© 2023 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

2021 Quorum Break Is Different From 2003 In One Key Way: Congress Can Act

DC: Members of the Texas legislature hold a press conference on voting rights outside the US Capitol
Rod Lamkey
CNP/Sipa USA via Reuters
A group of Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives arrive at the US Capitol for a press conference on voting rights, in Washington, DC, Tuesday, July 13, 2021. In an effort to block Republicans from enacting new voting restrictions, these Texas state House of Representatives arrived at Dulles International Airport last evening after fleeing their state in a pair of charter jets.

Democratic state lawmakers left Texas this week to block Republican-backed efforts to make voting more difficult. It’s not the first time.

In 2003, Democrats accused Republicans of attempting to undermine democracy with a “mid-decade” redistricting plan, and they broke quorum to delay.

Tom Craddick had just become the first Republican speaker of the Texas House in over a century.

“We just talked to the DPS officers up in Ardmore, (Oklahoma),” he told the remaining lawmakers, hours after they realized what Democrats were up to. “And the House members said they’re not coming back.”

Ardmore, Oklahoma, is about a half hour from the Texas border.

“They fled to Oklahoma because they were looking for a state with a democratic governor, which Oklahoma had at the time,” Sherri Greenberg explained.

She was a Democratic Representative in the state House through 2001 and is now a professor at UT Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. She recalled the Democrats’ reason for choosing Oklahoma on the Texas Standard.

“Because they knew that (then-Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry) would not send them back out of Oklahoma to Texas since he was a Democrat,” she said. “And they also knew that (Texas) state troopers could not arrest them in Oklahoma across state lines and bring them back to Texas.”

Joaquin Castro, who is now a U.S. congress member, was one of the Texas representatives who traveled out of state back in 2003.

“Well, it's just like now,” he said. “We had exhausted every other tool that we had — every other way to express our strong disagreement with what amounted to Republicans trying to rig a system to make sure that more of their people would get elected.”

2003 marked the first Texas state legislative session with a Republican majority in more than a century. Republicans decided to redraw the state’s voting districts for the national congressional elections.

House Democrats left for Oklahoma in an attempt to prevent Republicans from solidifying their blossoming power, and Democrats from the State Senate also broke quorum during a subsequent special session. But, as Joaquin Castro explained, Democrats didn’t have any other recourse, and eventually restored the quorum.

“That's the big difference between 2003 and 2021, that the Federal Congress can actually step in here and do something in this moment, in a way that in 2003 just wasn't available,” he said.

Back then, the fight was focused on voting districts, with Republicans pushing what Democrats described as heavily gerrymandered maps. Now, Republicans are trying to make it harder to vote, citing the so-called “big lie” of widespread voter fraud. Democrats and many observers say the push is actually about suppressing voters who might not support Republicans.

“Not just in Texas, I think that's a national phenomena that the greater the turnout, the more dangerous it is for Republicans,” said Harvey Kronberg, publisher of the Quorum Report — an insider newsletter about Texas politics.

In 2003, when the website had just launched, Republicans were trying to shift the political power map of the state. Now, they’re trying to preserve their power through Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3.

“There are some things in the bills that are good, except for the fact that there is a national effort,” Kronberg said. “And it's undeniable that this national effort on the part of Republicans is to make it more difficult to vote — to raise the bar, the threshold, on voting.”

Back in 2003, the Democrats successfully delayed redistricting, but they couldn’t prevent it.

Now, Texas Democrats are urging Congress to pass federal voting protections. Congress has tried, but Senate Republicans have used the filibuster to block the attempts.

Congressman Joaquin Castro said he plans to pressure his colleagues.

“Pressing the senators so that even if they don't remove the filibuster on healthcare, or immigration legislation or anything else, that they do it to protect people's voting rights,” he said.

If the filibuster stays in place and more federal voting rights protections remain stalled, Democrats could see a repeat of 2003.

Then-Gov. Rick Perry called three special sessions. State Republicans were able to redraw the congressional districts before the 2004 general election, and Texas sent a majority-Republican group of representatives to the U.S. Congress for the first time since Reconstruction.

TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.

Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony
Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules