Texas Democrats flee state in bid to block Republican-backed election bills

Democrats in the Texas Legislature left the state Monday in an effort to block the advancement of Republican-backed election bills during a special session called by the GOP governor, a person familiar with the matter told NBC News.

The flight of at least 51 Democrats comes ahead of the vote on new election measures and is expected to deny Republicans the quorum needed to conduct business in the chamber, the unnamed source said. Business is expected to halt until the special session ends or the lawmakers return to Austin. 

“Texas Democrats’ decision to break a quorum of the Texas Legislature and abandon the Texas State Capitol inflicts harm on the very Texans who elected them to serve,” GOP Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement. “As they fly across the country on cushy private planes, they leave undone issues that can help their districts and our state.”

Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement that Texas Democrats are “making history.”

“Republicans are attacking our voting rights for one reason: they know their days in power are numbered, so they’re trying to cling to power the only way they can — by stopping us from voting,” Hinojosa said in the statement. “Texas Democrats have stood strong in the face of these attacks all year, and we will not let up. We will keep holding the line for our democracy and the voice of every single Texan.”

Texas is among the states that have worked to implement new election measures that critics say restrict access to the ballot box, in the wake of repeated false claims from former President Donald Trump that the 2020 election was stolen through voter fraud. The Texas Democrats’ planned departure furthers the state legislative fight and national debate over voting rights. 

The group has arranged for two charter flights from Austin to Washington, D.C., and will use time there to drum up support for federal voting legislation, according to the source. The departure would be the second time Texas Democrats have used that tactic to prevent the passage of a new voting measure.

Another seven Texas Democrats are en route to D.C., which would bring the total to 58.

However, the Texas Democrats’ plan to flee will risk their arrest. The legislature requires the presence of at least two-thirds of lawmakers to conduct state business in either chamber, in accordance with the Texas constitution. The unnamed source told NBC News that the Democrats expect to be tracked down by the Department of Public Safety at state Republicans’ request. 

“The Texas House will use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously-passed House Rules to secure a quorum to meaningfully debate and consider election integrity, bail reform, benefits for retired teachers, Child Protective Services reform, Article X funding, and the other important measures Gov. Abbott placed on the special session agenda,” Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, said in a statement.

“The special session clock is ticking — I expect all Members to be present in our Capitol in order to immediately get to work on these issues.”

In May, House Democrats walked out of the Capitol chamber during a regularly planned session, which denied Republicans a quorum to pass election legislation prioritized by GOP Gov. Greg Abbott. 

However, Abbott responded to the walkout by calling a 30-day special session that began on July 8. 

On Sunday, lawmakers passed two voting measures, House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1, after approximately 24 hours of testimony and debate. GOP leaders plan to reconvene for the final vote starting Tuesday. 

Both measures would require voters to provide identification for mail-in voting, ban drive-thru and overnight options for early voting and add new criminal penalties for violating voting laws while also empowering partisan poll watchers. 

The bills have been criticized as discriminatory by Democrats and voter-rights advocates, who assert that the measures will suppress the votes of people of color and those with disabilities. 

To prevent the current legislation from passing, Texas Democrats would have to remain outside the state until the special session ends. The move to break a quorum is still rare.

In May 2003, more than 50 Texas Democrats left the state in a bid to block a Republican-backed redistricting proposal. The Democratic state senators reportedly fled to New Mexico before a defector restored quorum. The redistricting bill eventually passed, in October of that year.

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