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Texas Democrats abandon House floor, blocking passage of voting bill before final deadline

The House had a midnight deadline to approve legislation that would alter nearly the entire voting process, create new limitations to early voting hours & more.

AUSTIN, Texas — This story first appeared in the Texas Tribune.

The sweeping overhaul of Texas elections and voter access was poised from the beginning of the session to pass into law. It had the backing of Republican leaders in both chambers of the Legislature. It had support from the governor.

Democrats who opposed the bill, chiding it as a naked attempt of voter suppression, were simply outnumbered.

But on Sunday night, with an hour left for the Legislature to give final approval to the bill, Democrats staged a walkout, preventing a vote on the legislation before a fatal deadline.

RELATED: Texas politicians weigh in on controversial elections bill Senate Bill 7

“Leave the chamber discreetly. Do not go to the gallery. Leave the building,” Grand Prairie state Rep. Chris Turner, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a text message to other Democrats obtained by The Texas Tribune.

Senate Bill 7, a Republican priority bill, is an expansive piece of legislation that would alter nearly the entire voting process. It would create new limitations to early voting hours, ratchet up voting-by-mail restrictions and curb local voting options like drive-thru voting.

Democrats had argued the bill would make it harder for people of color to vote in Texas. Republicans called the bill an “election integrity” measure — necessary to safeguard Texas elections from fraudulent votes, even though there is virtually no evidence of widespread fraud.

Debate on Senate Bill 7 had extended over several hours Sunday as the Texas House neared a midnight cutoff to give final approval to legislation before it could head to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk to be signed into law.

In between their speeches opposing the bill, Democrats seemed to be trickling off the floor throughout the night, a number of their desks appearing empty. During an earlier vote to adopt a resolution allowing last-minute additions to the bill, just 35 of 67 Democrats appeared to cast votes. Around 10:30 p.m., the remaining Democrats were seen walking out of the chamber.

Their absence left the House without a quorum — which requires two-thirds of the 150 House members to be present — needed to take a vote.

Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
House Democrats enter Mt. Zion Baptist Church near the state Capitol in Austin after breaking quorum in opposition to Senate Bill 7, a sweeping GOP voting bill. May 30, 2021.

By 11:15 p.m. about 30 Democrats could be seen arriving at a Baptist church about 2 miles away from the Capitol in East Austin.

The location for Democrats' reunion appeared to be a nod at a last-minute addition to the expansive bill that set a new restriction on early voting hours on Sundays, limiting voting from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Over the last two days, Democrats had derided the addition — dropped in during behind-closed-door negotiations — raising concerns that change would hamper “souls to the polls” efforts meant to turn out voters, particularly Black voters, after church services.

Standing outside the church, Democrats said the walkout came only after it appeared Democrats' plan to run out the clock on the House floor with speeches wasn't going to work because Republicans had the votes to use a procedural move to cut off debate and force a final vote on the legislation.

“We saw that coming,” said state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat and chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. “We’ve used all the tools in our toolbox to fight this bill. And tonight we pulled out that last one.”

With about an hour left before the midnight deadline, House Speaker Dade Phelan acknowledged the lost quorum and adjourned until 10 a.m. Monday morning. Midnight was the cutoff for the House and Senate to sign off on the final versions of bills that have been negotiated during conference committees.

After adjourning, Phelan took aim at the Democrats and noted that their actions killed other legislation.

Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
Democratic lawmakers met in the Speaker's Committee Room during a break in the session on May 30, 2021.

“Today, on the second to last day of session, a number of members have chosen to disrupt the legislative process by abandoning the legislative chamber before our work was done," Phelan said in a statement. "In doing so, these members killed a number of strong, consequential bills with broad bipartisan support.”

State Rep. Eddie Morales of Eagle Pass was among a handful of Democrats who appeared to stayed in the chamber. Morales said earlier in the day, House Democratic leadership had asked him to come up with a list of questions to ask during the chamber’s debate on SB 7. He stayed back, he said, because he was adhering to the original plan.

"I had those series of questions, and so I wanted to stay back and fight it," Morales said. "I was gonna vote against it and I was gonna be there to actually attack the bill."

SB 7 was one step away from the governor’s desk. It was negotiated behind closed doors over the last week after the House and Senate passed significantly different versions of the legislation and pulled from each chamber’s version of the bill. The bill also came back with a series of additional voting rule changes that weren’t part of previous debates on the bill, including new ID requirements for voting-by-mail, restrictions on Sunday early voting hours and a higher threshold for who can qualify to vote by mail based on a disability.

But while Democrats were able to defeat the legislation Sunday, Abbott quickly made clear he expected lawmakers to finish the job during a special session.

"Election Integrity & Bail Reform were emergency items for this legislative session. They STILL must pass. They will be added to the special session agenda," he said in a post on Twitter. "Legislators will be expected to have worked out the details when they arrive at the Capitol for the special session."

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, echoed the call for a special session to pass SB 7 and other Republican priorities that have died in the House.

"The Texas Senate passed all these priority bills months ago and we will again. The TxHouse failed the people of Texas tonight. No excuse," Patrick tweeted.

Over the last few months, SB 7 has been at the forefront of Republicans' broader efforts to further restrict voting after the state saw the highest turnout in decades in 2020. With Republicans in full control of state government, the odds that it would make it to the governor’s desk were always high.

Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
State Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, on the House floor on May 30, 2021.

Still, the legislation evoked heated debates between Republicans and Democrats — the last ones in the House and Senate taking a particular focus on the last-minute additions to the bill. The final version of the bill grew well beyond what the House and Senate originally passed into a wide-ranging 67-page bill with many additions that were only revealed to the full House and Senate on Saturday.

Portions of the bill were specifically written to target voting initiatives Harris County used in the last election — such as a day of 24-hour early voting, drive-thru voting and an effort to proactively distribute applications to vote by mail — that were heavily used by voters of color. But under SB 7, those options will be banned across the state.

It would set a new window for early voting from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. and make it a state jail felony for local officials to send mail-in ballot applications to voters who did not request them. It would also be a felony to provide those applications to third-party groups, like the League of Women Voters, that get out the vote. It also expands the freedoms of partisan poll watchers, granting them “free movement” within a polling place, except for when a voter is filling out a ballot.

It wasn’t immediately clear when Abbott will call lawmakers to return for a special session, though lawmakers are expected to be back in the fall to redraw the state’s political maps. Patrick previously called for an additional special session in June.

Reese Oxner and Patrick Svitek reported to this report.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.