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Fight Over Voting Rights in Texas Nears End as Democrats Return

Fight Over Voting Rights in Texas Nears End as Democrats Return

More than 50 Democrats fled to Washington last month to prevent a restrictive voting measure. Three returned to the State Capitol on Thursday, clearing the way for a quorum.

Three Democratic state representatives, Armando Walle, top left, Garnet Coleman and Ana Hernandez, entered the House chamber in Austin, Texas, on Thursday.
Credit…Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman, via Associated Press

HOUSTON — A 38-day walkout by Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives effectively ended on Thursday as three previously absent members arrived in the Capitol, clearing the way for Republicans to establish a quorum and pass restrictive voting rules.

Despite efforts by Democrats to maintain a solid block even as most returned from Washington this month, the three representatives from Houston decided to return together, an apparent effort to deflect any criticism from their colleagues or liberal activists.

The House adjourned until 4 p.m. Monday without any votes, but hearings were expected to take place over the weekend. The passage of sweeping voting restrictions — to undo last year’s expansion of ballot access during the coronavirus pandemic in places like Houston and empower partisan poll watchers — appeared quite likely in the coming days.

“We took the fight for voting rights to Washington, D.C.,” the three Democratic legislators, Garnet Coleman, Ana Hernandez and Armando Walle, said in a joint statement, adding, “Now we continue the fight on the House floor.”

The three arrived in the Capitol as a group, with Mr. Walle pushing Mr. Coleman, who has severe diabetes and underwent a lower leg amputation this spring, in a wheelchair.

“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,” they said in their statement.

When it began on July 12, few believed that the Democratic walkout would last this long.

More than 50 representatives, cheered by activists and voting rights groups, flew in chartered planes to Washington, met with the vice president and top officials in the Senate, and succeeded in shutting down a special session of the Legislature called by Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, to pass new laws on voting and other priorities of his party’s base.

The absent Democrats ran down the clock of the 30-day special session, and Mr. Abbott immediately called a second one. But Democrats remained away from the Capitol.

Dozens of legislators began returning to Texas this month, albeit with none of the fanfare that accompanied their departure from Austin.

The political atmosphere had become more charged by the day as a majority of Democrats remained hunkered down in Texas, where they were vulnerable to potential arrest by state law enforcement. Only a small number remain outside the state.

Ostensibly on the run, a Democratic “fugitive” in the eyes of his Republican colleagues, Gene Wu sat cross-legged on the couch in his Houston living room this week, fielding calls from constituents and occasionally glancing at his phone to view surveillance video from a camera on his front door.

Some of Mr. Wu’s colleagues have been bouncing between locations in Texas, fearful that, if they were found, they could be detained and hauled into the Capitol. Others were back at home and at their jobs, which most lawmakers maintain in a state where the Legislature meets regularly only once every two years.

“If they believe they have the right to arrest me, they won’t have a hard time finding me because I’m at work,” said Ramon Romero, a Democrat who represents Fort Worth and runs a 40-person business building swimming pools and selling stone.


Credit…Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The walkout over voting rights was reminiscent of one organized by Democrats in 2003 to block redistricting by Republicans. That year, Democrats in the State House decamped for four days to Ardmore, Okla., denying the quorum needed to pass bills. Then their colleagues in the State Senate went to New Mexico for about 40 days, until one of them broke down and returned to Texas, ending the protest. (The lone state senator who returned, John Whitmire, received withering criticism from fellow Democrats for the decision.)

This time around, Republicans, increasingly enraged, called for arrests. The House sergeant-at-arms distributed civil arrest warrants — signed by Speaker Dade Phelan — to members’ offices, to their email inboxes and, in some cases, to their homes.

“They came up to the door, rang the doorbell,” said Jon Rosenthal, a Houston representative, describing surveillance video of the sergeant-at-arms official delivering the warrant to his home on Tuesday. “Nobody answered so he folded it in half and stuck it in the doorjamb.”

The voting bills in Texas, part of a nationwide effort by Republican-led state legislatures to tighten rules around ballot access, would roll back changes made during the 2020 election to make voting easier during the coronavirus pandemic. The proposed changes would also expand the authority of partisan poll watchers, which voting rights groups and Democrats say could lead to voter intimidation and suppression.

Mr. Abbott, in calling the special sessions, also included on the agenda priorities of his Republican base, such as rules on how race could be taught in schools and restrictions on transgender athletes. He also added several that have broader appeal, such as more money for retired teachers.

The standoff prompted calls for vigilante groups to help track down the Democrats. Outside groups offered rewards up to $2,500 for information leading to the arrest of the Democrats, garnering support from some Republican representatives.

“If you know the whereabouts of a missing lawmaker, submit a tip,” Briscoe Cain, a Houston-area Republican who chairs the House Elections Committee, said in a TikTok video this week, a semiautomatic rifle mounted on the wall behind him.


Credit…Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman, via Associated Press

Democratic representatives said they were more concerned about individuals possibly coming to their homes than they were about the officers from the state’s Department of Public Safety arresting them. Indeed, several members have reported offers of “bounties” or other threats to the same state agency. (A state police spokeswoman declined to discuss “operational specifics.”)

Donna Howard, a Democratic representative from Austin who is now back in Texas, said it was the “vigilante types” causing her the most concern. She has been connecting with her legislative staff online, avoiding all but the most necessary trips outside of her “undisclosed location.” The only time she gets in her car is to make a quick, curbside pickup at a store.

Democrats and activists had been working to ensure that the group held together, holding a daily check-in on Zoom. The roll was taken, and if anyone was absent, there was a system for getting in touch.

But debate had broken out on recent morning calls between a majority who wanted to maintain the walkout and a smaller group that wanted to return, according to several people who have been on the calls. “Every morning we have this exercise, this same four or five people who want to go back,” said one member, who requested anonymity to discuss the private meetings.

And so some Democrats were caught off-guard on Wednesday when Mr. Coleman announced in The Dallas Morning News that he would be returning to the Capitol. He explained that he felt returning was the “right thing to do” for the institution of the Legislature.

“We have to have somebody in there fighting,” Mr. Coleman said on Thursday. “My voice on the outside doesn’t make a difference.”

Mr. Phelan, the speaker of the House, told the chamber before adjourning on Thursday that it was “time to get back to the business of the people of Texas.”

Democrats involved in the walkout who remain absent from the Capitol huddled online late Thursday to discuss their next steps as Republicans prepared for a flurry of legislative action next week on the long-stalled bills.

Mr. Wu, the Houston representative, said he felt “angst” about how Democrats would now continue their fight and “where this brings us in the coming days.”

“We knew this day would come,” he said. “It was just a matter of how and when.”