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Transcript: Texas Democrats have brought the fight for a new Voting Rights Act to DC

The full episode transcript for Don’t Mess with Texas Voting Rights.


Into America

Don’t Mess with Texas Voting Rights

Trymaine Lee: The days of old Jim Crow style voter suppression, poll taxes, literacy tests, guessing how many jelly beans are in a jar might feel like a relic of America's ugly past, like a chapter in our history that many believed was closed 56 years ago this week, with the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

President Lyndon Johnson: The command of the constitution is plain. There is no moral issue.

Lee: Just months earlier, President Lyndon Johnson described the fight for voting rights as being bigger than politics.

Johnson: It is wrong, deadly wrong to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of states' rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.

Lee: But today a little more than a half century later, it still feels like we're fighting that same old Jim Crow. Donald Trump's defeat and the big lie that the election was stolen from him has sparked a brand new wave of voter suppression efforts.

Chris Hayes: Breaking news tonight out of Georgia where Republican governor Brian Kemp just signed into law a sweeping bill restricting voting access.

Archival Recording: Tonight Florida governor Ron DeSantis signing the latest controversial state voting law that he says will make elections more secure.

Lee: Republican-led legislatures all across the country have passed a slew of election laws that have made it harder for Black, poor, and marginalized people to vote.

Archival Recording: The new law zeroes in on voting by mail.

Archival Recording: The law also cuts down on early voting in run-off elections, allows the--

Lee: Since the start of 2021 alone, Republicans in 18 states have passed at least 30 new laws that restrict voting. There are few places where this modern fight for and against voting rights is being waged more aggressively than in Texas, where Republican governor Greg Abbott called a special session of the state legislature to push through a controversial election bill that state Democrats say is designed to disenfranchise voters of color. So to derail the bill, more than 50 Texas Democrats literally fled the state.

Archival Recording: State Democrats blocking Republican bills on voting rights with a walk-out gone airborne.

Archival Recording: State House Democrats left heading here to Washington, planning to urge Congress to pass a federal voting rights bill. If they'd stayed in Texas, they coulda been arrested.

Lee: They're effectively blocking a vote on the bill by denying the legislature a quorum or the minimum number of lawmakers in attendance required to handle legislative business. These Democrats have been hunkered down in Washington, D.C. since July 12th.

They've been meeting with members of Congress, rallying their allies, and putting pressure on the Biden administration to pass new federal legislation that will protect voting rights for people not just in Texas but around the country. A COVID outbreak in their ranks prevented their ultimate goal of meeting with President Biden, but they're not givin' up.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson: Trymaine, I get up every mornin' ready to kick somebody's ass. (LAUGH)

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today the modern fight for voting rights with Texas State Representative Senfronia Thompson, the longest-serving Black lawmaker in state history. She's part of the crew in Washington right now, but her roots and fight are dug deep back home in Texas.

Thompson: I came in a family who was workers, fighters, and my great-grandmother was a mother of 16 children. And my grandmother was the oldest of 16.

Lee: Representative Senfronia Thompson was elected to serve Texas State House District 141 in 1972. And she's currently in her 25th term. She's 82 years old, an attorney by trade, and her family has been in Texas for generations.

Thompson: My grandmother lived predominantly in Fort Bend County, which is right outside Houston. She spent her life pickin' cotton, and then she became an expert cook. She moved to the City of Houston. My grandmother was always outspoken. She believed in shootin' first and askin' questions later. That was her philosophy.

And she built a good and rich life, religious Sundays, all day long church. So we had a very hard-working spirit life, close-knitted neighborhood. If you have something happen in your neighborhood into your family, you know, someone just asked so everybody pitched in to help you out.

Lee: For Representative Thompson, the fight to protect voting rights is personal. All she has to do is remember when her grandmother had to save each week to afford the poll tax just to vote.

Thompson: Back in the day, Black people worked long hours for small amount of pay, not a lotta different than today. And my grandmother used to save pennies and nickels in order to be able to pay that dollar and 50 cents it cost to buy a poll tax.

Now just think, a dollar and 50 cents, and you're makin' two dollars per week. So it was quite expensive for her. If she had been white, she woulda been exempted from payin' poll taxes because of her financial position. Because she was Black, she could not get an exemption. She had to pay it.

My grandfather couldn't afford to vote, because they, both of 'em couldn't afford a poll tax in the same household. So they decided that my grandmother would be able to vote. She was more community active, you know. She went to church and talked to the people around, and they talked about issues that they heard on the radio, because there was no television durin' that time.

And then she had to travel a pretty good distance to go and cast her vote at a place for colored people to vote. And then come way back where she lived. And the transportation, Mr. Lee, was very, very limited. There was a bus that came to our area. We lived in Houston, but on the outskirts of Houston.

