Sinema Reaffirms That No, Congress Probably Won’t Save Democracy in Texas

Hope dwindles for Congress to fix racist Texas voting laws and gerrymandering.

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On Thursday, a Democratic politician from Arizona may have sounded the death knell for those in Texas still holding out hope that Congress might save them from our state GOP’s crusade against fair voting access and non-white electoral representation. 

In a floor speech, U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema—the mercurial moderate and foil for progressive Dems—reaffirmed her opposition to undermining the filibuster in order to pass sweeping voting rights legislation. “While I continue to support these bills, I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country,” Sinema said. This was a direct blow to President Joe Biden, who had pronounced his support for bypassing the Senate procedure. 

Biden was in the building as Sinema spoke, plotting behind closed doors with Senate Democrats. When the president emerged, he did little to inspire confidence. “The honest to God answer is I don’t know whether we can get this done,” Biden told reporters after Sinema’s speech. “As long as I’m in the White House, as long as I’m engaged at all, I’m going to be fighting.”

The likely demise of voting reform comes as bad news for both Biden and democracy in the Lone Star State. Last summer, Texas House Dems fled Austin to Washington, D.C., in a desperate bid to stymie Republicans’ anti-voting omnibus legislation and get Congress to intervene with federal legislation that would overrule the state GOP’s efforts. Their lobbying had little effect. The day after West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin—a Democrat and another key obstacle for the voting rights bill—met with some of the quorum-breakers, he flew down to Texas for a fundraiser hosted by the state’s biggest GOP donors. Dems eventually came back to Austin empty-handed and watched as Republicans promptly rammed through Senate Bill 1

The new law bans pro-voting innovations that were pioneered by Harris County in 2020, such as drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting; it also limits mail-in ballot distribution and imposes new ID requirements for mail ballots, along with increasing protection for partisan poll watchers. 

As early voting for the March primary approaches, warning signs are already flashing red across Texas. Travis County announced this month that it had rejected about half of the mail-in ballot applications it had received, primarily due to new restrictions imposed by SB 1. Harris County and Bexar County had also rejected a couple hundred apiece. 

Meanwhile, the 2022 election is set to play out on maps freshly and blatantly gerrymandered for Republican gain. While Texans of color accounted for 95 percent of the state’s population growth over the past decade, the GOP did all it could to stop this from translating into expanded political representation. For instance, the GOP maps reduced the number of U.S. House districts in which Hispanic and Black voters, respectively, constitute a majority.

Texas Democrats show little promise of taking either of the state’s legislative chambers or the governor’s mansion any time soon, and with a state and federal judiciary dominated by conservatives, congressional action has emerged as perhaps the only path to fairer maps and voting access in Texas. 

The U.S. House passed this week the “Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act,” a 735-page tome that overhauls the country’s electoral system, yanking significant control from reactionary state legislatures. The bill would require online and same-day voter registration, set a minimum early voting window, relax strict voter ID requirements, and restrict gerrymandering for partisan gain.

The legislation would also restore the process known as preclearance, whereby states with a demonstrated history of voter discrimination—such as Texas—must seek federal approval for election law changes and electoral maps. Preclearance was gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, paving the way for Texas and other states to discriminate more freely. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he’ll still bring this legislation to a vote in the coming days, but, without GOP help, he needs every Democratic vote in the chamber to sideline the filibuster and pass the bill. With both Sinema and Manchin, that other gravedigger for Democratic ambitions, opposed, it’s unclear how the legislation can avoid an untimely demise.