Texas House Democrats spar with congressional Republicans over their protest of state voting bills

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, testified at a House Oversight and Reform's Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee hearing on "Democracy in Danger: The Assault on Voting Rights in Texas" on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 29, 2021.

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Texas Republicans in Congress took on Texas House Democrats on Thursday in a tense, four-hour congressional subcommittee meeting that drilled into the technicalities of voter restriction bills sitting in limbo back in Austin and at times erupted into angry accusations.

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U.S. Rep. Pat Fallon, a freshman Republican from Sherman, was particularly fired up. At one point he accused Democratic state Rep. Nicole Collier of Fort Worth of calling her Republican colleagues racist.

She hadn’t said her colleagues were racist, Collier said. “They’re uninformed.”

Collier was one of three Texas House Democrats who testified before the civil rights and civil liberties subcommittee. She and colleagues Senfronia Thompson of Houston and Diego Bernal of San Antonio took questions from Democratic and Republican members alike — explaining and defending their decision to flee to the nation’s capital and put the Texas Legislature’s special session on hold.

Democrats have used their decampment in Washington to call national attention to the ongoing voting rights situation in Texas and to call for federal legislation that could preempt efforts by the state.

During opening remarks, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, chair of the subcommittee, said House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1 in the Texas Legislature were “perhaps the most aggressive set of voting restrictions anywhere in the country” and a “draconian election overhaul.”

He closed his remarks by urging Congress to pass the sweeping federal voting legislation known as the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act “before it is too late.”

The hearing followed a series of meetings between the Texas Democrats and some of the most influential Democrats in the country. But the For the People Act remains at a standstill due to a filibuster backed by the GOP and Democratic senators such as Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Both of those acts, if passed, would restore aspects of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. In particular, the bills would reinstate federal preclearance of voting laws, which gives the federal government the power to vet state laws that could result in discrimination against voters of color.

Other aspects of the For the People Act include curbing partisan gerrymandering, creating nationwide automatic voter registration and allowing voters without ID to vote with a sworn statement of their identity.

Four Texas congressional Republicans who took part in the hearing were joined by one of the statehouse Republicans. State Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, made a virtual appearance to “set the record straight” on the Texas bills, saying Democrats were misrepresenting the impacts of the legislation, and rejecting the notion that access to voting would be restricted.

Clardy said that the walkout would not have happened if his Democratic colleagues simply offered to improve the bills through “debate and deliberation.”

“It’s time to come home. Enough is enough, you’ve had your fun,” he said.

But Collier pointed toward amendments that House Republicans had rejected and noted that more people had spoken against the bills than in support.

“Our backs were against the wall,” she said.

Also testifying was Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, an organization at the forefront of the voting rights issue in Texas for decades.

“The Texas bills invite voter intimidation by poll watchers,” she said, disputing Clardy’s claims. “Section 3 of SB 1 and section 4 of HB 3 strip voters of the protections of privacy and security in the polling place, and invite vigilantism by poll watchers.

“Texas has a long, well-documented history of discrimination that has touched upon the rights of African Americans and Hispanics to register to vote or to participate otherwise in the electoral process,” she said, noting many instances in which federal courts have held that Texas laws discriminated against voters of color.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, asked Thompson if the proposed restrictions felt like a revival of the Jim Crow era. Thompson said they did.

The Democratic legislators were grilled on their decision to leave Texas.

“Now, are each of the three of you aware that you are, in fact, violating Texas law by being here right now and instead of being in Texas during the legislative session? And that it would be in order to arrest you in the state of Texas?” asked U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin.

“I’m ready to be arrested,” Thompson retorted. “I’m not violating the law, and I’m representing my constituents.”

“I’m not sure if those laws are constitutional,” Bernal added.

A particularly long and heated exchange took place between Fallon and Collier after he asked her to clarify why she felt the Texas bills could affect voters of color.

“It will have a disparate impact on people of color,” Collier replied.

“OK, and that’s your view,” Fallon said.

In closing, Bernal thanked the subcommittee for allowing him and his colleagues to speak, but acknowledged that little had been accomplished.

“It’s important to point out that we’ve exchanged a lot of platitudes here, but we have not had to debate about the actual components of the bill,” he said. “We can talk back and forth about our sort of hashtag messaging, but we have not had a substantive debate at large about the bill, because when we do, people see that we’re right.”

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