AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — In the opening days of a special summer session, Republicans in the Texas Legislature wasted no time advancing new voting restrictions that were blocked by Democrats in the spring. On Monday, Democrats responded by making plans to leave the state and head to the nation’s capital in an effort to stop the election bills.
News of the plan broke five days into the special session called by the GOP Governor Greg Abbott. Democrats in the state House of Representatives seek to again break quorum and grind the legislative process to a halt.
Under the Texas Constitution, two-thirds of lawmakers must be present to pass legislation in either chamber.
The planned getaway marks the second recent trip to Washington for Democrats in the Texas House, after they were invited to speak with federal lawmakers and advocate for the passage of voting rights legislation last month. The move harkens back to actions taken in 2003 by Texas Democrats who fled the state to block redistricting efforts.
After being introduced and sent to committees Thursday on the first day of the special session, Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 faced lengthy hearings over the weekend that included public comments from hundreds of Texans, many of whom showed up to oppose the legislation.
After nearly 24 hours of testimony, both bills made it out of their respective committees and appeared to be headed for a full vote in the Texas House and Senate. But House Democrats announced Monday their intentions to leave Austin for Washington, with no indication as to when they would return.
The bills carry many of the same provisions from Senate Bill 7, the controversial voting bill that was killed when Democratic lawmakers broke quorum and walked off the floor in the waning hours of the regular legislative session.
Election integrity has been a core mission for Governor Greg Abbott and GOP leadership in the Texas Legislature. Under Abbott's orders, Republicans have hit the ground running to finish the mission they began at the start of the year. If the legislation passes, Texas would join states like Georgia and Florida who passed similar voting restrictions earlier this year despite pushback from the public.
Republican Senator Brian Hughes said during the first public hearing on SB 1 that claims about lawmakers trying to suppress the vote and Texas being the hardest state in which to vote are “baseless.”
“We heard sworn testimony about how people have had their votes stolen by vote harvesters, by claiming to help the voter and misleading them, stealing their votes, and that is what this bill is about,” Hughes said in a video posted to Twitter Sunday afternoon.
Members of the public were allowed to voice their position on SB 1 and HB 3 during public hearings on Saturday. Texas civil rights groups, disability rights groups and high-profile activists spoke against SB 1 and asserted their belief that the bill would disenfranchise many Texans of their right to vote.
Former Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke of El Paso blasted the Republicans who support the bill in testimony before the Senate State Affairs Committee.
"You are now proposing a set of restrictions in this elections bill that is going to make it that much harder for millions more of our fellow Texans to cast a ballot and participate in what we all know to be the world's greatest democracy," O'Rourke said.
In their current form, the bills would ban drive-thru and 24-hour voting, an innovation created by Harris County, home to Houston, to increase turnout and prevent the spread of Covid-19. Drive-thru voting was a popular option for elderly and disabled voters, while 24-hour voting was utilized by many voters of color and those who would have had trouble going to vote due to work hours.