SAN ANTONIO – As he sat in a plane that was minutes away from departing to Washington D.C., state Rep. Philip Cortez, D-San Antonio, spoke to KSAT 12 on Monday about why Texas House Democrats decided to leave the state and break quorum (again).
“It’s important that we preserve the rights of all Texans to have access to the ballot,” Cortez said from the plane during a Zoom call with KSAT 12 reporter Jessie Degollado, referencing a controversial restrictive voting bill at the center of the issue. “So this is important that we take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that no bills, no laws are passed that in any way, prohibit or discourage people from coming out to vote.”
Cortez and at least 50 other elected House Democrats are leaving the state in a procedural move that would prevent the Republican-led Legislature from having enough present members to pass legislation. Breaking the quorum (two-thirds of members present) is the last resort for outnumbered Texas Democrats, who also deployed the tactic in the waning hours of the regular session in May.
After their move in May prevented passage of a bill to restrict some types of voting — including vote by mail — Gov. Greg Abbott called lawmakers back to Austin for legislative overtime in the form of a special session.
The bill at hand has been called “voter suppression” by Democrats, civil rights groups and voting rights advocates, while supporters of the legislation, including Texas Republicans, say the measure ensures “election integrity.”
The Democrats are going to the nation’s capital in hopes of convincing Congress to pass a federal voting rights bill that would streamline voting access across the country, Cortez said. If passed, the federal measure could supersede some of the most restrictive measures in the state proposal.
“We’re going to go over there to see if we can secure additional allies, to unite our allies in our cause and we’re going whatever steps are necessary to make this happen, including leaving the state of Texas,” Cortez said. “We need the national attention for every Texan and anyone that wishes to participate in our elections.”
Cortez is the only legislator from San Antonio who chairs a committee in the 87th Texas Legislature — the House Committee on Urban Affairs. His district includes far western portions of Bexar County.
But the lawmakers understand that their efforts could be futile if Congress does not step in to pass their voting legislation.
“We are living on borrowed time in Texas,” the Democrats said in a statement.
Democrats were chastised for leaving the state by Abbott, who said Democrats “must put aside partisan political games and get back to the job they were elected to do.”
House Speaker Dade Phelan issued a statement, promising that the House “will use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously-passed House rules to secure a quorum.”
House members can choose to make a motion “to secure and maintain a quorum,” according to the Texas Tribune, which could in-turn render Democrats who fled the state as legislative fugitives. However, it’s unclear what power Texas authorities have when the lawmakers have left the state.
If passed, the proposed voting legislation in Texas would ban drive-thru and 24-hour voting, limit Texans’ ability to vote by mail and increase access for partisan poll watchers.