Texas Lawmakers Map Out Next Voting Rights Moves

After fleeing to Washington, Democratic state lawmakers began lobbying Congress to push for major voting rights legislation. Back in Austin, Republicans promised to ultimately pass their elections overhaul.

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WASHINGTON — Texas lawmakers traveled down starkly divergent political paths on Tuesday, as Republicans in Austin signaled their intention to push forward with an overhaul of the state’s election system while Democrats who had fled the state a day earlier began lobbying lawmakers in Congress to pass comprehensive federal voting rights legislation.

While Democrats celebrated their immediate victory and a torrent of media attention, they confronted a much bigger long-term challenge: There is little the party can do to stop Republicans from ultimately passing a wide array of voting restrictions, with Gov. Greg Abbott vowing to call “special session after special session after special session” until an election bill is passed.

But Democrats, as long as they remain away from Texas, appear likely to succeed in delaying the G.O.P. voting bill. Chris Turner, the Democratic leader in the Texas State House, said that 57 members of the party’s delegation were now absent from Austin, more than the 51 necessary to stop business from proceeding. They have pledged to remain in Washington for the duration of the Texas session, and Republicans do not appear to have a legal way to bring them back from Washington.

“Best I know, Texas law enforcement doesn’t have jurisdiction outside the state of Texas,” Mr. Turner said Tuesday outside the Capitol.

Furious Texas Republicans sought on Tuesday to pursue other means of retribution, with Mr. Abbott threatening to detain the lawmakers as soon as they returned to the state, and other G.O.P. leaders warning that they might remove Democrats from leadership positions in the Legislature.

“As soon as they come back into the state of Texas, they will be arrested,” Mr. Abbott said in a television interview with a local ABC affiliate on Monday night. “They will be cabined inside the Texas Capitol until they get the job done.”

Even as national Democrats celebrated the state lawmakers who fled, the party faces wrenching disagreements over its strategy on voting rights. With President Biden facing rising pressure from Democrats to treat voting as a top priority, he gave a speech on the issue in Philadelphia on Tuesday, and a White House spokeswoman said on Tuesday that Vice President Kamala Harris would meet this week with Texas lawmakers.

And in Texas itself, Democrats were not entirely united, with some members of the party’s Senate delegation failing to follow their House counterparts in blocking a quorum. While several Democratic state senators decamped to Washington, at least four of the 13 Democrats in the State Senate remained in Austin on Tuesday morning, setting up a likely floor vote in the chamber later in the day on the Republicans’ election bill. Passage in the Senate, though, would be mostly symbolic, since the bill would remain stalled in the House as long as enough Democrats remain absent.

“I understand the bold action” of House representatives and state senators leaving, State Senator John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston, said in a brief interview in his office shortly before heading to the Senate chamber. “I personally think you have to make a decision where you think you’re going to be most effective, and I think today mine’s on the Senate floor.”

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Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas vowed to call “special session after special session after special session” until an election bill was passed.Credit…Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images

The current special session of the Legislature was called by Mr. Abbott after Democrats in the State Senate were able to stymie the Republicans’ original election overhaul bill at the end of the legislative session in May. They used a similar walkout tactic with hours remaining before the session expired, though in that case they merely fled the chamber, not the state.

In Washington on Tuesday, outside the Capitol under a scorching morning sun, 47 Democratic Texas state representatives stood together to urge the White House and Senate Democrats to push for the For the People Act, the party’s major federal voting legislation that has faltered because of the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to pass most bills.

The lawmakers tried to deflect Republican criticism that they were abdicating their responsibilities as representatives of the people, saying that they were in Washington on a “working trip” aimed at pushing for new federal laws protecting voting rights.

“I’m not up here to take a vacation in Washington, D.C.,” said State Representative Senfronia Thompson, who was first elected to represent her Houston-area district in 1972. “We have fought too long and too hard in this country, and it was a Texan called Johnson, President Lyndon B. Johnson, on Aug. 6, 1965, who made sure that we had the right to vote.”

The Texas lawmakers planned to split up in groups to talk with Democratic senators. Meetings were scheduled on Tuesday with Chuck Schumer, the majority leader; Cory Booker of New Jersey; Kirsten Gillibrand of New York; and Alex Padilla of California.

