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‘Don’t go down without a fight’: Texas Democrats’ effort to block voting restrictions sputters – The Guardian

Fight to vote

Some Texas Democrats dismayed their colleagues returned to make a quorum, but others hope their protest has drawn attention to voting rights

Sat 21 Aug 2021 06.26 EDT

A last-ditch effort to stall Texas Republicans from passing sweeping voting legislation effectively ended on Thursday evening after enough Democrats returned to the state capitol in Austin to allow lawmakers to proceed on legislation.

It’s a coda that came a little more than a month after Democrats in the state house of representatives dramatically left the state capitol, denying Republicans a quorum to conduct legislative business. As Republicans threatened those who fled with arrest, the effort electrified Democrats, in Texas and around the country, at a moment when Republicans have been able to ram through new voting restrictions in state capitols across the country.

With a quorum now intact, Texas Republicans are expected to quickly approve legislation that would outlaw practices that local election officials adopted to make it easier to vote in 2020, including drive-thru and 24-hour voting. The measure would also give more authority to partisan poll watchers, prohibit officials from sending unsolicited absentee ballot request forms, and provide new rules, and potential criminal penalties, for those who assist others in casting ballots – a move that could make it more difficult for people who are disabled and others to get help voting.

Texas Democrats always acknowledged that Republicans would be able to pass the legislation. But by denying a quorum, they hoped to buy time for Democrats in Congress to pass new federal voting legislation to blunt the measure in Texas. They spent much of the last six weeks in Washington, lobbying Democrats to do just that.

Democrats in Congress have pledged they will move ahead shortly with two pieces of significant voting rights legislation, including one that would require Texas, among other states, to have its voting laws approved by the federal government before going into effect.

The three Democrats who returned on Thursday pointed to the possibility of federal action as justification for coming back. But others in the caucus continue to stay away from the capitol and have openly criticized their colleagues for returning, saying it amounted to abandoning the effort.

“It was disappointing on so many different levels,” said Jasmine Crockett, a Democratic state representative from Dallas who said she had no plans to return to Austin anytime soon. “We’re supposed to be a family.”

Crockett was also among nearly three dozen Democrats who released a statement on Friday saying they were “betrayed and heartbroken” that their colleagues had returned to the capitol. “Our resolve is strong and this fight is not over,” they said.

The caucus was broadly divided into three camps on strategy, according to Rafael Anchía, a Dallas Democrat who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. One group felt the best strategy would be to return to Austin and try to negotiate with Republicans in the legislature, while another wanted to maintain leverage by staying away from the capitol and negotiating. A pitfall to both strategies, Anchía acknowledged, was that Republicans in the legislature have shown no interest in negotiating. A third group, he said, was uninterested in returning to the capitol under any conditions.

“There was never a disagreement about ultimate goals,” he said. When there was disagreement, he added, “it was always tactical.”

Dade Phelan, the speaker of the Texas house, last week signed warrants authorizing the sergeant-at-arms to arrest the Democrats who were denying quorum and bring them to the capitol. But while law enforcement visited the homes of a few lawmakers, according to the Texas Tribune, none have been arrested. Some of the Democrats who returned to the state were unfazed by the possibility of being brought to the capitol.

Celia Israel, a Democrat who represents the Austin area, said she returned to Texas recently to deal with a medical issue. She said last week she had been mostly working from home. While she said it was “unsettling” to have a warrant out for her arrest, she wouldn’t let law enforcement in her house if they showed up.

“They can kiss my Texas behind before I walk on to that house floor and give them quorum over the horrible bills that they have lined up,” she said. “I have not committed a crime. The department of public safety cannot come into my house and grab me.”

Crockett, the Dallas Democrat, also practices as a criminal defense lawyer. She said she had been to the local courthouse in recent days, and even though it was filled with law enforcement who knew who she was, no one had tried to detain her.

While Democrats in the house remained away from the capitol, Carol Alvarado, a state senator from Houston, also tried to slow down the Republican effort. Last week, she held the floor of the state senate for 15 hours, filibustering the Republican voting bill.

Running on just a few hours of sleep from the night before, Alvarado wore a catheter – she was prohibited from taking bathroom breaks – as well as a back brace and comfortable running shoes as she spoke on the floor. Once she ended the filibuster, Republicans quickly passed the bill.

“This bill’s going to pass in the end, no matter what we do or say, it’s gonna pass,” she said in an interview. “But, just because we don’t have the numbers doesn’t mean that we can’t put up a fight and draw attention to it where possible, when possible, to make sure people know what’s going on in our state.”

She also hoped Texas Democrats would “serve as a motivation, energizer, to other legislative bodies, that even if you’re outnumbered, don’t go down without a fight”.

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