And the bus picked the people up to carry them to work in the morning, and then there was another schedule that picked 'em up where the bus station was downtown to bring 'em back to their respective neighborhoods in the evenings. So there weren't many buses then in between there, so voting was really not the most desirable thing for people to participate.

Lee: Why was it so important for Black folks especially at a certain time and place to push through these barriers?

Thompson: They wanted to have a voice in their democracy as well, and because they wanted to have a say in their democracy, they fought for those particular rights, even if it was difficult.

Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). So this week, August 6th, the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act being signed in 1965 it was a momentous moment in our history certainly, codifying into law our actually citizenship, right? Many could argue the generation that followed is actually the first generation of African American people in this country to be recognized as full citizens by the vote. But I wonder, again, you've been around and you've seen a lotta change, how the Voting Rights Act actually changed the lives of Black folks? Did, like, the doors of democracy just swing open?

Thompson: Well, it took me two more years before I didn't have to buy poll tax to vote myself, because Texas didn't outlaw poll taxes until 1966.

Lee: They were still charging Black folks a poll tax after it was signed?

Thompson: Yes. It was 1966 before the poll tax was outlawed in Texas, and it was still difficult to vote. It was a very long, hard time, because we had just recently been given the right to vote in the primaries. They used to call it the bluebird primaries, I mean, blue bird meant white folks.

And you couldn't vote in it if you were Black. You were only allowed to vote in general election if you were a Black person. And it took a lawsuit in which Thurgood Marshall won, Smith versus Allwright. Thurgood Marshall fought that suit, and he won the case that allowed Black people to vote in the primaries.

Lee: Wow. That's amazing, and when I think about Texas, obviously Texas isn't much different than Alabama, Mississippi or New Jersey or Pennsylvania, the entire country. But you think about Juneteenth. You think about the delay in the franchise. What is it about Texas and this battle over voting rights or making Black folks whole period? What is it?

Thompson: Here's the bottom line, Mr. Lee. They just don't want you to have your full constitutional rights that they have. And every time that there's an opportunity to chip away at somebody's constitutional rights, they always go to the minority people, and they chip away at their rights. It's not because there's wild fraud happenin'. They want to control those persons continuously.

Lee: Hmm. And here we are still fighting this fight after so many decades and so much literal blood being spilled, and the spirit of the struggle. And as we know, you know, the way white supremacy is weaponized often manifests itself in these kinda levers of power.

But I want to bring it to today, right. We have this long journey, this long fight for voting rights. But I wanna talk about the legislation that you all are fighting down in Texas now. Can you give us a basic breakdown of what the laws that are trying to be imparted are, and how you all are planning to fight them?

Thompson: The bill that we are fighting against is (VOICES) a voter suppression bill. Several parts that we disagreed with. One part is the poll watchers. They are empowering the poll watchers with the ability not to stand in a particular place, but to roam the room while people are voting, to get close enough to see what you're doing in casting your vote.

They get close enough, if you're a person who have a tendency to talk to yourself, self-talk. You know, sometimes, "Well, let me see, should I vote on this person or should I vote for this person?" And they can get close enough to hear what you have to say. And they can be intimidating, because they're lookin' at you like you're about to commit a crime, or they wanna make sure you don't commit a crime.

And that has a chilling effect in minority communities. And then the word gets around what's happening, you know, at that polling place. And people take a position, "Well, I'm not gonna go down there and vote if they got that kinda stuff goin' on. Because they might arrest me, or they might do this." You've disrupted a whole community of people who are tryin' to have a say in their democracy.

Lee: Protections for poll watchers are in both House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1, which are before the Texas legislature in the special session happening right now. These bills also ban drive-through voting and extended hours during early voting. And they include new ID requirements for voting by mail, along with other restrictions on mail-in ballots.

Thompson: They wanna make it very difficult for people to be able to vote by mail. Here's the deal. I run for reelection. You got your mail ballot, and I come by and knock on your door, and I says, "Mr. Trymaine Lee, I'm Senfronia Thompson. I'm runnin' for reelection, and if you haven't cast your ballot, I want to ask you to please vote for me."

I may have committed a felony by the mere fact of your ballot being in your house, because that could be used as some kind of encouragement to get you to vote for me. And I can get two to ten years, and all I'm doing is trying to get reelected.

Lee: I mean, again I don't live in Texas, but that sounds crazy.

Thompson: Let me give you another one. You're my neighbor, okay. Me and one of my family members are gonna drive to the polls and cast our ballot. I know Mr. Lee needs a ride, because we always give Mr. Lee the ride to the polls. In order for me to not get filed on and commit a felony, I have to fill out a form and say that "I gave you a ride to the poll in my car" to cast your ballot. You're my neighbor. You needed that ride. I had to fill out a form and tell them that I gave you a ride to the polls so you could vote.

