Texas Republicans have failed in their efforts to push through one of the most restrictive voting measures in the US after Democrats walked out of the House at the last minute, leaving the bill languishing ahead of a midnight deadline.
The exodus came at the instruction of Chris Turner, the House Democratic chairman, who told colleagues at 10.35pm to “take your key and leave the chamber discreetly”, referring to the key that locks the voting mechanism on their desks, the Washington Post reported.
The Democratic state representative Jessica González said after the walkout: “We decided to come together and say we weren’t going to take it.” She said she objected to the bill’s content and the way it was crafted with no input from her party. “We needed to be part of the process. Cutting us out completely – I mean this law will affect every single voter in Texas.”
Fellow Democrat Carl Sherman said: “We’ve said for so many years that we want more people to participate in our democracy. And it just seems that’s not the case.”
Governor Greg Abbott said the failure of the legislation was “deeply disappointing and concerning” but vowed to bring it back at a special session at an unspecified date.
Republicans showed restraint in criticising Democrats for the move. Republican state representative Briscoe Cain, who carried the bill in the House, said: “I am disappointed that some members decided to break quorum. We all know what that meant. I understand why they were doing it, but we all took an oath to Texans that we would be here to do our jobs.”
Less than 24 hours earlier, the bill seemed all but guaranteed to reach Abbott’s desk. The bill had passed in the Senate on party lines around 6am on Sunday, after eight hours of questioning by Democrats who had virtually no path to stop it. However, a Democrat walkout prevented a quorum in the House.
In closed-door negotiations, Republicans added language to Senate Bill 7 that could make it easier for a judge to overturn an election. They also pushed back the start of Sunday voting, when many Black churchgoers go to the polls. The measure would also eliminate drive-thru voting and 24-hour polling centers, both of which Harris county, a Democratic stronghold, introduced last year.
Critics say such measures suppress turnout among minorities likely to vote Democratic. On Sunday morning Hakeem Jeffries of New York, a member of Democratic leadership in the US House, called SB7 “shameful”.
“Republicans clearly in Texas and throughout the country want to make it harder to vote and easier to steal an election,” he told CNN’s State of the Union. “That’s the only way that I can interpret the voter suppression epidemic that we see working its way from Georgia to Arizona to Texas and all across the country.”
At a press conference held by the Texas Democratic party, national figures including former congressman Beto O’Rourke, former housing secretary Julián Castro and his brother Joaquin Castro, a serving congressman, sought to raise the alarm.
“This is gonna make it harder for the average Texan to get out and cast their ballot whether they’re Republican or Democrat,” said Julián Castro. “But it is clearly aimed at people of colour, at Black and Hispanic Texas.
“The Republican party is running scared because they know that this state is changing. Senate Bill 7 is an attempt by the Republican party to hold on to their power at the expense of everybody else. And we can’t let it stand.”
Michael McCaul, a senior US House Republican from Texas, told CNN he thought the law “may be more of an optics issue, restoring confidence with the American people. In my state you actually do believe that there was tremendous fraud.”
There was not. Texas has only one pending voter fraud case arising from the 2020 election. Nonetheless it is the last big battleground in Republican efforts to tighten voting laws, driven by Donald Trump’s lie that the presidential election was stolen. Joe Biden on Saturday compared the Texas bill to election changes in Georgia and Arizona, as “an assault on democracy”.
Since Trump’s defeat, at least 14 states have enacted restrictive voting laws, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. It has counted nearly 400 bills nationwide.
The vote in the Texas Senate came a short time after a final version of the bill was made public. Republicans suspended rules that normally prohibit taking a vote on a bill that has not been posted for 24 hours. Democrats protested.
The bill would empower partisan poll watchers by allowing more access to polling places and threatening criminal penalties against officials who restrict their movement. Another provision allows a judge to void an election outcome if the number of fraudulent votes could change the result, regardless of whether it was proved that fraud affected the outcome.
Election officials would face penalties including felony charges for sending mail voting applications to people who did not request one. The Texas District and County Attorneys Association counted at least 16 new, expanded or enhanced crimes.
Republicans are also moving to prohibit Sunday voting before 1pm, which critics call an attack on “souls to the polls”, a get-out-the-vote tactic used by Black congregations nationwide and dating back to the civil rights movement. Asked why Sunday voting couldn’t begin sooner, Texas Republican Bryan Hughes said: “Election workers want to go to church too.”
Colin Allred, a US representative from Dallas, told the press conference Sunday was “one of the darkest days” for democracy in America. “This isn’t legislation,” he said. “It’s discrimination.”
Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic majority leader in the US Senate, has said he will bring the For the People Act, a federal measure to protect voting rights, to the floor next month. But it has little chance of beating the filibuster, the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome the Republican minority.