Texas Democrats Flee State to Highlight G.O.P. Voting Restrictions

WASHINGTON — Texas Democrats fled the state on Monday in a last-ditch effort to prevent the passage of a restrictive new voting law in the Republican-controlled legislature, heading to Washington to draw attention to what they portray as a damaging assault on the right to cast a ballot.

The group left Austin in midafternoon on a pair of chartered flights that were scheduled to arrive by the early evening. An official involved with the effort said more than 51 of the 67 State House Democrats members had signed on, enough to prevent Texas Republicans from attaining a quorum, which is required to conduct state business.

But the Democrats’ move also lays bare their limited options in a legislature where the Republicans hold the majority in both chambers. Parliamentary procedures and efforts to add amendments can delay the process but not derail it, and leaving the state to prevent a quorum, Republicans said Monday, would ultimately fail as well.

Representative Briscoe Cain, a Houston-area Republican who chairs the House Elections Committee, said Democrats’ departure from the state “slows things down” but would not prevent Republicans from ultimately passing the G.O.P.-backed voter overhaul bill in the 30-day special session.

“It’s just delaying the inevitable,” Mr. Cain said, describing the Democrats’ move as “political theater.”

By traveling en masse to Washington, the group was hoping to apply pressure to Democrats in the U.S. Senate who so far have been unable to pass federal legislation to address the issue.

“We have to decide if we are going to stand for democracy,’’ said State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, who organized the effort to leave the state. “We want the nation to join us and we want the U.S. Senate to hear us and act.”

The move comes just one day before President Biden is scheduled to deliver a major speech on voting rights in Philadelphia. Activists have been imploring the administration recently to address the issue with more urgency.

In a news conference at the White House on Monday, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Mr. Biden would focus his speech on Tuesday in Philadelphia on a broad and pointed response to new restrictive voting legislation passed across the country. The recently passed voting laws, Ms. Psaki said, were “the worst challenge to our democracy since the Civil War.”

In Texas, leaving the state has a storied political history. In 2003, Democratic lawmakers famously fled to New Mexico and Oklahoma in an effort to avoid Republican legislation to redraw the state’s congressional districts.

A departure by dozens of Democrats would be the second time in six weeks Texas Democrats have used that tactic to try to prevent passage of a new voting bill. Hours before the State Legislature’s regularly planned session ended in May, State House Democrats walked out of the Capitol chamber, denying Republicans a quorum.

Vice President Kamala Harris praised the effort, as did the Texas Democratic Party and voting rights groups. Some Democratic groups also used the moment to redouble pressure on Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation.

“Texas Democrats are showing just how seriously they take their commitment to their constituents and to their country,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, one of the biggest Democratic super PACs. “It is up to all of us, including Democrats in Congress, to respond with renewed resolve to do our part to protect the sacred right to vote.”

In Texas, blocking a legislative quorum requires not just abandoning the State Capitol but also leaving the state. If the lawmakers remain in Texas, state law enforcement officials including the Texas Rangers can be dispatched to round them up and return them to the statehouse for votes — a process that happened when Democrats fled in 2003.

There was no indication from Republicans on Monday that they would pursue that course of action. But some G.O.P. members suggested that Democrats were abdicating their responsibilities by leaving the state.

Tony Tinderholt, a conservative Republican from Arlington, said the Democratic lawmakers “should be held accountable” if they are not back at their seats when the House resumes work at 10 a.m. on Tuesday. Mr. Tinderholt has introduced a resolution that would punish members who leave the chamber during deliberations to break a quorum.

“We all took an oath of office, we have a duty,” he said. “If you work for a company and you didn’t like what they were doing that day and you decided to skip work. I think that most people would be fired and punished.”

No Democratic State Senate members were believed to be accompanying their colleagues from the House.

Over the last several months, Democrats across the country have been grappling with one of the most sweeping contractions of voting access in generations. Republican-controlled legislatures in more than 14 states have passed new election laws that include broad new restrictions to voting.