Lee: And just to be clear, if passed, the bill states that "People who assist voters at the polls or with voting by mail who are not a relative will face criminal penalties if they don't fill out the proper paperwork."

Thompson: It's a power grab. They don't wanna lose power. They know that their time has run out. They wanna make it so difficult, so hard until it'll be impossible for you to get elected.

Lee: Hmm. You know, in terms of this fight, you know, you all are gonna need some help from some of your colleagues across the aisle, I'd assume. Do you have any friends on that side who are operating in good faith and are trying to work with you? Or are they all kinda in lockstep?

Thompson: Well, I'll tell you this. (VOICES) This is what I say. I say, "God, if you can turn the heart of Pharoah, you turn the hearts of these people in here." And that's what I'm dependin' on.

Lee: It might be wishful thinking. Texas Republicans outnumber Democrats in both the State Senate and the House. So last month, House Dems packed their bags and fled to the nation's capital to avoid voting on these bills. We reached out to the state GOP in Texas, and they sent us a statement from Mark (SIC) Rinaldi, the chair of the Texas Republican Party.

He told us the party's making sure that each quote, "legitimate vote is counted," and that the bills in question make it quote, "easy to vote and hard to cheat." After the break, Representative Thompson talks about taking the fight from Texas to the nation's capital. Stick with us.

Lee: We're back with Representative Senfronia Thompson. She spent the last couple weeks camped out in Washington, D.C. in order to keep the Texas House from having enough members to pass new voting bills. And it's been really tough. Six Texas Democrats in D.C. have tested positive for COVID.

And Governor Greg Abbott has vowed to call another special session if they don't return by August 6th. But Texas Dems like Rep. Thompson are not only lobbying for voting protections in Texas, they're lobbying for voting protections nationwide.

Thompson: We don't have an opportunity to stop the vote, because the Democrats are in the minority there. We're outvoted. And we have to come to the seat of power, the Congress and plead our case and let them know that there once was a man from Texas named Lyndon Baines Johnson who stood up for the little guys.

Johnson: We cannot, we must not refuse to protect the right of every American to vote in every election that he may desire to participate in. We have already waited 100 years and more, and the time for waiting is gone.

Thompson: We're askin' the Congress to give us the same rights that everybody else takes for granted in this country, and be able to cast their vote. We know that our right is a constitutional right, and we shouldn't have to always prove the fact that we are an American and that we have the same rights that every other person has in order to be able to have a voice in their government.

Lee: You know, President Biden, thanked Black voters when he got elected. He said, you know, "You've always had my back, and I'll have yours." Should President Biden and the Biden administration be doing more, be more aggressive in the push to secure voting rights for some of the communities that really helped get him in office?

Thompson: Well, we've been workin' hard with the vice president since he had given her the charge of that particular issue. And she has been very, very helpful. We think we made a lotta headway. We think that we've been able to do a tremendous amount.

Because not only have we been able to work with people of Congress, House, and the Senators, we participate in the hearing, but we've also been able to through help like persons like yourself been able to wake up America and let 'em know what is happening now.

The people may have thought that 1965 solved the issue, but here we are in 2021, 56 years later, still fighting for the same thing.

Lee: Hmm. What do you think federal legislation should look like? I mean, I think about what we see on the policing side, right, with the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act. And it's hard to have some of these blanket pieces of legislation, when you have all these different jurisdictions. When it comes to voting, like, what should a national voters rights bill or a new Voting Rights Act look like?

Thompson: I think every state oughta be on a pre-clearance with a five-year lookback.

Lee: Hmm. That's pretty bold. Pre-clearance is a process outlined in the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required every state with a track record of racial discrimination to get permission before it changed its voting laws. But in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that pre-clearance was unconstitutional, essentially defanging the Voting Rights Act and letting states do whatever they want with their voting laws. Rep. Thompson here is saying "bring pre-clearance back for every state." In other words, make every single state including Texas get approval from the federal government before voting laws are changed.

Thompson: Because minorities are moving in every state, and their rights are gonna be protected. And even the Native Americans who were very little spoken about, they are still having problems wherever they live. They need to have a voice and a say in their government as well.

Lee: Now some would say the issue is, the filibuster's in the way. Like, "This sounds great, but without eliminating the filibuster, you're not gonna make any headway." Do you believe the filibuster has to go?

Thompson: I'm gonna tell you what, like, Malcolm X says, "We use any means possible to get it done." And if that's what it takes, it needs to go.

Lee: This risk that you all are taking, especially this trip to D.C. hasn't come without some degree of sacrifice, right? It's not just for the cameras. I know people have gotten sick. There are families who miss their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. What all have you sacrificed? What has this trip revealed about the things that you guys are under?

Thompson: Well, let me just tell you, as a state legislator we make $13 a day. That's our salary. $7,200 a year gross. They take income tax out of that. We have jobs, we walked away from our jobs. We walked away from our families. (VOICE) And we have bills to pay.

