Texas Democrats Stymie G.O.P. Voting Bill, for Now

Democrats in the Texas Legislature staged a dramatic, late-night walkout on Sunday night to force the failure of a sweeping Republican overhaul of state election laws. The move, which deprived the state House of Representatives of the minimum number of lawmakers required for a vote before a midnight deadline, was a stunning setback for state Republicans who had made a new voting law one of their top priorities.

The effort is not entirely dead, however. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, indicated that he would call a special session of the Legislature, which could start as early as June 1, or Tuesday, to restart the process. The governor has said that he strongly supported an election bill, and he was widely expected to sign whatever measure Republicans passed.

“Election Integrity & Bail Reform were emergency items for this legislative session,” Mr. Abbott said on Twitter on Sunday night. “They will be added to the special session agenda.” He did not specify when the session would start.

While Republicans would still be favored to pass a bill in a special session, the unexpected turn of events on Sunday presents a new hurdle in their push to enact a far-reaching election law that would install some of the most rigid voting restrictions in the country and cement the state as one of the hardest in which to cast a ballot.

After a lengthy debate in the State House in which Democrats raised numerous objections, staged lengthy question-and-answer sessions and leveraged procedural maneuvers, Democrats left the chamber en masse, leaving the chamber roughly 14 members short of the required 100-member quorum to continue business. Without the requisite number of legislators, Dade Phelan, the speaker of the State House, adjourned the session around 11 p.m. local time, effectively killing the bill for this legislative session.

The Democratic flight was orchestrated by State Representative Chris Turner, the Democratic caucus chair in the House, who sent a text message to members at 10:35 p.m. local time.

“Members, take your key and leave the chamber discreetly,” Mr. Turner wrote. “Do not go to the gallery. Leave the building. ~ Chris”

In a statement early Monday, Mr. Turner said the walkout had been a last resort.

“It became obvious Republicans were going to cut off debate to ram through their vote suppression legislation,” Mr. Turner said. “At that point, we had no choice but to take extraordinary measures to protect our constituents and their right to vote.”

Republicans’ inability to pass the measure on Sunday night was the first major stumble for the party in its monthslong drive to restrict voting across the nation, and an embarrassment for G.O.P. leaders in the Texas Legislature who at least momentarily fell short of a top legislative goal for both the governor and the Republican Party.

From the outset, the push to install new restrictions on voting in Texas has been upended by legislative missteps and tension among Republicans in the State Capitol, marked by multiple late-night voting sessions in both chambers. After two different versions of the bill were passed by the House and the Senate, legislators took the bill behind closed doors to hash out a final version in a panel known as a conference committee.

The final bill, known as S.B. 7, included new restrictions on absentee voting; granted broad new autonomy and authority to partisan poll watchers; escalated punishments for mistakes or offenses by election officials; and banned both drive-through voting and 24-hour voting, which were used for the first time during the 2020 election in Harris County, home to Houston and a growing number of the state’s Democratic voters.

But the conference committee took more than a week to finalize the measures, reaching an agreement on Friday, releasing the details of the legislation on Saturday and leaving both chambers with less than 48 hours to pass the bill.

A legislative power play by Republicans in the Senate late Saturday led to an all-night session and hours of impassioned debate and objections from Democrats. Early Sunday, the Senate passed the bill largely along party lines.

During debate late Sunday, State Representative Travis Clardy, a Republican, acknowledged that advancing the bill through the conference committee had proved to be a lengthy process, but he defended the panel’s methods.

“A lot of this was done late, I don’t get to control the clock,” Mr. Clardy said. “But I can assure you that the members of the committee did their absolute best, dead-level best, to make sure we’ve provided information to all members, including representative rows. And then we did everything that we could to make sure this was transparent.”

While Republican legislators will have to start from scratch if Mr. Abbott calls a special session, it is possible that they could simply use the same language and provisions from S.B. 7.

The effort in Texas, a major state with a booming population, represents the apex of the national Republican push to install tall new barriers to voting after President Donald J. Trump’s loss last year to Joseph R. Biden Jr., with expansive restrictions already becoming law in Iowa, Georgia and Florida in 2021. Fueled by Mr. Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud in the election, Republicans have passed the bills almost entirely along partisan lines, brushing off the protestations of Democrats, civil rights groups, voting rights groups, major corporations and faith leaders.

But the party’s setback in Texas is unlikely to calm Democratic pressure in Washington to pass new federal voting laws. President Biden and key Democrats in Congress are confronting rising calls from their party to do whatever is needed — including abolishing the Senate filibuster, which moderate senators have resisted — to push through a major voting rights and elections overhaul that would counteract the wave of Republican laws.

After the Texas bill became public on Saturday, Mr. Biden denounced it, along with similar measures in Georgia and Florida, as “an assault on democracy,” blasting the moves in a statement as “disproportionately targeting Black and Brown Americans.”

He urged Congress to pass Democrats’ voting bills, the most ambitious of which, the For the People Act, would expand access to the ballot, reduce the role of money in politics, strengthen enforcement of existing election laws and limit gerrymandering. Another measure, the narrower John Lewis Voting Rights Act, would restore crucial parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, including the requirement that some states receive federal approval before changing their election laws.

The Battle Over Voting Rights

Amid months of false claims by former President Donald J. Trump that the 2020 election was stolen from him, Republican lawmakers in many states are marching ahead to pass laws making it harder to vote and changing how elections are run, frustrating Democrats and even some election officials in their own party.

    • A Key Topic: The rules and procedures of elections have become a central issue in American politics. The Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal-leaning law and justice institute at New York University, counts 361 bills in 47 states that seek to tighten voting rules. At the same time, 843 bills have been introduced with provisions to improve access to voting.
    • The Basic Measures: The restrictions vary by state but can include limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, adding identification requirements for voters requesting absentee ballots, and doing away with local laws that allow automatic registration for absentee voting.
    • More Extreme Measures: Some measures go beyond altering how one votes, including tweaking Electoral College and judicial election rules, clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives, and outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections.
    • Pushback: This Republican effort has led Democrats in Congress to find a way to pass federal voting laws. A sweeping voting rights bill passed the House in March, but faces difficult obstacles in the Senate. Republicans have remained united against the proposal and even if the bill became law, it would likely face steep legal challenges.
    • Florida: Measures here include limiting the use of drop boxes, adding more identification requirements for absentee ballots, requiring voters to request an absentee ballot for each election, limiting who could collect and drop off ballots, and further empowering partisan observers during the ballot-counting process.
    • Texas: The next big move could happen here, where Republicans in the legislature are brushing aside objections from corporate titans and moving on a vast election bill that would be among the most severe in the nation. It would impose new restrictions on early voting, ban drive-through voting, threaten election officials with harsher penalties and greatly empower partisan poll watchers.
    • Other States: Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill that would limit the distribution of mail ballots. The bill, which includes removing voters from the state’s Permanent Early Voting List if they do not cast a ballot at least once every two years, may be only the first in a series of voting restrictions to be enacted there. Georgia Republicans in March enacted far-reaching new voting laws that limit ballot drop-boxes and make the distribution of water within certain boundaries of a polling station a misdemeanor. Iowa has also imposed new limits, including reducing the period for early voting and in-person voting hours on Election Day. And bills to restrict voting have been moving through the Republican-led Legislature in Michigan.

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