Above: Texas state Representative Jessica Gonzales speaks during a news conference in Austin on May 31, 2021, after House Democrats pulled off a dramatic, last-ditch walkout and blocked one of the most restrictive voting bills in the U.S. from passing before a midnight deadline.
Nearly every legislative session, Texas Republicans cite the myth of widespread, election-swinging voter fraud to try to make voting harder, scarier, and more confusing. This session, they came very close to getting their way, prompting calls for federal intervention before lawmakers get a second chance to pass sweeping voting restrictions later this year.
Democrats in the Texas House staged a dramatic walkout late Sunday, the final night of the session, to thwart an attempt by Senate Republicans to swiftly pass significant new restrictions without transparency or debate. The move killed the omnibus elections bill, Senate Bill 7, but Governor Greg Abbott immediately vowed to revive it in a special session and threatened to defund the Legislature if they didn’t get it passed. While the walkout likely postpones a losing battle for Texas Dems, voting rights advocates say the attempt to ram through new voting restrictions at the last minute illustrates the urgent need for restoring the federal Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court gutted several years ago.
Something like SB7 seemed destined to pass the GOP-dominated Legislature this session. Abbott, who as state attorney general targeted Black and Hispanic organizers who helped their elderly neighbors vote by mail, declared “election integrity” legislation a top priority for Texas lawmakers this year on the heels of Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen election. Current Attorney General Ken Paxton has prioritized going after minor voting irregularities, such as incorrect addresses on voter registration forms, with prosecutions that overwhelmingly target people of color. In December, Paxton sued to challenge the presidential election results in four battleground states following Trump’s loss, arguing that pandemic-related elections law changes—such as expanding mail-in and drive-thru voting—were unconstitutional. On January 6, Paxton helped rally the former president’s supporters in Washington D.C. ahead of the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol. State Representative Briscoe Cain, a Houston-area Republican who also joined the legal fight to overturn the election results, was appointed to chair the House elections committee and tapped to author the House’s SB7 companion, both duties he repeatedly bungled.
Voting rights advocates swarmed the statehouse to work with Democrats through months of marathon committee hearings and extended floor debates to help eliminate some of the more extreme proposals—such as allowing partisan election monitors to film voters inside polling places.
Yet during the final days of the session, Republicans dramatically changed SB7, working behind closed doors to add a raft of new, controversial provisions—such as limiting early voting hours on Sundays, which Democrats viewed as an attack on “souls to the polls” voting drives at Black churches. After dropping the new, more restrictive version of the bill around midday Saturday, Senate Republicans suspended normal rules to swiftly pass and send it to the House for final approval. The following day, as it became clear that Republicans in the House planned to block debate on the bill, Democrats started to walk out. By about 11 p.m. on Sunday, enough House Democrats had left to break the necessary quorum for a final vote, effectively killing the bill. Shortly before midnight, House Democrats gathered in front Mt. Zion Baptist Church in East Austin to explain the walkout.
“It is fitting that we have gathered here, because the Black church has always been the focal point of the civil rights movement,” said state Representative Sheryl Cole, whose Austin district encompasses the church. “It’s not just about souls to the polls. It’s about the failure to recognize the elderly, the disabled, and people of color, and their constitutional right to vote.”
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key plank of the landmark civil rights legislation that had for nearly 50 years forced Texas and other states with a history of race-based voter suppression to seek federal approval, known as preclearance, for changes to voting laws. Writing for the majority of the court, Chief Justice John Roberts insisted the protections were no longer needed because, “Our country has changed.” The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote the dissent, arguing, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Within 24 hours of the Supreme Court’s ruling, Texas implemented one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. In the ensuing years, the state has also passed legislation making mail-in voting more burdensome, eliminated more polling places than any other state, and tried to purge tens of thousands of naturalized citizens from the voter rolls through a process that state officials knew was flawed but pushed anyway. Seth Morales-Doyle, deputy director of voting rights at the Brennan Center at New York University Law School, says the Supreme Court’s dismantling of preclearance emboldened efforts to pass new restrictions in states like Texas. “I think everything that’s happened since 2013 shows us that it’s still raining.”
The morning after the walkout that killed SB7, state Representative Chris Turner, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, took to CNN and pleaded for the passage of new federal voting rights legislation currently pending in Congress—including the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore preclearance. “Texas voters need protections from the federal government from these efforts to protect the vote,” Turner said. “We need a strong voting rights act with a robust preclearance provision.” Such legislation is currently stalled in the U.S. Senate, however, President Joe Biden announced this week that his administration will double down on its push for voting rights reform.
Following the outcry over their last-ditch attempt to pack SB7 with more voting restrictions, Texas Republicans tried to backtrack on one of the most controversial provisions they added to the bill. The provision would have kept polls closed until 1 p.m. on the final Sunday of early voting, undermining souls-to-the-polls efforts. During the late-night debate in the upper chamber, state Senator Bryan Hughes repeatedly defended the measure, claiming that it was added because “Those election workers want to go to church, too.” Yet after the walkout by Dems, State Representative Travis Clardy, who helped draft the bill, claimed in an interview with NPR that the provision to keep polls closed until 1 p.m. on the final Sunday of early voting had a typo: the “1” should have been an “11,” though he didn’t explain the a.m. or p.m. discrepancies.
“The fact that they’re now claiming there were typographical errors means nobody took the time to look over what they were doing,” said Nina Perales, vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “It just goes to show how rushed the process was.”
Perales says SB7 and the secretive, last-minute effort to make the bill more extreme is linked to the long history of voter suppression in Texas, calling preclearance a critical safety net. “Although we see changes in the details, voter suppression is still voter suppression, whether it was the poll tax or whether it was these new restrictions preventing people from getting assistance in the polling place,” Perales said. “The mechanism changes, but the goal has been the same for decades—which is to prevent people from voting.”