It was dramatic. It was last minute. And it worked.
One by one, as a midnight deadline approached Sunday night, Texas Democrats walked out of the state House of Representatives and blocked what they had called one of the most restrictive voting bills in the US. 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.
Republicans had to declare the legislative session over. Republican Governor Gregg Abbott, who had declared new voting laws a priority in Texas, said he would call for a special session to finish the job. He didn’t say when he would bring lawmakers back to work.
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.
“Leave the chamber discreetly. Do not go to the gallery. Leave the building,” Grand Prairie state Representative Chris Turner, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a text message to other Democrats, according to the Texas Tribune.
Senate Bill 7 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. Republicans called it an “election integrity” measure — necessary to safeguard Texas elections from fraudulent votes, even though there is virtually no evidence of widespread fraud. On Saturday, President Joe Biden unfavorably compared Texas’ bill as “an assault on democracy”.
After the walkout, House Democrats assembled at a predominantly black church in Austin, Mt. Zion Fellowship Hall, to speak to reporters. Staff members said leaders chose the location to highlight the party’s successful fight against a bill they said would have targeted voters of color in particular.
They also expressed their anger over a last-minute change to the bill that would have prohibited Sunday voting before 1 pm, when many black worshipers go to the polls. Democrats said they didn’t go into the vote intending to break quorum, but instead became fed up after Republicans refused to take their questions while racing to pass the bill.
Since Donald Trump’s re-election defeat, at least 14 states have enacted more restrictive voting laws, according to the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice.