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Texas Democrats Abandon House Floor, Blocking Passage Of Voting Bill Before Final Deadline

State Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, spoke at a press conference at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in East Austin after Democrats broke quorum in opposition to Senate Bill 7, a sweeping GOP voting bill.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
A line outside a polling location during the first day of early voting in Houston on Oct. 13, 2020. 

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In a last-ditch attempt to block a sweeping GOP voting bill, nearly all Democrats walked off the House floor Sunday night, preventing a vote on the legislation before a fatal deadline.

The Republican priority bill is an expansive piece of legislation that would alter nearly the entire voting process, create new limitations to early voting hours, ratchet up voting-by-mail restrictions and curb local voting options like drive-thru voting.

Democrats have argued the bill was an act of voter suppression that would make it harder for people of color to vote in Texas. Republicans, however, called the bill an “election integrity” measure — necessary to safeguard Texas elections from fraudulent votes.

In Texas and nationally, efforts to further restrict voting have been rooted in baseless claims of widespread fraud for which there is virtually no evidence.

Debate on Senate Bill 7 had extended over several hours as the Texas House neared a midnight cutoff to give final approval to legislation before it could head to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk to be signed into law.

Democrats seemed to be trickling off the floor throughout the night, a number of their desks appearing empty.

During an earlier vote to adopt a resolution allowing last-minute additions to the bill, just 35 of 67 Democrats appeared to cast votes. Around 10:30 p.m., the remaining Democrats were seen walking out of the chamber.

Their absence left the House without a quorum — which requires two-thirds of the 150 House members to be present — needed to take a vote.

Their departure came after a message from Grand Prairie Democrat Chris Turner, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

“Members take your key and leave the chamber discretely. Do not go to the gallery. Leave the building,” Turner said in a text message obtained by The Texas Tribune.

Later, in a statement, Turner said the walkout came only after it appeared Democrats' plan to run out the clock on the House floor with speeches wasn't going to work.

"The 67 members of the House Democratic Caucus have been fighting SB7 — the Republican anti-voter legislation — all year long. Tonight we finished that fight," Turner said. "It became obvious Republicans were going to cut off debate to ram through their vote suppression legislation. At that point we had no choice but to take extraordinary measure to protect our constituents and their right to vote."

With about an hour left before the midnight deadline, House Speaker Dade Phelan acknowledged the lost quorum and adjourned until 10 a.m. Monday morning. Midnight was the cutoff for the House and Senate to sign off on the final versions of bills that have been negotiated during conference committees.

After adjourning, Phelan took aim at the Democrats and noted that their actions killed other bipartisan legislation.

“Today, on the second to last day of session, a number of members have chosen to disrupt the legislative process by abandoning the legislative chamber before our work was done," Phelan said in a statement. "In doing so, these members killed a number of strong, consequential bills with broad bipartisan support including legislation to ban no-knock warrants, reform our bail system, and invest in the mental health of Texans – items that their colleagues and countless advocates have worked hard to get to this point. Texans shouldn’t have to pay the consequences of these members’ actions -- or in this case, inaction -- especially at a time when a majority of Texans have exhibited clear and express support for making our elections stronger and more secure.”

SB 7 was one step away from the governor’s desk. It was negotiated behind closed doors over the last week after the House and Senate passed significantly different versions of the legislation and pulled from each chamber’s version of the bill. The bill also came back with a series of additional voting rule changes that weren’t part of previous debates on the bill.

Abbott tweeted that lawmakers should expect to finish the job during a special session.

"Election Integrity & Bail Reform were emergency items for this legislative session. They STILL must pass. They will be added to the special session agenda," he said in a tweet. "Legislators will be expected to have worked out the details when they arrive at the Capitol for the special session."

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, echoed the call for a special session to pass SB 7 and other Republican priorities that have died in the House.

"The Texas Senate passed all these priority bills months ago and we will again. The TxHouse failed the people of Texas tonight. No excuse," Patrick tweeted.

By 11:15 p.m. about 30 Democrats could be seen arriving at a Baptist church about 2 miles away from the Capitol in East Austin. Several members declined to comment on their departure from the floor that blocked the vote.

The location for Democrats' reunion appeared to be a subtle nod at a last-minute addition to the expansive bill that set a new restriction on early voting hours on Sundays, limiting voting from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Over the last two days, Democrats had derided the addition — dropped in during behind-closed-door negotiations — raising concerns that change would hamper “souls to the polls” efforts meant to turn out voters after church services.

Over the last few months, SB 7 has been at the forefront of Republicans' broader efforts to further restrict voting after the state saw the highest turnout in decades in 2020. With Republicans in full control of state government, the odds that it would make it to the governor’s desk were always high.

Still, the legislation has evoked heated debates between Republicans and Democrats — the last one in the House taking a particular focus on the last-minute additions to the bill. The final version of the bill grew well beyond what the House and Senate originally passed into a wide-ranging 67-page bill with many additions that were only revealed to the full House on Saturday.

Portions of the bill were specifically written to target voting initiatives Harris County used in the last election — such as a day of 24-hour early voting, drive-thru voting and an effort to proactively distribute applications to vote by mail — that were heavily used by voters of color. But under SB 7, those options will be banned across the state.

It sets a new window for early voting from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. and makes it a state jail felony for local officials to send mail-in ballot applications to voters who did not request them. It would also be a felony to provide those applications to third-party groups, like the League of Women Voters, that get out the vote. It also expands the freedoms of partisan poll watchers, granting them “free movement” within a polling place, except for when a voter is filling out a ballot.

As the Senate finished its work before midnight, Patrick took aim at House Republicans for wasting time earlier in the session.

“This is what happens when you take two days off and do nothing in the last five days,” he said referring to a recent week when House members abruptly recessed to send a message to the Senate for not passing their bills fast enough.

“You put yourself in a box where you're up against a deadline, and I can't even blame it on the other party for walking out. They got an opportunity to walk out, because of the deadline.”

Reese Oxner contributed to this report.

Alexa Ura | Texas Tribune