Enough Texas Democrats have fled the state that the Texas House of Representatives cannot legally form a quorum or pass any laws, which has left Governor Greg Abbott infuriated. It might also leave him completely out to dry in the upcoming redistricting fight if he cannot persuade the Democrats to return.
Abbott chose to put his plans for a massive voter rights and access restriction bill in the first special legislative session of 2021, but it immediately ran into problems. When amendments and attempts to soften the impact of the bill on mail-in voting and other aspects of conducting elections failed, the Democrats left the chamber and moved to Washington D.C. beyond the legal jurisdiction of the governor to recall them. They’ve been there ever since, waiting for Abbott to either pledge cooperation or the special session to run out.
Abbott has responded with hardball tactics such as cutting the funding for the entire legislative branch. The move was widely seen as extortion, and the politics of doing so have blown up in Abbott’s face. It’s also put into jeopardy the paychecks of around 2,000 staffers, which may have immediate consequences.
The legislature is expected to call another special session in September that will take the results of the U.S. Census and redraw congressional districts. This is a big boon to Republicans as they control both houses and the governor’s mansion and stand to draw districts favorable to themselves. With the state expected to add two seats to the U.S. House of Representatives, the stakes are high.
However, those lines need to be researched, and research requires staffers. The ones who are working without pay may find that they are unable to keep up with their work, leaving lawmakers without the staff to actually get the maps done.
On top of that, it’s still possible for the Democrats to simply not return, especially if Abbott calls a special session that tries to shoehorn in the redistricting fight in with his voting bill. That would further hamstring Abbott. If the legislature cannot come to a decision about drawing the maps, the federal courts step in to do so.
That’s what happened in 2001. The legislature failed to get the maps done in time, and the courts established the boundaries for the 2002 midterms. Since 2022 is expected to be a grim fight where every vote will count when it comes to deciding who will control the Texas’s House, not to mention all the top Texas Republican leadership positions being up for re-election, Abbott can little afford a presumably fairer set of lines done by the judicial branch.
In 2003, the Texas legislature did finally redraw the map as the power still ultimately lies on them and not the courts, though long term it’s arguable that the process didn’t go any smoother. Both redistricting maps since 2000 have ended up in near-constant litigation amid accusations of gerrymandering and minority disenfranchisement. Even should the Democrats return and the redistricting happen as it is supposed to, the odds of an ongoing fight leading into 2022 are near-certain.
If they don’t, the voting districts of Texas will be set by the federal courts, who aren’t likely to be as overtly favorable to keeping Republicans in power as the legislature would be. With the deadline to file to run for office only a few months out, Abbott has little time to be obstinate. The clock favors the Democrats overwhelmingly right now, including in redistricting.