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As Texas GOP moves to revive bill to limit voting, Democrats plot next move

A "temporarily closed" sign stands outside doors.
The closed House chamber at the Texas state Capitol in Austin on Tuesday.
(Eric Gay / Associated Press)

Texas Republicans pressed ahead with their push to limit voting options Tuesday, vowing to ensure Democrats’ weekend victory over one the most restrictive voting measures in the country would only be temporary.

GOP Gov. Greg Abbott prepared to call lawmakers back for a special session to revive the voting measure that died when Democrats staged a dramatic walkout from the state Capitol just before the end of the legislative session Sunday night. Bolstered by Republican majorities in the House and Senate, Abbott also was weighing whether to use the extra session to take up other top conservative priorities that had failed during the session.

That left Texas Democrats facing the aftermath of their last-minute maneuver and confronting how — or even whether — they can turn it into more than just temporary roadblock in the GOP’s nationwide pursuit to limit voting across the U.S.

“There are consequences,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, one of Texas’ longest-serving Democrats.

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Democrats who staged the revolt in the state House of Representatives just before a midnight deadline Sunday did not leave indefinitely. Most were back on the House floor 12 hours later for ceremonial business, and none are calling to boycott a special session.

They are instead betting their dramatic flight out of the Texas Capitol and to a Black church will make Republicans think twice about some provisions in the legislation — such as banning early voting on Sunday mornings, when many Black worshipers go to the polls after church — and give them more say on the next election bill.

The Texas Senate has pushed the state one step closer to becoming the largest in the nation where the GOP is making voting harder following the 2020 elections.

But bare-knuckled Republican governing is a way of life in the Texas Capitol, and no concessions are so far promised. Abbott has begun punishing and taunting Democrats while he settles on deciding when he will order them back to work.

He said Monday he would veto the part of the budget that funds legislators’ salaries, a move that could impact not just Democrats but also other Capitol staff. He then tweeted a reminder of the last time Texas Democrats dramatically blocked a bill: when then-state Sen. Wendy Davis talked for more than 11 consecutive hours in 2013 to filibuster a sweeping antiabortion measure, which Republicans immediately revived and passed in a special session.

“We all know how that story ended,” Abbott tweeted.

Texas Republicans may also enter a 30-day special session with not just commanding majorities, but new leverage. Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the right-wing leader of the Senate, also wants Abbott to demand that lawmakers try again to pass a ban on transgender athletes in girls’ and women’s sports.

Biden asks Vice President Kamala Harris to lead his administration’s efforts to protect voting rights as many states work to add restrictions.

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The Texas GOP’s bill to limit voting rules, known as Senate Bill 7, would reduce polling hours, empower partisan poll watchers and limit voting options. It includes a ban on drive-through voting centers and 24-hour polling places, both of which were used last year around Houston, reflecting how Republicans went after Texas’ largest Democratic stronghold.

But it was new provisions added during final negotiations between the House and the Senate that triggered the Democrats’ walkout. One of the new measures would have made it easier to overturn an election by allowing a judge to void a candidate’s victory if the number of fraudulent votes cast could change the outcome, regardless of whether it was proved that the fraud actually had affected the result. It was kind of provision could allow a favorable judge to side with a candidate who makes broad claims of fraud with little or no evidence — as then-President Trump did in trying to overturn his 2020 election loss.

Some Democrats suggested they would allow a vote on the elections legislation if it more closely resembled the earlier version and included some bipartisan input. Democrats had voted against that as well, but had not staged the protest.

“If we get back on track with that mentality, we might be able to come up with election policy that is less objectionable,” Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer said.

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There were some signs Republicans might back off some of the most restrictive provisions. Republican state Rep. Travis Clardy, one of the negotiators on the final version of the Texas bill, told NPR on Tuesday that banning early Sunday morning voting was essentially a typo — that instead of starting voting no earlier than 1 p.m., the bill was supposed to say 11 a.m.

“That’s one of the things I look forward to ... fixing the most. Call it a scrivener’s error, whatever you want to,” Clardy said.

But the Senate author of the bill, Republican Bryan Hughes, made no mention of any such mistake over the weekend while defending the new Sunday limits. “Election workers want to go to church, too,” Hughes said.

It the new bill is not acceptable to Democrats — and they were to walk out again — Republicans don’t have to stand pat. State troopers could be mobilized to try to forcibly bring lawmakers back to the House, as was the case in 2003, when Texas Democrats fled to Oklahoma and New Mexico to try and block new voting maps.

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Whitmire, who was first elected to the Texas Legislature in 1973, spent 36 days holed up in a hotel before breaking ranks with his fellow Democrats and returning home. The decision gave Senate Republicans at the time the quorum needed to get back to work on a redistricting plan that would give the GOP more seats in Congress.

“Of upmost important is, what are you going to do when you get back?” Whitmire said of denying a quorum. “Are things going to be different? Probably not. But it educates the public and lets your core group know how committed you are to principles.”

Texas Democrats’ move has reverberated across the country. President Biden on Tuesday urged Democrats and their allies to step up the fight to defend voting rights, which is expected to heat up in Washington later this month when Congress debates a federal rewrite of elections law.

“I urge voting rights groups in this country to begin to redouble their efforts now to register and educate voters. June should be a month of action on Capitol Hill,” Biden said.

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