Texas voting law spat underscores Democratic alarm amid historic GOP election reform drive

Wave of post-2020 reform bills has put Democrats on the defensive in election integrity fight.

Updated: June 2, 2021 - 1:30pm

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A massive Democratic walkout in the Texas State House of Representatives has thrown into sharp relief the increasing anxiety shown by many Democrats amid an historic, aggressive effort by Republicans across the country to reform state voting laws. 

Coordinated via text message, Sunday's walkout saw the 67 Democrats who form the minority party in the Texas House depart the House floor and reconvene in a nearby black Baptist church in protest of the voting reform package pushed by Texas Republicans. 

On its website, the Texas House Democratic Caucus touted the walkout, calling the bill "anti-voter legislation" and claiming the legislators "had no choice but to take extraordinary measures to protect our constituents and their right to vote."

State Rep. James Talarico said the voting bill was "the straw that broke the camel's back" for Democrats in the legislature. 

"I think my colleagues and I were as strategic as posisble in thinking about what the ramifications [of the walkout] would be," he told Just the News via phone. "I think the hope is that by killing this version of the bill, we'll be able to go into the special session and renegotiate a version of the bill that doesn't hurt as many people."

Democratic state Rep. Michelle Beckley, meanwhile, said via email that the walkout "gave us and the people of Texas time to consider what restrictions legislation like this will impose upon our voting rights and adequately prepare to fight against them."

The bill will almost certainly still pass the legislature and be signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott, potentially making the walkout little more than a symbolic gesture. Still, as Talarico noted, the performance could serve to catalyze Democratic resistance to ongoing efforts by state-level Republicans to reform U.S. election law. 

"We're hopeful that our actions on Monday continue to galvanize attention around this really important issue and that we'll continue to put pressure on our Republican colleagues and do the right thing," Talarico said. Democrats, he added, hope to confront provisions in the bill such as enhanced power for poll watchers to monitor elections and new regulations surrounding voter registration. 

Talarico said the legislature could return as early as the end of June, or potentially as late as the fall, depending on if and when the governor elects to call a special session. 

But the controversy itself underscores growing alarm among Democrats as Republicans mount determined and in some cases successful efforts to reform state voting laws after the 2020 election saw unprecedented, late alterations to election management rules and practices amid the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic. 

State politicians and administrators across the country implemented major changes, such as ID-free, mass mail-in voting, expanded early voting, widespread use of ballot drop boxes, a flood of conditioned private funding of public election administration, and other measures that made it much easier to vote, Democrats say — and easier to cheat, Republicans fear. 

The Texas bill would implement relatively modest reforms, including identification requirements for mail-in voting, the abolishment of drive-through voting, and the paring back of early voting hours. 

Democrats and critics in Texas and elsewhere have responded to such efforts with outsized fury, accusing Republicans of seeking to bring back the racist regime of voter suppression laws that prevailed for nearly a century in the American South following the Civil War. 

The enactment of a reform bill in Georgia earlier this year led to major corporate criticism that included Major League Baseball's removal of its All-Star Game from Atlanta to Colorado. Multiple high-ranking Democrats, including President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, compared the legislation to Jim Crow laws of years past. The Georgia bill took steps such as requiring ID for mail-in voting, forbidding officials from automatically sending unsolicited mail-in ballot applications to voters, and prohibiting private funding of local elections. 

As was the case in Georgia, Democrats in Texas are effectively powerless to stop the passage of the bill given their numbers in the state legislature. Abbott, meanwhile, has promised to revoke the salaries of legislators participating in such walkouts — an apparent sign of growing GOP confidence in the ongoing push for further election reform.

"No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities," Abbott wrote on Twitter on Monday.

Talarico said Democrats are "hopeful that if we're given more time, that we can come back to the table with our Republican colleagues and hopefully chart a more moderate path."

Beckley, meanwhile, said Democrats were prepared for the eventuality that "lawsuits would be immediately filed against the unconstitutional provisions of this bill" and "this will still be the case going forward."

Reform laws have already passed in multiple states outside of Texas and Georgia, including Utah, Iowa and Arkansas. Republicans, meanwhile, are angling to pass further laws in another 18 states. 

Republicans currently control a majority of state houses across the country. In nearly two dozen states, the GOP enjoys a "trifecta" of administration in which both chambers of the legislature and the state governor's office are under Republican control.