Texas’ fight over voting legislation moved to the U.S. Capitol Thursday, as state representatives from both parties made their cases before the House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
Earlier this month, more than 50 Texas Democratic state representatives broke quorum to prevent a vote on Texas’ controversial election bill, traveling to Washington, D.C. to avoid being arrested and forcibly brought back to Austin. The Republican-authored election bill, among other measures, would ban drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting, bar local election officials from sending out mail-in ballots without a request, greatly empower partisan poll watchers, and increase criminal penalties for voting mistakes.
“All of this is taking place despite zero evidence of mass voter fraud in Texas,” said Democratic subcommittee chairman Jamie Raskin of Maryland, as he opened the hearing. “Lots of invocations of integrity of the ballot, purity of the ballot – those are code words that go back centuries.”
The hearing took place amid a national fight over voting rights, with Texas one of many states passing or attempting to pass restrictions purpotedly aimed at fighting election fraud, but which critics charge amount to voter suppression, particularly suppression of minority voters.
Federal legislation aimed at overriding such state measures – the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act – passed the U.S. House but remained stalled in the U.S. Senate.
“Some of you may be asking, why did we ring the alarm, why are we raising the concern about what’s going on in Texas,” said state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth. “Well, it’s not just happening in Texas. It’s happening across our country. We have seen a concerted effort in various states to pass legislation that would limit access to the ballot.”
The proposed election legislation would also effectively discourage voting by non-native English speakers, according to state Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio.
Bernal said he typically helps translate for one of his neighbors when they vote. Under the proposed legislation, such assistance would be difficult if not impossible, Bernal said.
He also pointed to a relatively small number of people prosecuted for voter fraud over the last 17 years: just 154 prosecutions out of 94 million votes cast.
“The likelihood of voter fraud in Texas is less than anyone of us being struck by lightning,” Bernal said.
The Democrats’ decision to fly out to Washingon on July 12 was the second time in in two months they walked out to stop passage of the bill. On May 31, Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives walked out of the state Capitol in the final hours of the regular legislative session, denyong Republicans a quorom and effectively killing the bill.
Gov. Greg Abbott later scheduled a special session to take up the voting bill and other GOP priority legislation.
State Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, testified via Zoom from Austin, where he denied the bill infringed anyone’s rights. He also called on the Democratic lawmakers to head back to Texas so the special session could continue.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “You’ve had your fun. It’s time to get back to work.”
It was a message echoed by several Texas members of Congress, who are not members of the subcommittee but nonetheless sat in on the hearing, where they were permitted to participate in the questioning.
Republican Congressman Pat Fallon of Sherman, a former Texas state senator, said he was “disheartened” by the Democrats’ move.
“It’s unfortunate that some…are more like carnival barkers than serious, deliberative legislators,” he said.
Many of the Republicans on the committee objected to the premise of the hearing, formally titled, “Democracy in Danger: The Assault on Voting Rights in Texas.”
Republican Congressman Chip Roy of Austin argued forcefully that the state election bill was not only fair but necessary.
“The fact of the matter is, the (state) Legislature is putting forward a good faith effort to reform our election laws in the state of Texas,” Roy said. “And the fact of the matter is, Texas Democrats fled Texas to Washington, where they’re asking Washington to step over the interests and the voters of Texas.”
Several of the Democratic members of Congress on the subcommittee contrasted the behavior of the Texas House Democrats with the behavior of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. Michigan Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib cited a Houston Public Media story about the outsized presence of Texans in the insurrection, and blasted Republicans for what she said was casting doubt on a free and fair election.
“I’m so appalled by those that continue to enable that kind of rhetoric that really brought so much violence on January 6 to this Capitol,” she said.
Ranking Republican Congressman Pete Sessions of Waco accused Texas Democrats of violating their constituents’ rights by breaking quorum.
“The rights of all Texans are being withheld, because members of the Democratic Party who are members of the state House choose not to be a part of it,” Sessions said.
In response, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, characterized the GOP election bill a new Jim Crow law.
“You’re damn right I left Texas, and I’m glad I did,” Thompson said. “You know why I left, Pete? I left Texas to give my people a right to be able to vote without them being infringed upon.”
“I am the voice of my constituents, and if I have to walk to Washington, D.C. to get you to hear what I have to say, to fight for my constituents, I’ll use any means necessary to get my point over,” she said.