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 the Democratic base to treat voting and elections as a top priority, he is set to give 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 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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