WASHINGTON ― Texas Democrats who left the state to prevent Republicans from passing new voting restrictions continued a public campaign in Washington, D.C., this week to convince federal lawmakers to pass sweeping voting rights legislation. And they have a stark warning: National Democrats are fiddling while voters’ rights are in crisis.
“I honestly don’t believe that they’re on the same timeline as we are,” Texas state Rep. Ron Reynolds (D), the vice chair of the state Legislature’s Black Caucus, told HuffPost on Wednesday.
The Democratic lawmakers decamped to the nation’s capital in early July after fleeing Austin to break quorum as Republicans prepared to move their voting legislation in a special session. Their effort is unlikely to succeed: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has pledged to keep calling special sessions in order to break the Democrats’ will and force through a package that will make it harder to vote in a state that already ranks among the nation’s most restrictive.
“For us it’s do or die, because Gov. Abbott is going to call another special session as early as Aug. 9,” Reynolds said. “We hope the Senate realizes that we’re on borrowed time, so we really need federal intervention.”
If passed, the Texas bill would join 30 other laws to create new voting restrictions that Republican-led states have approved this year. These represent the biggest threat to voting rights for Black people and other voters of color since Jim Crow, Texas Democrats and civil rights leaders have argued. Democrats’ priority voting rights bill, the For the People Act, would override many of those restrictions by implementing new voting rights standards, including requirements that states allow early voting and automatic voter registration, and by reducing other traditional barriers to voting that have disproportionately affected Black people, Native Americans, Latinos and other minority groups.
“There’s so many Black and brown people who will be disenfranchised if we don’t get this passed,” Reynolds said.
Congressional Democrats echoed the Texans’ need for federal legislation during a Thursday-morning House Oversight Committee hearing that featured testimony from three of the Texas lawmakers. But the For the People Act has already passed the House. It is languishing in the Senate, where Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) opposes the bill as written and unified Republican opposition means it can’t overcome the 60-vote filibuster even if Manchin comes around.
Manchin has expressed qualms with portions of the bill, which includes a major overhaul of campaign finance laws and election reforms. He and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) remain opposed to filibuster reform that would allow Democrats to pass the legislation with a simple majority if and when all 50 members of their caucus are on board.
Most of the Democratic haggling over the legislation is happening behind closed doors, and there are some signs of progress. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said on a press call Thursday that Manchin and other lawmakers are “very close” to reaching an agreement on legislation that meets his demands.
But Congress is set to begin its summer recess after next week and won’t reconvene until after Labor Day, and Senate Democrats and the White House are for now focused on using the remaining days before that break to pass infrastructure legislation.
By the time Senate Democrats return their full attention to voting rights, it may be too late for Texas Democrats to prevent their state from joining Florida, Georgia and others that have passed major voting restriction laws based on the GOP’s and former President Donald Trump’s rampant lies about widespread voter fraud during the 2020 election.
It will also leave little time for Democrats to devise a strategy for approving federal legislation that could be implemented before midterm elections next year, when Republicans hope to win gubernatorial races that could pave the way for even more voting restrictions in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
During a Wednesday press conference at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, Texas Democrats and civil rights leaders ― including Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III ― called on congressional leaders to cancel or delay the August recess to focus on finding a way forward on voting rights legislation, saying that the situation is far too dire to set aside for yet another month.
“Something is wrong within our nation at this moment, but it is not something that we cannot fix,” King said. “One of the most important steps that we can take is that short step to the ballot box. But you can’t take the step if people make it very difficult to get to. … That’s why we need federal legislation. We don’t need it tomorrow. We don’t need it next week. We need it right now.”
Texas Democrats met with Manchin again on Wednesday, an encounter that included what Sharpton called a “candid conversation” about the need to pass federal legislation. The lawmakers also met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in an attempt to forge a path forward. They also planned to meet with former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams (D) and Bill and Hillary Clinton on Thursday.
Manchin has said he believes the election overhaul legislation should win Republican support in order to pass. The conservative Democrat has released a framework of his preferred changes to the existing legislation, and has backed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, an enhancement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But there is no indication that Republicans are open to supporting any federal law that would preempt the GOP’s biggest priority at the state level.
The bills Texas Republicans are pushing follow the broad contours of the legislation Democrats thwarted with another quorum-breaking walkout in May. They would require voters to submit forms of identification to cast absentee ballots and prohibit local officials from broadly using curbside voting and expanded early-voting hours ― reforms that Harris County, the state’s most populous, used to boost turnout and make voting easier last year. Texas Democrats also say that the proposed bills would make it easier for poll watchers to intimidate voters at polling sites.
Some aspects of the bills go even further than previous versions: One provision would require voters to include their driver’s license or Social Security numbers on absentee ballots in order for them to count. If voters don’t use the same number they used to register, their ballot would be tossed out, meaning voters who aren’t sure which of the two numbers they used years or even decades ago could be disenfranchised.
Like new GOP laws elsewhere, the Texas bills are designed to target Black, Latino and other minority voting populations, Texas Democrats argue: At Thursday’s hearing, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D) referred to the bills as “Jim Crow 3.0,” and argued that they’re a deliberate Republican ploy to hold on to power in an increasingly purple state.
“There is a nationwide trend to tighten voting laws in response to the increasing diversity of the electorate, including in Texas,” Nina Perales, the vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told Congress.
During the hearing, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), the top Republican on the Oversight Committee’s Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee, accused Texas Democrats of staging a political stunt that had prevented the state Legislature from debating voting rights and other GOP priorities, including a bill to prohibit transgender girls from participating in women’s sports at school. Sessions noted that Texas allows more days of early voting than President Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware, and pointed out that the bill would still allow curbside voting for people with disabilities, although disability advocates have said the GOP’s preferred voting changes would make it significantly harder for such voters to cast ballots overall.
Rep. Pat Fallon (R-Texas) argued that the concerns about drive-thru voting were overstated because only Harris County used it last year ― a point that unintentionally underscored Democrats’ argument that the new restrictions specifically target areas with large Black and Latino populations. The Republicans also continued to argue that concerns over voter fraud, which did not occur in substantial numbers in Texas or anywhere else last year, justify the changes they are seeking, and that Democrats’ federal voting legislation is merely a big-government takeover of elections.
Texas Democrats countered that the Voting Rights Act and other federal laws are the primary reason that the state employs multilingual ballots and other expansive strategies that Republicans cited as proof that Texas isn’t too restrictive.
“The only reason we have that is because of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Texas state Rep. Nicole Collier, the chair of the state Legislature’s Black Caucus, testified. “It only elevates and shows the need for these types of protections again. Unless we have federal intervention, we will continue to see the steady chipping away of these rights.”
As bleak as the outlook for federal legislation looks, the Texas lawmakers still believe they can convince Manchin to support both the legislation and smaller filibuster reforms that would make final passage possible.
The lawmakers and civil rights groups are planning a massive public push for voting rights legislation on Aug. 28, when they will stage rallies in Washington and other major cities to coincide with the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963. That demonstration helped create momentum for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act a year later. This one, Sharpton said Wednesday, is meant to “get this Senate the power” to move forward.
“We have never had a bill passed that the odds were on our side,” Sharpton said. “We’re gonna pass this bill.”