For Democrats of color, walkout on Texas voting bill was rooted in the long fight for equal voting rights

State Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer addresses the media during a press conference at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. The group of Democratic lawmakers walked off the House floor and broke quorum over Senate Bill 7.

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Before they walked out of the Texas Capitol on Sunday night to block a sweeping, restrictive voting bill, House Democrats took a detour to the past.

Ahead of a midnight deadline for the bill to be approved, they had huddled for a series of meetings to strategize how far to go to stop the GOP priority legislation they saw as an offense against the voting rights of people of color. It was in those meetings that Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the longest-serving Black member of the Texas Legislature, told her colleagues about her own family’s struggles and reminded them of the lasting fight to convince a white majority that people of color too should have a say in their democracy.

Thompson was born into segregation and ultimately obtained her law degree from a school that only existed because the state would not allow white and Black students to learn together. In the meeting, she recalled growing up in a Texas that used racist rules to keep her grandparents from the ballot box. “Fear mongering” to suppress Black voters had touched three generations of her family, including herself.

Though Texas is several decades removed from a time when fire hoses and dogs were aimed at voters who wanted to have their voices heard, lawmakers today could not afford to pass a bill that would dial back those hard-fought gains, Thompson said.

“I wanted to share how that bill was an affront to me,” Thompson told The Texas Tribune on Monday.

Ultimately, her words — and the sentiment behind them shared by other Black and Hispanic Democrats in the room — encapsulated their reasons for choosing such a dramatic and rarely used tactic. It was a decision they didn’t take lightly. Democrats loathed the bill, but had no easy way to stop it. By walking out of the House, they could block its passage that night. But that would only set up a special session where the GOP majority could come back and approve a measure like it — or maybe, in their minds, worse.

With the GOP’s dominance in the state slowly waning as voters of color continue to grow their share of the Texas electorate, the proposed restrictions had been pushed by Republicans who framed them as “color-blind” measures meant to secure elections from fraudulent votes, even though there is virtually no evidence of widespread fraud. But many of the proposals contained within SB 7, including some last-minute additions, risked heightening the barriers marginalized voters are already up against in participating in elections.

For the Democrats — most of them Black or Hispanic, representing mostly Black and Hispanic constituents — that was justification enough to take the extraordinary measure of walking out.

“We have a responsibility to pass on something,” Thompson said Monday after a meeting at the Capitol with other Black and Hispanic House members. “That’s why we’re here — to protect and preserve those rights and to pass on something for generations to come.”

A temporary win

The demise of Senate Bill 7, a massive bill that would further ratchet up the state’s already restrictive voting rules, was a temporary win.

But it represented a major fumble in the GOP’s broader efforts to tighten election rules and enact new voting restrictions following the 2020 election. Republicans in Texas, the most populous conservative state, came up short where their counterparts in other states have been successful.

The bill’s demise also glaringly exposed the tension roiling the Texas Capitol over the distribution of power in an increasingly diverse — and politically competitive — state.

Texas Republicans are still riding more than 20 years in full control of the state, but their presidential margins of victory have narrowed significantly over the last few election cycles. Republican Mitt Romney won the state by nearly 16 percentage points in 2012. Donald Trump won it by 9 in 2016 and only 6 last year.

The thinning has tracked the state’s continuously swelling population, driven largely by gains among people of color who tend to lean in Democrats’ favor. The trends and demographic changes have caused people in both parties to look at Georgia and Arizona — two diverse, formerly reliably red states that flipped to help Joe Biden secure the presidency — and wonder whether Texas could be on a similar path.

Among the starkest examples of the political slip is the state’s largest county, Harris County, which in the last decade shifted from a prized battleground in a ruby red Texas to a Democratic stronghold.

The change in power reached the county’s commissioners court and elections office in recent years, ushering in Democratic leaders who implemented a wave of new voting measures, including a move to countywide voting to allow voters to cast ballots at any polling place in the county on Election Day.

The county implemented drive-thru voting, hoping to make it easier for voters, including parents with children or medically vulnerable people, to cast ballots during the pandemic. And they experimented with keeping a few polling places open 24 hours for one day, giving a convenient option to shift workers who might not be able to reach the polls during normal hours.

Republicans responded with open hostility.

In SB 7, GOP legislators proposed mandating a new formula to distribute polling places for countywide voting that would have led to a significant drop in sites in largely Democratic areas, with voting options curtailed most in areas with higher shares of voters of color. The formula would have only applied to the state’s biggest counties, which lean more Democratic than the state as a whole. And they moved to outlaw voting after 9 p.m., as well as drive-thru sites, which had proved particularly successful in reaching Harris County voters of color.

“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, and I’m not talking about your party’s mascot. I mean Harris County,” Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, said on Saturday while she questioned SB 7’s author, Mineola Republican Bryan Hughes, before the Senate took its final vote on the bill.

