What to Know
- Texas Democrats break quorum and head to Washington D.C. to keep the state legislature from passing bills.
- Republican Gov. Greg Abbott can keep calling as many 30-day special sessions as he wants.
- Texas Democrats last left the state in 2003 to break quorum in an ultimately failed attempt to stop new GOP-drawn voting maps.
Democrats in the Texas Legislature are leaving the state for Washington, D.C., in a second revolt against a GOP overhaul of election laws, creating another dramatic showdown over voting rights in America.
Texas Democrats said Monday afternoon they were walking out to break quorum in defense of voting rights in the nation's largest red state.
"Texas Democrats are once again making history. Right now, Texas Democratic lawmakers are walking out to break quorum in defense of voting rights in Texas and block further consideration of anti-voter bills HB 3 and SB 1 -- a core subject of an irregular special session called by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott," Texas Democrats said in a statement.
Dozens of Democratic lawmakers left Austin Monday before the GOP could pass a voting bill in the current special legislative session. Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D-Dallas ) took a commercial flight to Washington D.C. on Monday.
In an interview with MSNBC, Crockett said she decided to leave the special session after this weekend's marathon public hearings failed to stop Republicans from pushing forward with a vote.
"The House Democrats here in Texas decided enough was enough," Crockett said. "You saw people come from all over this state at a moment's notice, for the purpose of trying to educate, you know, the committees on their experiences with voting in this state. And, sadly enough, you know, they may as well have stayed at home, because no one was listening to them."
On Monday afternoon, a Democratic lawmaker texted a photo (above) to NBC 5 reporter Scott Gordon saying Texas Democrats left the capitol and boarded a bus bound for Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA).
By leaving just days after Abbott convened a special legislative session, Democrats would again deny the GOP majority a quorum to pass bills, barely a month after their walkout in the state House of Representatives thwarted the first push for sweeping new voting restrictions in Texas -- including outlawing 24-hour polling places, banning ballot drop boxes and empowering partisan poll watchers.
The decision to hole up in Washington is aimed at ratcheting up pressure in the nation's capital on President Joe Biden and Congress to act on voting at the federal level.
It would mark the first time since 2003 that Texas Democrats, shut out of power in the state Capitol for decades, have crossed state lines to break quorum.
"Back in 2003 the Democrats did this twice to fight a re-districting bill that the Republicans were pushing," said SMU political science professor Cal Jillson. "And, ultimately, the Democrats lost. The Republicans got their bill passed. That’s what will happen this time, but it increases the visibility of this fight and increases people’s sense of the importance of this fight."
The drastic move lays bare how Democrats are making America's biggest red state their last stand against the GOP's rush to enact new voting restrictions in response to former President Donald Trump's false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. More than a dozen states this year have already passed tougher election laws -- but only in Texas have Democrats put up this kind of fight.
Over the weekend, Texas Republicans began advancing new election bills in the Legislature that also bring back provisions to ban drive-thru voting, add new voter ID requirements to absentee ballots and prohibit local elections officials from proactively sending mail-in ballot applications to voters.
A first key vote on the new measures had been expected this week, hastening Democrats' scramble to leave town.
But this time could carry more risk, and still no guarantee of victory in the long run.
Abbott, who is up for reelection in 2022 and has demanded new election laws in Texas, could keep calling 30-day special sessions until a bill is passed. He also punished Democrats after their May walkout by vetoing paychecks for roughly 2,000 Capitol employees, which will begin taking effect in September unless the Legislature is in session to restore the funding.
Staying away and grinding the Legislature to a halt for an extended time could also carry repercussions in next year's midterm elections, although many Texas Democrats are already expecting a difficult cycle in 2022, particularly with Republicans set to begin drawing new voting maps this fall that could cement their majorities.
Adding to the fresh anger, a Houston man who gained attention last year after waiting more than six hours to cast a ballot was arrested on illegal voting charges, and put in jail one day before the special session began Thursday. Attorneys for Hervis Rogers say the 62-year-old did not know that his being on parole for a felony burglary conviction meant he wasn't allowed to vote.
How Republicans respond next will be a major test of their resolve.
Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan told Austin television station KXAN last week that "all options are on the table" if Democrats revolt a second time but did not elaborate. When Democrats last fled the state two decades ago -- in an ultimately failed attempt to stop new GOP-drawn voting maps -- state troopers were deployed to try bringing them back.
State Sen. Bryan Hughes, the author of both GOP attempts to pass election changes in Texas, said over the weekend that the legislation had become "bitterly partisan." He defended the new version, which leaves out contentious attempts to ban Sunday morning early voting and make it easier for judges to overturn an election.
"Your ballot is sacrosanct," Hughes said while introducing the bill Saturday. "Everything else in the election process should be bathed in sunshine."
Last week, Vice President Kamala Harris announced $25 million in new spending by the Democratic National Committee on actions to protect voting access ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
Biden and his team are stressing ongoing legal efforts to safeguard voting rights. They've also promised a major legislative push after Senate Republicans blocked a sweeping election overhaul last month. The president has told reporters he plans on "speaking extensively" on voting rights and that he would be "going on the road on this issue."
Texas Republicans, expectedly, have been critical of the move by the Democrats to deny a legislative quorum. The following is a collection of statements from Republican leaders on the Democrats' departure.
Gov. Greg Abbott
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick
Texas Speaker of the House Dade Phelan
“A number of House Democrats stated their caucus intends to break quorum in an attempt to stall election integrity legislation. These actions put at risk state funding that will deny thousands of hard-working staff members and their families a paycheck, health benefits, and retirement investment so that legislators who broke quorum can flee to Washington D.C. in private jets. The Texas House will use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously-passed House Rules to secure a quorum to meaningfully debate and consider election integrity, bail reform, benefits for retired teachers, Child Protective Services reform, Article X funding, and the other important measures Gov. Abbott placed on the special session agenda. The special session clock is ticking -- I expect all Members to be present in our Capitol in order to immediately get to work on these issues.”
Attorney General Ken Paxton
“This immature behavior by House Democrats is not only childish; it is a disgrace to democracy,” Attorney General Paxton said. “Their capricious act will not thwart our leadership’s efforts for stronger election integrity, bail reform, retired teacher benefits, and Child Protective Services reform, among other important agenda items. House Democrats have hurt their constituents and demonstrated that when they’re faced with a problem, they run away - literally. It’s shameful and they have failed as elected officials.”
Republican National Committee Spokesman Michael Joyce
“By pulling another petty partisan stunt and fleeing the state, Texas Democrats are prioritizing a federal takeover of state and local elections over the needs of their own constituents. It’s hard to say who will regret this decision more, the Texas Democrats who flee, or Joe Biden and Kamala Harris who continue to support it.”
NBC 5 reporter/anchor Katy Blakey and the Associated Press' Paul J. Weber contributed to this report.