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How long can Texas Democrats stay together and stay away?

A brown leather suitcase sitting on the yellow hashed line of a sunny countryside highway
When will Texas Democrats come off the road? (Photograph by Jed Owen/Unsplash.)

A version of this post was originally distributed in Votebeat’s weekly newsletter. Sign up here.

For the second week in a row, Texas politics has boiled over. On Monday, Votebeat broke the news that dozens of Democrats in the state House would board two private jets bound for D.C., breaking quorum in the special legislative session and preventing the Republicans’ voting bill, among their other prized legislation, from passing. We covered the news with our partners at Texas Monthly, where we’ll be continuing our coverage of the fallout in the coming weeks.

The Democrats told me they know they can’t stay away forever — being a Texas representative pays only $6,000 a year, and they work only six months every two years. They have kids, jobs and lives that may need their attention, and the moment they step foot back into the state, law enforcement officers can forcibly return them to the capitol. Their strategy only works as long as they stay unified (which isn’t a given) and only as long as none of the more than 50 of them breaks ranks and returns home. “We are going to D.C. to plead with members of Congress to pass voting rights legislation. That’s the only way to ultimately prevail in Texas — we can only hold the line for so long,” Rep. Gina Hinojosa, who represents part of the Austin area, told me.

I talked in depth with Slate’s What Next podcast about the walkout this week. Learn more about the Democrats’ political calculus: Is the goal forcing federal voting rights legislation through Congress or moderating Texas’s? These Democrats are divided over that question. What can Republicans do next? Hoot and holler for now, mostly, but eventually Gov. Greg Abbott can call a bunch of other special sessions, and the bill will pass.

Back Then

Walkouts are uncommon in Texas legislative history, happening about once in a generation. The last time this happened was in 2003 and also concerned voting: Senate Democrats bolted over redistricting maps, which they argued (and the state’s Supreme Court would later partially agree) were racially gerrymandered. They left in chartered buses (not planes) and went to Oklahoma and New Mexico (not D.C.). It was a rush job, and voting rights were not the issue du jour they are in 2021. Then, the media had a field day making fun of the Dems: “Outgunned, Texas Democrats Vamoose,” read an L.A. Times headline seething with fake Texas-isms. A Washington Post article described them as, “staying in a Holiday Inn and holding court at Denny’s.” Other articles referred to them as “escapees” or “fugitives,” while editorial boards across the country decried the move as cowardly. This time is different. MSNBC will hold a town hall with the Democrats camped out in D.C. Monday night to discuss voting rights, giving them more national attention than the Texas House has had in years, and the Washington Post’s editorial board penned an editorial decrying the voting bill in Texas hours following the walkout.

In Other Voting News
  • One of the Texas Democrats’ goals while in D.C. is to pressure Sen. Joe Manchin to more forcefully support a federal voting rights bill, one that they hope won’t meet the same fate the For the People Act did. It appears they may be swaying him. Meanwhile, new pressure on the Senate is coming from 150 U.S. companies nationwide, including Tesla, Starbucks, Target, and all the major tech companies. Those corporate leaders signed onto a letter demanding that Congress restore federal protections to the Voting Rights Act, a la the still-stalled John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. “Legislation amending the Voting Rights Act must help ensure that voters of color who remain the targets of voter suppression have equal and unfettered access to the democratic process,” the letter reads.
  • This week we saw signs of yet another twist in Arizona Republicans’ partisan audit of Maricopa’s ballots. Senate President Karen Fann held a kind-of hearing Thursday about the status of the forensic ballot review. The public, live-streamed Q&A convened in a Senate committee room, but it was not on the agenda of any specific committee, and Fann arranged for only herself and Republican Sen. Warren Petersen to sit at the dais and ask questions. (Senate Democrats were invited to view the proceedings from the floor alongside the public.) Under Fann’s questioning, Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan alleged discrepancies between the ballot counts his team has logged and Maricopa County’s official numbers. For instance, he claimed 74,000 more mail-in ballots were tabulated than the county actually mailed out. Maricopa County countered that any difference is easily explained by ballots cast early in person at vote centers and that Logan was comparing the wrong figures anyway. Audit liaison Ken Bennett then asked Fann to force Maricopa to hand over additional election materials, and Logan urged her to authorize his team to conduct door-to-door canvassing of voters.
  • Earlier that day, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled that the Senate cannot continue to let Cyber Ninjas keep details about their work secret. Exempting the contractors’ internal documents from public records law “would be an absurd result and undermine Arizona’s strong public policy in favor of permitting access to records reflecting governmental activity,” the judge wrote, adding that the public also has a right to know who the undisclosed funders of the audit are. Meanwhile, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives launched an investigation into Arizona’s audit, including a formal request for documents from Logan.
  • A state senator’s crusade in Pennsylvania to launch an Arizona-style forensic audit of ballots in three counties is meeting major resistance, including from Republicans in those counties. Sen. Doug Mastriano, who is perhaps Trump’s favorite acolyte in Pennsylvania, is seeking access to ballots, records, and voting machines in York, Tioga, and Philadelphia counties. Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of state has forbidden the counties from cooperating, and they seem eager to heed that directive.
  • North Carolina’s Board of Elections shot down a request by conservative state legislators to inspect voting machines in randomly selected precincts to see if any contain modems. The state board is also warning counties not to comply with any requests to inspect their voting equipment.
  • Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has called for the resignations of two Fulton County election officials, both Democrats. Raffensperger, a Republican running for re-election, says Fulton elections director Rick Barron and registration chief Ralph Jones need to be held accountable for “continued failures.” Barron and Jones have already survived previous Republican calls for their resignation and have been continually protected by the Fulton County commission’s Democratic chairman. Raffensperger’s complaint comes after plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Fulton County recently discovered a mistake in which a Fulton election worker initially double-counted 200 ballots in November (a very small number of ballots, which apparently were counted correctly in the subsequent recounts). The claim then featured in a new baseless rant by Tucker Carlson this week about fraud.
  • The Michigan lawyer behind the dismissed Antrim County lawsuit is now running for state attorney general. Matthew DePerno’s pro-Trump conspiracy theories about rigged Dominion algorithms were debunked in court and by a Republican-led Senate investigation. His candidacy is part of a movement by proponents of Trump’s “big lie” to run for office and potentially influence future elections, including secretary of state challengers in Arizona, Michigan, Georgia, and Nevada.
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