After Voting Bill’s Passage, Texas Democrats Hold Out For Federal Help That May Never Come
Texas Democrats made their way to the U.S. Capitol to pressure Congress into voting for federal voting protections. But politics in Washington make that less likely with each passing day.
The vote Friday on GOP-backed voting legislation in the Texas House of Representatives was a formality: Senate Bill 1, which would add new restrictions to voting and which its opponents have criticized as an attempt at voter suppression, had enough votes to pass in the Republican-controlled legislature.
Democrats twice blocked similar legislation, first with a walkout during the regular session, and then by traveling to Washington D.C. during the first special session. While there, they urged Congress to pass federal voting protections.
Ahead of the vote, Democratic state Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas repeated that call to action — and said the fate of Texas voters was now in the hands of federal lawmakers.
“There’s an opportunity to take action on federal legislation that is going to protect the voting rights not just for millions of Texans but for millions of Americans,” Anchia said.
But the likelihood of that happening is slim: U.S. Senate rules currently require 60 members to pass such legislation. In a split Senate with no Republican support for the bill, the measure is likely headed nowhere, leaving Texas Democrats with few options as SB 1 is expected to become law in the coming days.
Despite a push to change that 60-vote rule, it's not clear whether efforts to eliminate it will actually succeed, according to Michael O. Adams, political science professor at Texas Southern University’s Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs.
Two Senate Democrats — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — are against any vote threshold changes in the chamber. And so far, President Biden has been silent on the issue, leaving most political experts to conclude Texas Democrats’ last hope is dead in the water.
"You can talk about how it’s a throwback to Jim Crow,” Adams said. "But again, you have to stand up and say, ‘break the filibuster, come over and support this piece of legislation.' And we haven’t seen the president do that.”
Adams and others are quick to point out that the state Democrats who broke quorum did shape the conversation around voting rights when they fled the state for Washington, D.C., in July. There, they met with Vice President Kamala Harris and other federal lawmakers, though they failed to secure a meeting with the president himself.
Still, a day after their arrival, Biden addressed the nation with a speech in support of the now-stalled For The People Act — a bill that would enact sweeping reforms, including an expansion of voter registration, mail-in balloting and early voting options. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a prominent critic of the For The People Act who blocked a vote on the bill on procedural grounds earlier this month, called it a “federal government takeover of elections.”
But any hope for the President’s movement on federal voter protections hit a snag last week, Adams said: The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the deaths of at least 13 U.S. service members as the Taliban fought to retake the country has overshadowed any talk of voting reform.
It’s also made it less likely Biden would move forward with any push to change Senate rules, given that the controversial withdrawal has spent some of his political capital, Adams said.
“Given the plummeting poll numbers, and what’s happening in Afghanistan, I don’t see that on the radar,” he said. “You have a lot of even Democrats who are beginning to distance themselves (last) week from the president, because they will be in some very close election battles next year.”
Critics say SB 1, the Texas voting bill, enacts new barriers to access for voters. It bans 24-hour voting, and drive-thru voting, among other things.
Both of those policies were enacted by Harris County ahead of the 2020 election, and election officials say they’re a big reason the county saw record turnout. They were also disproportionately used by voters of color: 53% of drive-thru voters were people of color, and 56% of those who used 24-hour voting were people of color, according to Chris Hollins, the former Harris County clerk who helped put the policies in place.
With the quorum break, movement on the bill stalled until the return of Democrats two weeks ago. On the House floor before the vote, House Democratic Chair Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, again criticized the bill as an attempt to suppress voter turnout in the state, while reiterating calls for federal action.
“Congress and the administration are watching, because they know what is at stake,” Turner said. “They know because we’ve told them a lot over these last several weeks that they need to act in order to protect voters from the regressive policies in this bill and other bills like it being introduced and enacted across the country. And when you all pass this bill, in a few minutes, you’re about to prove us correct.”
The House gave final approval to SB 1 on Friday with a vote of 80-41 along party lines.
One of the lawmakers who voted for the bill, Republican James White of Hillister, praised the bill for providing what he and others in the GOP have called election integrity.
“This is a very important bill because it deals with the fundamental architecture of our popular government, and that’s our voice, which is expressed through our vote,” White told KERA last week before its passage.
At some point, it was inevitable that the lawmakers would have to come home, according to Melanye Price, political science professor at Prairie View A&M University and director of the school’s Ruth J. Simmons Center for Race and Justice.
Still, Price added, the Democrats did accomplish what they set out to do: put public pressure on Congress to intervene.
"It was almost a done deal from the beginning,” Price said. “The math added up, the political will of the political actors was there. And so it was almost a fait accompli. And so what (Democrats) were able to do was at least stop the process for a while, and also register their discontent. And I think those things are to be lauded.”
SB 1 is now headed to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, where he’s expected to quickly sign it into law — and eventually face legal challenges, according to political experts.
But there, too, the outlook is grim for Democrats, with a conservative Texas judiciary and, if it is challenged in federal court, a conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The case could also make it as high as the U.S. Supreme Court, which has recently ruled in favor of such laws. The Supreme Court’s landmark 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required some states, including Texas, get federal preclearance to enact voting laws.
Since then, the court has only grown more conservative, which Price said makes it less likely the bill would be defeated in the courts.
“I think it’s a pretty bleak outlook for voting for people of color, and for people who have been marginalized, for poor people, for people with disabilities,” she said. “All of those people, I think, are going to have a difficult time voting for some years to come.”
If there is a silver lining, Price said, it’s that policies that have been criticized as racist have often historically been a motivator for political engagement — if people are able to overcome the barriers themselves.
“One of the things we know is that this does spur activity, but the desire to participate has to be a means that you have to overcome the obstacles,” she said. “And these obstacles are many."
Additional reporting by Bret Jaspers of KERA in Dallas-Fort Worth.