AUSTIN, Texas — Texas statehouse Democrats fled Austin on Monday for Washington as they attempt to block the Republican party’s sweeping elections overhaul bill that would make it harder to vote in the state.
The Democrats used a similar plan before to scuttle an earlier version of the bill on the final day of the legislative session in May. The Texas Tribune and The Dallas Morning News reported that Abbott responded by vetoing a section of the state’s budget that funds the legislature, its staffers, and legislative agencies. Gov. Greg Abbott claimed that Texans don’t “walk away from unfinished business” and that “funding shouldn’t be provided for those who quit their jobs early.”
The Texas Democrats' aim is for a similar result to gum up the 30-day special section called by Abbott and for members of U.S. Congress to fast track voting rights legislation.
“That’s our message to Congress,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie. “We need them to act now.”
THE DEMOCRATS’ PLAN
The Democrats are taking this bold political ploy for a couple of reasons. Initially, they aim to deprive the Texas Legislature of a quorum – the minimum number of representatives who must be in place for government to be operational.
Without that number, the Texas Legislature can’t vote on any proposal. It would also limit the Republicans’ opportunity to vote on any of their other bills like teaching against racism in U.S. history, transgender athletics or abortion. It effectively throws a wrench in all voting.
And a more wide-ranging, philosophical plan has already been achieved. It gave the Democrats a statewide platform on a national story on the Republicans’ push to tighten voting laws across the state. It’s no coincidence that Vice President Kamala Harris had a ready soundbite Monday afternoon soon after the delegation fled Austin. Or that President Joe Biden will make similar remarks about voting rights later Tuesday.
HAS IT BEEN TRIED BEFORE?
Departing the state has a long tradition in Texas politics.
The “Killer Bees” fled for Oklahoma in May 1979, hiding offsite to prevent the 31-member Senate from reaching a quorum on two bills: an early date for a Texas presidential primary and a bill on filing fees for primary elections. Among them was the late Corpus Christi political leader Carlos Truan.
And in 2003, 50 Texas Democratic state lawmakers again left for Oklahoma to block a Republican redistricting proposal that effectively would have cost the Democrats five seats in the House of Representatives.
It’s happened in other states as well more recently. In 2011, Wisconsin Democrats left for Illinois to target a Republican bill aimed at stamping out government workers’ unions. In the same year, Indiana Democrats used similar tactics to end a right-to-work bill.
And Republicans have used it as well. Eleven GOP Oregon legislators fled to Idaho in 2019, circumventing a Democratic bill fighting climate change.
DID IT EVER WORK?
Not very often. In 2003, Texas then-Republican Gov. Rick Perry called a special session. Insurgent Democrats fled to New Mexico, but eventually returned to Austin and passed a redistricting plan. Wisconsin Democrats were unable to stifle the GOP bill in the state that would strip public-sector unions of collective bargaining rights – the Republicans amended the measure so it didn’t need a quorum to be approved – and the fugitive group returned to Madison after three weeks in Illinois. Republicans in Indiana eventually withdrew the right-to-work bills in the state, and they passed them the following year without a walkout.
The Oregon Republicans were successful. Democrats eventually withdrew their climate bill, but it was not guaranteed passage even before Republicans left the state for an Idaho hideout.
Texas Democrats won the first round of their showdown against Republicans last month. When Republicans led by Abbott tried to rush a revised election bill through at the final hour, Democrats walked out and headed for a church as the session ended and the bill died. But Abbott reconvened the meeting on the voting bill in the special session with a one-month term of duration. That’s much longer to try to scuttle.
An extended stay would be much tougher to pull off today. They could be threatened by losing their legislative pay or they could be sued. Abbott already has docked their pay, and he could keep calling special sessions.
When they arrived in Washington, the Texas Democrats said they were willing to stay out of the state until the special session ends. But they are aiming that Congress would approve the federal law before then, superseding Abbott’s actions.
WHY GO TO WASHINGTON?
These trips in the past have usually gone to neighboring states, but a trip to the nation’s capital provides a different strategy.
By heading to Washington, it gains national attention for their grievances by alerting national political media and Democratic leaders they hope will be friendly to aid their cause and intensify national push for federal action on voting.
But the Democrats’ narrow balance of power in Washington might make it harder to pull off this time.
IS THIS LEGAL?
Not really. State legislators are elected with the idea of representing constituents by attending legislative sessions. But walkouts in the past have been strategically employed as a way for a minority party to grind political action to a halt.
And as history has proven, it can work occasionally while engendering a lot of negative public sentiment along the way.