And we are up here in this hotel, 57 of us, and we pay about $400,000 per week. And you know on $13 a day, you know, you're hopin' that somebody's contributing to you or something. Everybody wants to fight for freedom, but nobody's contributing to help us.

Lee: Hmm. You've been fighting this fight for your constituents for a very long time. Are you not just weary and tired, and it's not time to sit down and relax and enjoy? You're still fighting?

Thompson: Mr. Trymaine, I get up every morning ready to kick somebody's ass. (LAUGH)

Lee: Yes mam, I believe you.

Thompson: I do, I really do. I ask God, "Just let me be, you know, a voice for Him." But, you know, when you look at what problems there are out here in the world, how can you kick back? How can you kick back when you're lookin' at a person on the street who's homeless and need a place to stay and who needs good quality mental health care and somebody to understand their plight?

I mean, you can't kick back. How do you kick back when you know a kid is sitting in a school that they're not really gettin' quality education? And how can you kick back when you know people are about to evicted out of their apartments because of the pandemic and they have no money?

Somebody has to fight for them. People didn't think that we'd be able to come here, and we've been here since July the 12th (VOICE) fighting, climbing the mountains. And when we go back, we may get run off on votes, but we're gonna continue to climb. We're gonna stand.

They may knock us down, but we're gettin' back up. And when we get back up, we're gonna be with more force than we got knocked down with. They didn't think that the 1964 Civil Rights would pass, but it did. They didn't think the Fair Housing Act would pass, but it did. It's a matter that, you know, we don't give up.

Lee: Wow. So what are the next steps? I mean, obviously you all, you know, disrupted the process by comin' to D.C. You're rallying the federal government and the administration. Gonna be headed back soon. What happens next? What do you do next?

Thompson: We go back and we fight the best we can. We know we don't have the votes, we're gonna be outvoted. But we're gonna do everything we can do to turn the vote out and to try to be able to wake up people, get 'em to the polls. So we are hopeful that we're gonna be able to make some changes in that bad law and make it not as bad as it could be. It may not be all the changes we make, but it won't be because we weren't fighting and trying.

Lee: When do y'all plan on goin' back?

Thompson: We don't know what we'll do. We talk about it each day. We operate on the theory of the right to know when there's a need to know. And that way we don't have our secrets out.

Lee: I hear that. And this isn't probably (LAUGH) the right platform to tell all your secrets, 'cause a lotta people are gonna hear it.

Thompson: Well, we don't even tell it among ourselves.

Lee: What happens if you decided to say, "You know what? I gotta go back home." And you land in Texas, and word is out that Rep. Thompson is back. What happens? Is there, like, a legal thing?

Thompson: They can arrest me and ask me to go back to the legislature. I'm willing to get arrested. I mean, that's just the extent that they go to.

Lee: And you think they'll really do that?

Thompson: That's the extent that they are willing to go to to take my constitutional right that I already have away from me.

Lee: Wow. What's at stake here? If we don't, you know, get our act together in Texas and across this country, and we see that this country is poised for an even deeper divide as we go into the midterms in the following years, what's at stake? 'Cause the fight in Texas isn't just about Texas.

Thompson: What I see what is at stake is the freedom of people to be able to coexist within the society and to be protected in their homes and in their communities. What they would like to do is to put us back in the cotton patch. That's what I see. That's all at stake. And you won't be able to have that freedom.

Lee: What do you think when you think about those that came before you, your grandparents, folks who paid the greatest sacrifices, and the poll taxes all just to participate in this democracy? When they look down on you and see your long career as a state legislator and this current fight, what do you hope they see? How do you think that they would receive what you're doin' now?

Thompson: I hope they see that I'm tryin' to carry their torch forward, and I'm tryin' to leave a legacy for those who come behind me, one in which they don't have to worry about fighting anymore. We are trying to make sure that those who come behind us have a new fight for freedom and not the same fight.

I'm just so tired of, you know, you want to rejoice in progress without always havin' to re-fight the same struggles. I want to rejoice in the progress we made so I can look back at the struggles and say, "These struggles have put us here, and this is the progress that we've been able to make." And I want those behind us to be able to do that.

Lee: That was Texas State Representative Senfronia Thompson. We want to hear from you. You can tweet me at Trymaine Lee, that's @TrymaineLee, my full name, or right to us at, that was Into America at NBC and the letters U-N-I dot-com.

Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Bryson Barnes, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Shaka Tafari, and Aisha Turner. Original music is by Hannis Brown. And I want to give a special shoutout and thank you to our executive producer, Ellen Frankman, who's leaving us this week. But we wouldn't be where we are without you. You've definitely left your mark on this show, and we all truly love and appreciate you. I'm Trymaine Lee. See you next Thursday.