In response to Democrats’ questions about the ways the bill could narrow access for voters of color, Hughes repeatedly said the provisions of SB 7 “apply equally across the board” and argued the bill was aiming for a standardization of elections.

“One county doesn’t get to make up the rules,” Hughes said. “The state gets to decide what the election code is and then the counties have to follow that.”

While the legislation in the Senate partly targeted Harris County, SB 7 carried the potential to alter the voting process across the state. Beyond banning extended early voting hours, it enhanced the freedoms of partisan poll watchers, set new rules for removing people from the voter rolls and further tightened vote-by-mail rules. In early May, lawmakers in the House negotiated a significantly slimmed down version of the bill that was narrower in scope and included a series of Democratic amendments. In recent days, some Democrats have indicated that version wouldn’t have prompted a walkout, though they wouldn’t have supported it.

Tension around the bill escalated in its last 48 hours through the Capitol as Republicans ironed out the differences in both chamber’s versions, choosing to include significant portions of the Senate’s more expansive version and dropping in a series of new provisions behind closed doors. The bill doubled in size to include new ID requirements for absentee voters and a higher standard for who could qualify to vote by mail based on a disability. Much of Democrats’ ire fell on a new rule mandating that early voting on Sunday couldn’t start until 1 p.m., which they saw as an unjustified attack on “souls to the polls” efforts churches use to turn out Black voters.

Republicans defended the additions as a standard part of the negotiation process, noting that some of them were pulled from other bills passed by the Senate or generally discussed by the chamber.

But the changes were revealed to the full Senate and House less than 48 hours before the deadline to approve the bill, setting off frustrations among Democrats over the lack of time to fully review the legislation. To keep the bill out of range of a filibuster, Senate Republicans used their majority to suspend their own rules and take up the final bill a day earlier than the rules required. Democrats said a resolution laying out many of the last-minute additions to the bill wasn’t presented to them until just before they were supposed to take it up.

In the House, the final bill was so hastily put together that state Rep. Briscoe Cain, who was ushering it through the chamber, said it left out a Democratic initiative he had promised to keep in. The report also misspelled the word equal as “egual.”

"It seemed like the fix was in from the beginning,” state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat and chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said at a press conference early Sunday. “From the beginning, there was no interest in hearing how these measures would impact people of color.”

Uncertain summer

The changes also set off a fight against the clock.

Democrats would win that round by walking off the floor, breaking the House’s quorum and making it impossible for it to vote out the bill Sunday night. When they gathered afterward at Mt. Zion Fellowship Hall in East Austin, they appeared both celebratory and measuredly defiant.

“It’s long been said in this environment, in this Capitol, when it comes to our rights, particularly the right to vote, we will not participate in our demise,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio.

Democrats’ explained they had tried to use the rules to defeat the bill. They had lined up a series of points of order — procedural challenges to the legislation — that could keep the bill from advancing or at least take up precious time from Republicans hankering for a vote. They had prepared speeches to run out the clock.

Republicans, who hold a majority of seats in the chamber, also had the rules on their side, with enough votes to cut off debate and force a vote before midnight. Democrats had been trickling off the floor throughout the evening. The last few needed to leave to officially break quorum walked out once it was clear Republicans were moving to cut them off.

But their actions wouldn’t mark the end of Republicans’ push.

By breaking quorum on Sunday, Democrats had effectively triggered a special legislative session for Republicans to come back and move forward on the legislation. Gov. Greg Abbott said as much in his quick response to the walkout.

The special session will allow Republicans a do-over in which they’ll likely try to avoid what ended up being a critical mistake — keeping the bill bottled up in negotiations for more than a week and leaving a final vote precariously close to deadline.

Though he hasn’t detailed when he’s bringing lawmakers back — or what exactly he’d like to see in the bill — Abbott has indicated he expects legislators “to have worked out their differences” before returning to the Capitol to pass the legislation.

Right now, Democrats can only wait.

Party leaders have indicated the party plans to use any tool they have available to them to collectively keep fighting in a special session. But the next step in their strategy remains up in the air.

For some Democrats of color, the aftermath of the walkout centered more on their resolve to keep fighting than on a specific strategy. You can’t contemplate a course of action without knowing what the bill will look like, said state Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas.

It’s likely the odds that were in the bill’s favor from the start will ultimately pan out. With a shorter time frame to pass legislation in a special session, the minority party may have even fewer avenues to block bills they don’t like. And the possibility remains that Republicans angry over the demise of the bill in the regular session might try to push for even more stringent restrictions in the special session.

Though still outnumbered, some Democrats of color say it was ultimately the need to stand up for their districts in the face of restrictions on their constituents’ rights that warranted the walkout.

“Many people sat down so we could stand up,” Davis said. “And that’s our goal — to stand up.”