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Texas Democrats' voting bill walkout deserves national backup

C'mon, Senate Democrats — don't leave Texas hanging like this.

Every detail of Monday afternoon's news about the daring escape from Austin of almost five dozen legislators seemed made for television.

At least 50 Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives were ferried out of the state on private planes chartered specifically for their abscondence. Their destination: Washington, D.C. For how long? Weeks — at least. And they did it while facing the threat of arrest and mandatory return to Texas should the Republicans left behind order the Department of Public Safety to track them down.

I have to hand it to Texas Democrats — they have a flair for the dramatic.

With the Democrats' absence, Republicans are unable to move forward on the primary reason Gov. Greg Abbott called the special session: passing new restrictions on voting rights. After a marathon set of hearings over the weekend, the bills were set to hit the floor in the House and the Senate as soon as this week. But the GOP holds 83 seats, 17 fewer than the 100 members the House needs present to conduct business under the state Constitution.

Adding to the drama, House Democratic leaders put out a statement explaining why the clandestine flights were chartered to fly them to Washington:

Today, Texas House Democrats stand united in our decision to break quorum and refuse to let the Republican-led legislature force through dangerous legislation that would trample on Texans' freedom to vote. We are now taking the fight to our nation's Capitol. We are living on borrowed time in Texas. We need Congress to act now to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to protect Texans — and all Americans — from the Trump Republicans' nationwide war on democracy.

Talk about a shot in the arm for Washington Democrats, whose commitment to passing voting rights legislation has seemed a little lackluster lately. President Joe Biden is set to give a speech about protecting the franchise Tuesday, but that's the first real push from the White House we've seen in weeks. The appearance of a bunch of Texans camping out on Congress' doorstep is sure to be illuminating for certain bipartisanship-obsessed senators.

It's the second time in a little over a month that Texas Democrats have ducked out of a session to block the election bill from passing. The last time was a little less intense, as legislators slipped off the floor ahead of the final vote on the bill, SB 7, letting time run out on the regular session.

But Democrats actually did the GOP a favor with their delay, MSNBC columnist Steve Vladeck argued last month. Soon after the disappearing act, Republicans realized that some of the most intense proposals in their bill were more extreme than folks would accept. Those provisions — including those that would ban Sunday morning voting and allow judges to overturn election results more easily — have been stripped out of the current bill.

Even so, the revised bill, HB 3, would still make voting harder than it was last year, The New York Times reported:

Among many new changes and restrictions to the state’s electoral process, the bill would ban 24-hour voting and drive-through voting; prohibit election officials from proactively sending out absentee ballots; add new voter identification requirements for voting by mail; limit third-party ballot collection; increase the criminal penalties for election workers who run afoul of regulations; and greatly expand the authority and autonomy of partisan poll watchers.

In case you needed a reminder, there was no widespread fraud in Texas last year — or anywhere — that would justify this crackdown on voting. In fact, former President Donald Trump did better in Texas than expected, especially among Latino communities in the state's south. And yet here we are, as this bill joins a wave of others based almost entirely on Trump's lies that the election was stolen from him. With that as motivation, no wonder Democrats were united in skipping town.

The problem with walkouts, though, as impressive as they are, is that they're usually temporary measures to block bills from passing immediately. That should be clear given how short the voting bill's demise lasted before the measure was resurrected in the special session. Under Texas law, the session can last up to 30 days, meaning Democrats need to stay out of town for at least 26 days now to keep the Legislature from moving forward.

The problem with walkouts, as impressive as they are, is that they’re usually temporary measures to block bills from passing immediately.

But a second special session focused on redistricting is already planned for this fall — and that's one that Democrats can't afford to miss given the decadelong stakes. (Fun fact: The last time Democrats had staged a walkout before this year was back in 2003 in a battle over redistricting. The state Senate bill, which eventually gave the GOP seven more seats in Congress, passed easily once a Democratic defector returned and restored the quorum.)

Which brings us back to the endpoint of the Texans' sojourn. They deserve nothing less than a hero's welcome in Washington from congressional Democrats and the Democratic National Committee. The DNC should be paying for their expenses, especially given Abbott's petty veto of the Legislature's funding after the last walkout. And the door of every Democratic senator should be open to them to make their case.

Because the truth is that without national legislation, Texas' new bill will pass and go into effect. It will be harder for Texans to vote in the midterms compared to last year. And that's before we even get to whether congressional districts will be gerrymandered even further than they are as two new seats are added.

Now is exactly when aggressive action to protect voting is needed, and I've seen more gumption from these Texas lawmakers than I've seen from the entire U.S. Senate lately.

These 50-plus state lawmakers are risking arrest to prevent more hurdles from being placed in their voters' way to the ballot box. I'd love to see that same energy from Washington Democrats on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.