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Why Texas Democrats Walked Out

Voting regulations in Texas were already among the most stringent in the nation, but that didn’t stop Republican lawmakers in the state from trying to pass a bill that would, among other things, limit early voting hours, restrict mail voting and expand the authority of partisan poll watchers by allowing them access inside polling places and threatening criminal penalties against election officials who obstruct them.

Of course, what’s happening in the Lone Star State isn’t unique. It’s part of a larger push by Republican lawmakers nationwide to make it harder to vote following Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. And, so far, they have already successfully passed voting restrictions in at least two dozen states

In other words, Texas was just the latest state to try to pass its own restrictive voting bill. And at first blush, its proposed law didn’t seem all that different from the one that Georgia passed in March. Given the makeup of the Texas state legislature — Republicans have majorities in both the House and Senate — the bill was widely expected to pass, too.

It didn’t pass, however — at least not this version. Without consulting their Democratic colleagues, Republican lawmakers slipped in several last-minute, previously undiscussed provisions, including ID requirements to vote by mail and new rules for early voting on Sundays (a move that would’ve directly affected Black churchgoers). And, unlike in Georgia, where some of the more draconian restrictions were thrown out, Texas GOP lawmakers were not open to debating or negotiating. So when it became apparent late on Sunday — the second-to-last day of the state’s legislative session — that Republicans were trying to force passage of the bill without Democratic input on the newest additions, Texas Democrats chose a nuclear option: They walked out. As a result, the chamber didn’t have the quorum required to take a vote, killing the bill. 

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At first glance, this might look like a win for the state’s minority party. And it is. But this win will be short-lived. Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to defund the legislature after the bill failed, and he is likely to either call a special session soon to ensure the bill passes or have lawmakers address this later in the summer or fall when they return to redraw the state’s political maps. And while Republicans have said they’ll revise the most controversial late addition to the bill, the part that would have curtailed “souls to the polls” initiatives (at least one GOP lawmaker called its inclusion “a mistake”), it’s unclear how much the majority party will budge beyond that. After all, Republicans could propose a new voting bill with even harsher restrictions

An illustration of a red elephant halfway in a photo stretching its head and nose out in front of a blue voting booth.

related: How The Republican Push To Restrict Voting Could Affect Our Elections Read more. »

“[Democrats] know they are delaying the inevitable, but they need to send a message to their constituents that they are doing everything they can,” said David Barker, a professor of government at American University. “In doing so, they are also calling greater attention to the issue — including nationally — which they hope will galvanize people. It was the only tool they had left.”

At this point, staging a walkout is still pretty rare in state legislatures. Before Sunday, the last time this happened in recent memory in Texas was in 2003, when more than 50 Democratic lawmakers fled to neighboring Oklahoma to block a Republican-drawn redistricting plan designed to give the GOP about half a dozen more seats in the state legislature. Prior to that, the last walkout in Texas was in 1979, when Democrats were in control. Back then, 11 Democratic state senators holed up for days in an Austin apartment to stop the passage of a bill to create a dual-primary system.

Yet with a big redistricting fight on the horizon (and Republicans controlling a large part of the process), it’s possible we could see more walkouts, but experts I spoke to cautioned that it’s still too early to draw conclusions about whether other lawmakers — or even Texas lawmakers for that matter — will try to replicate this. Staging a walkout remains a drastic measure, although Oregon Republicans have taken walkouts to the extreme, using them to fight almost every bill, not just the bills they oppose the most. 

And the reality is that without some type of voting-rights legislation at the federal level, legislators — like those in Texas who find themselves in the minority party — are in a sticky situation, as they have little to no power. This dynamic is unlikely to change, too, because even though claims of widespread voter fraud have been widely debunked, the GOP continues to push — and pass — restrictive voting bills. As Myrna Pérez, the director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told me, we can expect GOP lawmakers to pursue the same strategy as long as some are willing to manipulate the rules of the game “so that they can maintain their job security and keep themselves in power.” As we’ve noted before at FiveThirtyEight, political institutions are stacked in favor of the GOP, and that means when a disagreement arises, the power of the minority party is in jeopardy.

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Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.