow and use to their advantage from both sides. Right. The breaking quorum is an extraordinary measure. It’s you’re basically walking out on the job. Right. And and I think the impact of that was something that was weighing on Democrats in the lead up to this.

S1: Like some Democrats didn’t want to do it. It felt like a big move.

S2: I think, you know, they had they had prepared points of order, which are these sort of procedural challenges to the bill that can, in many cases end up derailing it or even killing it. If you’re close enough to a deadline like SB seven was, I think that would have been the way a lot of Democrats wanted it to go down. And ultimately, what was happening, though, is that 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. You know, I think I think 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 than 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 to vote out before the end of the session.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Yeah, part of what I think is interesting about this moment where the Democrats walked out and the bill couldn’t be voted on is that the governor is blaming. His own party, in addition to the Democrats, he’s basically saying the Republicans didn’t manage their time well. And it made me wonder what you thought of that, because you’ve said how, you know, the House version of the bill, there was some appeasement of the Democrats by Republicans. And I wonder a little bit if part of what’s going on here is a little bit of a turf war over Republican this like, you know, the guy who is compromising over there. You let this happen, you let this go on too long.

S2: Yeah, I think there are a lot of feelings going on being shared among Republicans right now where, you know, the the legislature is is a tense place, in part because the two chambers that pass bills choose their leadership in very different ways. In the Senate, you’ve got a lieutenant governor who is elected statewide,

S1: Dan Patrick, who’s known for being a very firm Trump supporter.

S2: Right. And he ultimately answers to voters. Right. And in Texas, that’s often primary voters who are among the most conservative voters in the state. Over in the House, you have a speaker who is elected by the other members of the House. And so that’s a different set of people that he is ultimately responding to. Right? He is responding to the chamber. And I think in the past that’s led to a lot of House and Senate tension. I think specific to this bill, it’s really when it came down to these closed door negotiations that they really pushed the calendar. They really pushed the timeline close enough to where they could kill it. And that was on both sides. Right, because that those negotiations were carried out by members from both chambers and they were led by Republicans from both chambers.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Since the Democratic walkout, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has made his disappointment clear he’s threatened to veto a bill that funds the legislature, meaning lawmakers and their staff might not get paid. He’s also said he wants lawmakers back in Austin again for a special session to pass SB seven.

S2: He said pretty quickly, we’re coming back in a special session. You are expected to finish this work. You know, the chambers are expected to work out their differences before you come back, essentially saying like you’re not going to be wasting time and leaving this up until the deadline. And I think Democrats knew that to some extent going in. They knew that that’s where this was headed to.

S1: When we come back, why Texas Democrats only remaining option to fight SB seven might be in the U.S. Congress. Part of what I think is interesting about talking to you is talking about the contours of voting restrictions in Texas, in particular because. Back in January and February, we sort of began the state legislative sessions talking about voting restrictions in Georgia and of course in Georgia, 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, I guess you can see the impetus for me of why you would want to pass voting restrictions. You know, this didn’t work out for you. And so, you know, let’s let’s rein this in. But what’s interesting to me about Texas is that the fight seems to be about something else, because in Texas, Republicans won in a pretty big way. They maintained the majority in the state legislature. And it’s more about something else like these state and local fights that are revving up between a city like Houston that wants to expand access to voting and state, which does not. What do you make of that?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: I think you you can’t see any of these fights and not consider. The sort of political backdrop here in terms of the distribution of power in sort of an incredibly increasingly diverse state like Texas, right. 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. You know, in the presidential at the presidential level, Mitt Romney won the state. It was almost 16 percentage points in 2012. And Donald Trump’s last election, he won by only six percentage points in in that time period. You’ve seen the suburbs of the places where Republicans usually counted on voters to support them, shifting. Right, becoming these sort of battlegrounds, if not fully in Democratic control. You had places like Harris County that what was once a battleground in a place like Texas, it was the sort of prize battleground and it’s now under Democratic control. And all of these places are places that are that are experiencing demographic shifts there. The growth in these places is driven largely by people of color. And those are voters. 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?

S1: So what you’re saying is that it’s kind of like a chase scene in the movie. And in Georgia, you know, you see that door closing in front of you. You’re trying to run for it, but it closes in your face. In Texas, they see this opportunity to slip through the door and escape.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: You know, and I think that someone in Texas watches the things that happened in a state like Georgia or even in the state like Arizona, right. These formerly reliably red states that flip to Joe Biden. And you have to stop and wonder, is Texas next? And I think this legislative session for Republicans ended up falling in the sweet spot right 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 I think all of these things are happening with this backdrop, 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.

S1: But I guess what I don’t get one hundred percent is that it seems to me like expanding voting access was not necessarily bad for Republicans. Like 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 groups of folks, Latino voters, who some people had said, oh, well, obviously we don’t we don’t have a chance here. These are their Democratic areas. But it seemed like there was a turn there. And so in some ways, are they kind of cutting off their nose to spite their face?

S2: I mean, I think I think 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 through voting, you know, you’ve got the local elections administrators saying, like, look, Yarl’s, voters are using this to write the this. I think it was at the site that they set up and sort of this heavily Republican area was among the the one that was being high 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 the question that we just don’t have an answer to at this point.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I’m struck by one quote from a state representative, a Democrat, who basically talked about what the Democrats did here. He said it 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. And it made me wonder, 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?

S2: You know, I’ve had a lot of in my conversations with Democrats leading up to this night and I mean, like 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 sort of like, but we’ll have to see what Congress does. 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. And it was this addendum to all these conversations that, you know, 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 US Senate. And, you know, I think after this walkout, it took about 10 seconds for Democrats to turn around and say, look, 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, you know, if you’re a Democrat in that position, 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.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: So going into the special session here, Democrat, what’s your strategy now?

S2: You know, I think I think that 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. You know, I think there’s a question as to whether this walkout really sort of 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 know, you heard from the public and the public was largely against this and you didn’t change any of that. You know, 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.

S1: Auto, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Yeah, happy to join

S1: Alexa Otha covers voting rights and demographics for the Texas Tribune, and that’s the show. What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Kamal Dilshad Davis, Landolina Schwartz and Danielle Hewitt were led by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. Tomorrow, stay tuned to this feed. What next? TBD will be here. Henry Gabbar is taking over the show. He’s going to look at how the citizen app is fueling vigilantism. All right. I’m Mary Harris. I will catch you back in this feed on Monday.