Texas Democrats have shown incredible restraint. The minority party has fled the state to break quorum only three times, disrupting legislation that would help keep Republicans in power on every occasion.
That’s no fickle standard — it may even be too strict. One couldn’t blame Democrats if they hitched a ride to Miami for some sunshine the moment Texas politics reached bottom-barrel “Save Chick-fil-A” levels.
In any case, the moonshot plan by Texas Democrats to stir Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation is better than being in Austin, where they would otherwise participate in a GOP-controlled public spectacle to convince Texans that something went wrong in the November 2020 elections.
Nothing went wrong, of course. Former Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs testified that Texas elections were both “smooth and secure” (a statement that eventually cost her the job) and Ken Paxton’s zealous Texas attorney general’s office and bribery emporium found no widespread election fraud in 2020, prosecuting only 16 voters for allegedly giving false addresses on their voter registration forms.
Those facts mattered little to Republican lawmakers during the regular session as they worked on Senate Bill 7, which sought to ban 24-hour and drive-thru voting, end county-level mail ballot expansion efforts, and empower partisan poll watchers. Texas House Democrats slugged it out over the bill amendment after amendment.
When the bill went to conference committee to settle differences between both chambers in the final days of the session, Senate Republicans pulled a bait and switch, revealing a monstrous mistake-riddled bill that contained some truly frighting provisions, including making it easier to overturn elections.
Republicans graciously fixed their spelling mistakes and removed some of the troubling provisions when the legislation was revived in the current special session.
Gov. Greg Abbott and some pearl-clutching observers have pointed to this as “compromise,” or a sign that GOP lawmakers were ready to negotiate in good faith before Democrats skipped town.
But Republican lawmakers, perhaps fearing a Ruth Hughs-style purge, were more than ready to pass the worst version of the bill. Had Democrats not walked out and simply stopped participating in the legislative process, it would be law of the land today.
Rather than risk being fooled twice and in no mood to deal with Abbott’s unconstitutional defunding of the legislature, Democrats struck first and left as soon as the voter suppression bills made their way out of committee.
Republicans seem rather helpless about the whole ordeal. Speaker of the House Dade Phelan paid for a chartered flight to Washington to ask Democrats to return, which is one very expensive way to grovel in public.
The preemptive strike has temporarily prevented Texas from joining a growing list of more than a dozen states who have enacted laws to restrict access to voting. It’s unlikely Texas Republicans will give up.
In addition to being one of Abbott’s top priorities, it’s also a top priority for the former president, whose endorsements and influence still looms large in the Republican conscience.
A few days before the special session began, Donald Trump visited Dallas to speak at length at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference and drive home the point about the importance of suppressing the vote.
“We were doing so well until the rigged election happened to come along,” Trump said, shortly after thanking Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for being “fast on the draw” — presumably referring to a lawsuit by Paxton that prohibited Harris County from sending out 2.4 million mail ballot applications, which the incumbent attorney general later bragged won Trump the state.
“The election fraud of 2020 is the single most requested topic for me and others to talk about,” Trump concluded towards the end of his hour and a half speech to America’s most devoted and unbusy conservatives. “Ahead of the border, even ahead of crime.”
Those are strong marching orders, but it’s worth remembering that Trump did not incept the idea of voter suppression into the minds of Texas Republican lawmakers.
Long before the real estate mogul entered politics, Greg Abbott was earning his chops as Texas attorney general by fear-mongering about an “epidemic” of voter fraud. He spent his tenure on a warpath against the same invisible white whale. Notable examples include prosecuting Democrats who helped senior citizens vote by mail, using the power of his office to disrupt and eventually shut down a major voter registration drive in then-battleground Harris County, and threatening foreign election observers with arrest for wanting to monitor the state’s strict voter ID laws.
By the time Abbott ran for governor, he had already developed a reputation as a paranoid crusader against voter fraud. Whatever vision the Wichita Falls native set out to have for Texas is largely complete; the Lone Star State is the most difficult state in the nation to vote in.
Despite being at the peak of his political power, Abbott remains unsatisfied. Margins at the top of the ticket are dwindling, and they present a nightmare scenario for the incumbent governor, the conclusion of a lengthy political arc that ends with being known as the man who lost Texas for Republicans.
Buoyed by Trump’s loss, the governor is more than willing to throttle just about every lever of power afforded to him, whether that’s defunding the legislature, abusing his budget authority for a large-scale $250 million downpayment on a border wall (campaign advertisement), or threatening to lock members up in the Capitol until they pass his desired legislation.
When it comes to voter suppression, Abbott has rarely suffered political defeats. This latest sucker punch by Texas Democrats, now being beamed across televisions across the nation, is one that will leave a scar.
Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at email@example.com