Intent to make partisan hay while the proverbial sun is shining, House Republicans moved swiftly once quorum was reestablished to put the latest version of the controversial GOP-backed election bill up for a committee vote, the same legislation that caused the Democrats to walk out in the first place over claims it would disenfranchise Texan voters.
On Tuesday night, the election bill passed through committee on a 9-5 party-line vote, setting the stage for the bill to be debated and receive a full vote on the House floor as soon as later this week.
A few Democrats trickled-in at the beginning of special session number two back on August 7, but not enough to reach a quorum as many House Dems stayed in Washington, D.C. to pressure the U.S. Senate to act on federal voting rights legislation (which U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz successfully derailed ahead of the chamber’s August recess) while others came back to Texas to attend to businesses and their families while staying out of Austin.
That all changed on Thursday, when three Democratic members of the Houston delegation — state Reps. Garnet Coleman, Armando Walle and Ana Hernandez — arrived on the House floor. Amid the stunned silence of their fellow representatives, Hernandez walked alongside Walle, who pushed Coleman’s wheelchair into the House chambers (Coleman, who’s been in poor health for months, had a leg amputated in May).
In a joint statement, Coleman, Walle and Hernandez said that the still-raging pandemic was part of why they decided to return to Austin.
"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 by allowing public health officials to do their jobs, provided critical resources for school districts to conduct virtual learning when necessary, while also ensuring schools are a safe place for in-person instruction, and will not become a series of daily super-spreader events," the representatives wrote.
Not all Democrats were pleased by the three Houston Democrats' return to Austin. In a response to Coleman, Walle and Hernandez's statement, state Rep. Michelle Beckley (D-Carrollton) took to Twitter to vent her anger toward her colleagues:
“We have to know what our responsibilities are, and we have to work to move something in the direction where we want it to be, and that has a lot to do with civility, and how we show our love and understanding of what God wants for all of us. And when anybody does something that doesn’t comport with that, it bothers me, and I think it bothers everyone,” Coleman said.
“And in this prayer,” he continued, “I pray that we look, all of us, look inside at where we want this world to go, this state, this House, and look at it from the perspective of trying to find as much common ground as can be found.”
But the House Republicans, clearly still fuming over what they considered a month-plus dereliction of duty on the part of their formerly absentee Democratic colleagues, did not appear inclined to negotiate with Democrats on the election bill.
Instead of offering up concessions and seeking out input from their recently returned colleagues on the bill, which Democrats claim unfairly targets disabled and minority voters by adding new hurdles to voting by mail and eliminating drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting options heavily used by Black and Hispanic voters in Harris County, House Republicans instead voted in committee to revive a virtually identical version of the bill introduced at the beginning of this summer’s first special session that preceded the Democratic fly-out to D.C.
“Here we are again,” said Claudia Yoli Ferla, MOVE Texas’ Action Fund Executive Director, whose organization has been among the most vocal critics of the Republican “election integrity” bill. “Anti-voter lawmakers are rushing through an unpopular and hyper-partisan voter suppression measure as fast as they can.”
“We’ve seen versions of this bill before. It would ban 24-hour voting, eliminate drive-thru voting, give special protections for partisan poll watchers to intimidate voters, and increase criminal penalties for innocent mistakes on voter assistance forms.”
“We’ve seen versions of this bill before. It would ban 24-hour voting, eliminate drive-thru voting, give special protections for partisan poll watchers to intimidate voters, and increase criminal penalties for innocent mistakes on voter assistance forms.” - Claudia Yoli Fera, Texan voting rights advocate
In addition to being unwilling so far to negotiate with Democrats on the election bill, some Republican leaders want Phelan to act more aggressively to punish the representatives who broke quorum.
“Democrats have played this childish political charade for far too long,” argued Matt Rinaldi, Chairman of the Texas Republican Party on Monday. “Now that House Republicans have the power of a quorum they should vote immediately to remove Democrat Committee Chairs and take action to maintain a quorum in the future.”
House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie), acknowledged Monday that additional Democrats had returned to Austin since last week hoping to persuade Republicans to modify their voting bill. Turner and his fellow Democrats contend the bill is only a priority for Abbott, Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick because of former President Donald Trump’s repeated, unfounded claims that so-called voter fraud is the reason he lost to President Joe Biden in 2020’s election.
“Make no mistake — our work to protect the freedom to vote is not over,” Turner said in a statement. “As advocates for that right, it is our duty to go wherever the fight is.”
“With a quorum established, the Texas House Floor is the frontline,” Turner continued, “and we will fight — alongside countless advocates and allies — with everything we have to stop Texas Republicans’ continued attempts to undermine our democracy.”