They had not yet succeeded in securing an audience with Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who along with Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia has made herself a stalwart defender of the 60-vote threshold to pass most legislation. But the Texans are expected to meet with Mr. Manchin later this week, an aide to the senator said.

“We have got to get in to see Sinema,” said Jasmine Crockett, a state representative from Dallas.

To prevent Republicans from passing their election bill in the current special session, which began on July 8 and will last for 30 days, Democratic state representatives from Texas must stay out of the state for more than three weeks. After that, Mr. Abbott could call a new special session, which would leave Democrats grappling with whether to maintain their strategy and embark on another lengthy and costly excursion.

The Battle Over Voting Rights

After former President Donald J. Trump returned in recent months to making false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, Republican lawmakers in many states have marched ahead to pass laws making it harder to vote and change 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 central issues in American politics. As of May 14, lawmakers had passed 22 new laws in 14 states to make the process of voting more difficult, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute.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, including from Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia. Republicans have remained united against the proposal and even if the bill became law, it would most 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: Texas Democrats successfully blocked the state’s expansive voting bill, known as S.B. 7, in a late-night walkout and are starting a major statewide registration program focused on racially diverse communities. But Republicans in the state have pledged to return in a special session and pass a similar voting bill. 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.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. And Iowa has imposed new limits, including reducing the period for early voting and in-person voting hours on Election Day.

The election overhaul legislation that Republicans have proposed is very similar to the bill the party originally introduced earlier this year, with a host of restrictions on voting that would most likely have a disproportionate impact on poorer communities and communities of color, especially in Harris County, the largest county in the state, which is trending Democratic.

The new bills, introduced in the State House and State Senate, include provisions aimed at Harris County, including bans on drive-through voting and 24-hour voting, two new voting methods that were pioneered by the county in last year’s election to help voters safely cast a ballot during the coronavirus pandemic and to expand in-person options for voters with irregular schedules. Nearly 140,000 voters in Harris County used one of the two methods in 2020.

The bills also include broad changes that will affect voters across the state, including new identification requirements for absentee ballots and a measure that prohibits election officials and third-party groups from proactively sending absentee ballot applications to voters who have not requested them.

Texas is one of about a dozen states that do not offer no-excuse absentee ballot voting; it allows only voters who are over 65 and those with a state-permitted excuse to vote absentee by mail. But in 2020, absentee ballots in Texas more than doubled compared with 2016, with roughly one million mail ballots cast in the election, according to a study by The Texas Tribune. Democrats outpaced Republicans in casting absentee ballots in 2020, which also represented a flip from 2016, according to The Tribune.

For voting rights groups and Democrats, some of the most worrying provisions in the Texas bills are ones that would greatly expand the authority and autonomy of partisan poll watchers. Originally meant to serve as an outside check on the electoral process for candidates and political parties, poll watchers have become increasingly aggressive in some states, including Texas.

That has raised fears among election officials and voting rights activists that poll watchers, as they have repeatedly in American elections over the years, will increasingly be used to intimidate voters and harass election workers, often in Democratic-leaning communities of color. During the 2020 election, President Donald J. Trump’s campaign repeatedly promoted its “army” of poll watchers as he implored supporters to venture into heavily Black and Latino cities and hunt for voter fraud.

The Republican bills also include a new rule for citizens who provide help to voters, requiring them to sign statements under threat of perjury stating that they did not influence the voter at all. This would include those who are helping voters with disabilities and those who drive more than three people who are not members of their family to the polls.

Democrats were able to gain some minor concessions in the bill. A ballot-curing provision — which allows voters to fix their ballot if there were any problems with it — was added, and an extra hour of early in-person voting was added for weekday voting. Two of the most controversial provisions from the original bill — a limit on Sunday voting and a measure making it easier to overturn election results — were also removed from the current versions, which meant that the bills no longer include measures allowing for a significant partisan takeover of election administration, of the kind that Republicans have passed in Georgia, Arkansas and other states.

Nicholas Fandos and Katie Rogers contributed reporting from Washington, and David Montgomery from Austin, Texas.

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