Republicans hit a significant stumbling block in their push to enact some of the strictest voting laws in the nation. But they could yet pass the measures through a special session of the Legislature.
Democrats in the Texas Legislature staged a dramatic, late-night walkout on Sunday night to force the failure of a sweeping Republican overhaul of state election laws. The move, which deprived the session of the minimum number of lawmakers required for a vote before a midnight deadline, was a stunning setback for state Republicans who had made a new voting law one of their top priorities.The effort is not entirely dead, however. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, indicated that he would call a special session of the Legislature, which could start as early as June 1, or Tuesday, to restart the process. The governor has said that he strongly supported an election bill, and in a statement he called the failure to reach one on Sunday “deeply disappointing.” He was widely expected to sign whatever measure Republicans passed.“Election Integrity & Bail Reform were emergency items for this legislative session,” Mr. Abbott said on Twitter on Sunday night. “They will be added to the special session agenda.” He did not specify when the session would start.
While Republicans would still be favored to pass a bill in a special session, the unexpected turn of events on Sunday presents a new hurdle in their push to enact a far-reaching election law that would install some of the most rigid voting restrictions in the country, and cement the state as one of the hardest in which to cast a ballot.
The final bill, known as S.B. 7, included new restrictions on absentee voting; granted broad new autonomy and authority to partisan poll watchers; escalated punishments for mistakes or offenses by election officials; and banned both drive-through voting and 24-hour voting, which were used for the first time during the 2020 election in Harris County, home to Houston and a growing number of the state’s Democratic voters.
Republicans’ inability to pass the measure on Sunday night was the first major stumble for the party in its monthslong drive to restrict voting across the nation, and an embarrassment for G.O.P. leaders in the Texas Legislature who at least momentarily fell short of a top legislative goal for both the governor and the Republican Party.
After a lengthy debate in the State House of Representatives in which Democrats raised numerous objections, staged lengthy question-and-answer sessions and leveraged procedural maneuvers, Democrats left the chamber en masse, leaving the chamber roughly 14 members short of the required 100-member quorum to continue business. Without the requisite number of legislators, Dade Phelan, the speaker of the State House, adjourned the session around 11 p.m. local time, effectively killing the bill for this legislative session.
The Democratic flight was sparked by State Representative Chris Turner, the party’s caucus chair in the House, who sent a text message to members at 10:35 p.m. local time.
In a statement early Monday, Mr. Turner said the walkout had been a last resort.
“It became obvious Republicans were going to cut off debate to ram through their vote suppression legislation,” he said. “At that point, we had no choice but to take extraordinary measures to protect our constituents and their right to vote.”
Early Monday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, lashed out at his House colleagues and indirectly criticized the Republican leadership in the House, saying in a statement that it had “failed the people of Texas tonight. No excuse.”
If Mr. Abbott calls a special session, Republican legislators would have to start from scratch, but it is possible that they could simply use the same language and provisions from S.B. 7, or even introduce a bill with more strident restrictions on voting access.
From the outset, the push to install new restrictions on voting in Texas has been upended by legislative missteps and tension among Republicans in the State Capitol, marked by multiple late-night voting sessions in both chambers. After two different versions of the bill were passed by the House and the Senate, legislators took the bill behind closed doors to hash out a final version in a panel known as a conference committee.
The conference committee took more than a week to finalize the measures, reaching an agreement on Friday, releasing the details of the legislation on Saturday and leaving both chambers with less than 48 hours to pass the bill.
A legislative power play by Republicans in the Senate late Saturday led to an all-night session and hours of impassioned debate and objections from Democrats. Early Sunday, the Senate passed the bill largely along party lines.