But the bill in Texas is among the most expansive and sweeping efforts to restrict voting in a state that already ranks as one of the most difficult in the country to cast a ballot, with Democrats and voting rights groups contending that passage of the bill threatens the very democratic foundations of the state.

Over the weekend, the Texas House and Senate, both controlled by Republicans, advanced legislation out of committee to the full chamber, after marathon sessions that, in the case of the House, lasted nearly 24 hours. G.O.P. leaders planned to move toward a final vote starting Tuesday.

Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, responded to the initial walkout by calling a 30-day special session that began Thursday. Along with the voting proposals, the governor called for the Legislature to take up measures combating perceived “censorship” on social media platforms; banning the teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools; further limiting abortions; putting in place new border security policies; and restricting transgender athletes from competing in school sports.

Mr. Abbott is up for re-election next year and faces primary challenges from multiple conservative Republicans, including former Representative Allen West, whose tenure as chairman of the Republican Party of Texas ended over the weekend. He has said that overhauling the state’s electoral system is one of his top priorities.

Republicans in the Legislature, led by Bryan Hughes, the chairman of the State Senate Affairs Committee, say new legislation is intended to create a “better election process that’s safe and accessible.”

Texas Democrats used their temporary victory in May to draw attention to their efforts to block new Republican voting laws and the Senate debate over whether to pass federal protections for voters. They traveled to Washington to lobby senators at the Capitol and met with Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House.

But efforts by congressional Democrats to pass a sweeping new voting law, the For the People Act, stalled last month when Republicans blocked it in the Senate.

There has been little evidence the Texas Democrats have improved their position since their initial walkout.

Despite high hopes last November, Democrats remain in the minority in both Texas legislative chambers and their options are limited. If they remain out of state and deny a quorum until the special session concludes at the end of the month, Mr. Abbott can simply call another one. He is certain to call at least one more session later this year to pass new congressional and legislative maps and allocate billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief funding.

In addition, there is no indication that there are 50 Senate Democrats willing to pass voter protections on a simple majority vote, a move that would require weakening the filibuster. At least a half dozen Democratic senators, a group whose most outspoken figures are Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have expressed their resistance to such a move.

The Texas Democrats’ escape follows several days of internal deliberations about how aggressively to resist the Republican proposals on voting. While a group of progressive young lawmakers advocated leaving the state, the party’s leadership had been more cautious, pushing a plan to force a series of votes on amendments aimed at watering down the voting bill.

“We’re going to fight to kill the bill, we’re going to use procedure and the rule book to make sure that a bad bill doesn’t pass,” State Representative Rafael Anchia, the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said on Friday. “The first approach is going to be to fight the bill head on.”

The Republican voting proposals, among other provisions, would ban 24-hour voting and drive-through voting; add new voter identification requirements for voting by mail; increase the criminal penalties for election workers who run afoul of regulations; and greatly expand the authority and autonomy of partisan poll watchers.

Most of the discussion about preventing a quorum has come from the State House, which has a larger contingent of younger and progressive Democrats than does the Senate. In the Senate, 11 of 13 Democrats can deny a quorum.

Democratic reluctance to fleeing the state evaporated over the weekend as liberal activists, Texas citizens and Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman who is the state party’s most popular figure, testified at a hearing beginning Saturday morning that lasted nearly 24 hours.

By late Sunday afternoon there was sufficient momentum toward leaving that Democratic leaders who had privately warned against doing so came on board with the plan.

While leaving the state is certain to bring a flood of attention and provide a boost to fund-raising, the move is not without risks. Beyond being away from home and their families for several weeks, Texas state legislators are part time and many work other jobs they may not be able to report to remotely. And without a quorum, lawmakers will not be able to authorize funding for salaries for themselves or their staff, which Mr. Abbott vetoed in June after the first walkout.

David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin, Tex.

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