The Texas legislature was thrown into the national spotlight last month when the minority Democrats staged a mass walkout to deny the House the quorum needed to pass one of the many voter rights restrictions bills that have been a Republican priority in state congresses since President Joe Biden won in November. The move prompted an invitation to Washington D.C. to discuss with the national Democratic leadership, including Vice President Kamala Harris, how to move forward with voter protections.
“We come home having done our part to persuade and to thank and support our United States senators that really have a tough decision to make on adopting S1, which is the For the People Act, and to get a timeline on the John Lewis Act,” State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) told WFAA.
Senate Bill 1 is a “bottom line” bill that would create a floor to voting rights states could not go below. These include mandatory early voting periods, same-day voter registration, lowering identification requirements, and universal mail-in voting access. The latter is a particularly thorny issue for Republicans because Biden handily won the mail vote in most contests. Attorney General Ken Paxton has even said that Texas would have gone blue in the election if mail-in vote applications hadn’t been blocked.
The bill is seen as unlikely to pass because a 60-vote supermajority is needed to thwart a filibuster, and moderate Senators such as Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) have stated they are unwilling to change Senate rules regarding the filibuster. Democrats and Republicans currently have an even split in the Senate, with Harris serving as a tiebreaker. Martinez Fischer seemed hopeful in his interview regarding Manchin’s support of the SB1, though. He met the Senator face to face while in Washington.
“It does not make any meaningful sense to me that all of this is happening, only to be stonewalled by a filibuster,” he said. “I think that even Senator Robert Byrd, a predecessor to Senator Manchin, knew that there are times, extraordinary times when you have to move on the filibuster. Let’s hope that happens here.”
Harris has embraced the efforts by Texans even as she is dispatched as Biden’s agent in getting SB1 passed. She met the Texas Democratic delegation last Wednesday and affirmed the need for federal oversight after the Supreme Court struck down aspects of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
“We have seen exactly what we feared when that case came down in 2013,” she said at the meeting. “Because that case was an opening of a door to allow states to do what otherwise we have protected against, which is states putting in place laws that are designed, in many cases quite intentionally, to make it difficult for people to vote. And so, this is what we’ve seen over and over again, and what’s happening right now in Texas is, of course, a very clear and current example of that.”
The Texas bill contained a number of especially draconian measures, including restricting voting hours, prohibiting officials from sending out mail-in voting applications and adding criminal penalties to election workers who interfere with poll watchers. The latter brought to mind intimidation tactics used in the Jim Crow south to discourage Black voters.
It’s unclear how much the trip to Washington actually accomplished for either Texas Democrats or the national push for SB1. Should SB1 fail to pass, the actions of Texas Democrats could be seen as a second line of defense, though one that is unlikely to work a second time with Republicans in control of the legislative clock in possible upcoming special sessions. Whether someone like Manchin or Sinema are to be swayed by the pleas of the states fighting these laws also remains to be seen.
What is clear is the fight, both nationwide and in Texas, is far from over.
“Governor Abbott and Texas Republicans continue to push the passage of legislation that restricts our access and ability to vote in free and fair elections across the state,” Texas Democratic Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement after the meeting with Harris. “Texas cannot afford to wait much longer for federal action: the Governor has threatened to call legislators back to Austin to push his extreme, anti-democracy agenda.”