Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-21) gavels in the 87th Legislature's special session at the state Capitol on July 8, 2021 in Austin. (Photo: Tamir Kalifa via Getty Images)

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-21) gavels in the 87th Legislature's special session at the state Capitol on July 8, 2021 in Austin. (Photo: Tamir Kalifa via Getty Images)

As Texas House Reaches Quorum, GOP Poised to Advance Voter Suppression Package

"The people of Texas need Gov. Abbot focused on putting an end to this pandemic—not our right to vote—so we can safely send our kids to school, re-open our small businesses, and get on with our lives."

For the first time since more than 50 Democrats left Austin last month to prevent the state GOP from passing its sweeping voter suppression package, the Texas House reached a quorum on Thursday night, paving the way for the Republican-led chamber to advance its assault on voting rights.

"The governor and his allies have forgotten Texans' needs, but we won't forget their priorities."
--Matt Simpson, ACLU of Texas

When House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-21) gaveled the special session to order just after 6 pm local time, it marked the potential end of a months-long Democratic boycott, though Democracy Docket founder Marc Elias said Friday that "the legal fight is just about to begin" over restrictive voting legislation that experts say would make it even harder for the state's residents--especially Black, poor, young, and other Democratic-leaning Texans--to cast ballots.

The Lone Star State's Democratic lawmakers successfully thwarted Republican legislators' attack on voting rights for the first time in May by staging a quorum-breaking walkout, prompting Abbott to call the first special session of the summer, which began in early July. To block the legislation once more, 57 Texas House Democrats traveled to Washington, D.C. last month, where they spent weeks imploring Democratic members of Congress to act immediately to protect U.S. democracy amid the GOP's nationwide assault on the franchise.

Abbott called for an unprecedented second special session to begin on August 7, and earlier this week, the right-wing dominated Texas Supreme Court ruled that the dozens of remaining quorum-busters could be arrested and forcibly brought into the House chamber if they did not present themselves at the state Capitol.

Phelan had already signed arrest warrants for 52 legislators who were still absent from the state's lower chamber as of last week. Despite pleas from progressive advocates--who urged Democrats to leave or remain outside Texas, where state troopers lack authority to detain them--the arrest threats worked.

To reach quorum, the Texas House requires two-thirds of its sitting members to be present. With two current vacancies in the 150-person House, that means 99 members must be on site. As of last week, 96 lawmakers had checked in, and on Thursday, three additional Democrats succumbed to the GOP's pressure.

In a joint statement, state Reps. Garnet Coleman (D-147), Ana Hernandez (D-143), and Armando Walle (D-140) explained that they felt compelled to return to Austin to help combat the current escalation of Covid-19 hospitalizations in Texas, which is coinciding with the reopening of schools.

"We are proud of the heroic work and commitment we and our fellow Democratic caucus members have shown in breaking quorum in May and again over the summer," the trio said. "We took the fight for voting rights to Washington, D.C., and brought national attention to the partisan push in our state to weaken ballot access. Our efforts were successful and served as the primary catalyst to push Congress to take action on federal voter protection legislation."

"Covid-19 is ravaging our state and overwhelming our healthcare system worse than at any other point during this pandemic," the lawmakers continued. "State and local officials are sprinting to protect the health and well-being of students, staff, and families returning to school, while also contending with mixed and contradictory messages from state leadership... It is time to move past these partisan legislative calls, and to come together to help our state mitigate the effects of the current Covid-19 surge."

The three Houston-area Democrats' decision was met with public outrage from some of their colleagues, including Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos (D-102).

"None of the defecting Democrats mentioned they were planning on helping the Republicans pass voter suppression bills," according to Ramos, who added that lawmakers would achieve "nothing" positive by returning to the chamber.

While Coleman, Hernandez, and Walle urged Texas House lawmakers to come together on a bipartisan basis to prioritize public health, the GOP-controlled chamber "quickly referred the voting-restrictions bill to committee, bringing the measure one step closer to passage," the Washington Post reported, suggesting that Republicans intend to ram through their voter suppression legislation before doing anything meaningful to confront the ongoing pandemic.

In response to Thursday's restoration of quorum, Stephanie Gomez, associate director of Common Cause Texas, denounced Abbott and the state's right-wing lawmakers for having "misplaced priorities," and called on them to address the pressing needs of their constituents rather than pursue an anti-democratic agenda.

"Each day Gov. Abbott and Republican state legislators continue their war on our right to vote, more of our fellow Texans' lives are at risk because of our leaders' misplaced priorities," Gomez said in a statement. "More than 75 hospitals have run out of ICU beds and more than 20,000 Texans are suffering from Covid-19."

"The governor and his co-conspirators in the state legislature are proving exactly why we must make it easier for Texans to vote and hold our leaders accountable."
--Stephanie Gomez, Common Cause Texas

"The people of Texas need Gov. Abbott focused on putting an end to this pandemic--not our right to vote--so we can safely send our kids to school, re-open our small businesses, and get on with our lives," she continued. "Any vote on any legislation that doesn't seek to prevent the spread of Covid-19 is a blatant disregard for the well-being of every Texan. Any vote on any legislation that adds barriers between voters and the ballot box is nothing but a desperate attempt to hold onto power."

"The governor and his co-conspirators in the state legislature are proving exactly why we must make it easier for Texans to vote and hold our leaders accountable," added Gomez. "We will never give up our fight for the voting rights of every Texan--Republican, Democrat, and Independent--no matter how many special sessions this governor calls. At a time when our entire lives are being upended by Covid-19, the right to vote for leaders who put the needs of Texans ahead of their political aspirations has never been more important."

Matt Simpson, senior policy and advocacy strategist at the ACLU of Texas, also issued a statement condemning the state's GOP and demanding that House lawmakers allow for robust public participation in the legislative process.

"With the House now at quorum, Abbott's extreme agenda is poised to become law in Texas," said Simpson. "Instead of fixing the electric grid and protecting public health, the governor and his legislative allies are intent on stripping Texans' civil rights and liberties."

"The Senate has gone so far as to suspend key rules on public testimony, silencing Texans attempting to voice dissent to these dangerous attacks on our democracy," he added. "We call on the House to meaningfully involve the public in the legislative process. And we encourage Texans to keep fighting for laws and lawmakers that make our lives better. The governor and his allies have forgotten Texans' needs, but we won't forget their priorities."

The federal government could nullify the GOP's state-level attacks on the franchise. For months, progressive lawmakers and pro-democracy advocates have issued a consistent message to U.S. Senate Democrats: Abolish the 60-vote filibuster rule and pass the For the People Act as well as the recently reintroduced John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

On Friday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, reiterated that message while praising the "courageous" Texas House Democrats who "put it all on the line to fight voter suppression."

"Now," she declared, "the Senate must act and protect the right to vote."

If enacted, the For the People Act would effectively neutralize state-level Republicans' ongoing voter suppression efforts, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore anti-discrimination protections that were weakened in 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

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