A Texas Democrat Explains Why She’s Fled the State — and What’s Next for Voting Rights

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32144843083_8cc58e4126_o_ - Credit: Jay Godwin/LBJ Library
32144843083_8cc58e4126_o_ - Credit: Jay Godwin/LBJ Library

WASHINGTON — About a month ago, a group of Democratic politicians from Texas fled their state in a last-ditch move to stop a voter-suppression bill. They came to Washington, D.C., to plead for help from Congress to protect the right to the vote. On one of their final days in Washington, they met with Vice President Kamala Harris. As Gina Hinojosa, one of the Texas Democratic representatives, remembers it, Harris left them with a message. “I know you’re tired, but you can’t stop,” she said. “You’re leaders now in this fight for voting rights.”

On Monday, Texas Democrats resorted to their walk-out strategy again. The Texas legislature was in the opening days of a special session called, in part, to pass the voting legislation that Gov. Greg Abbott and his Republican allies failed to enact earlier this summer. The new bill seeks to empower partisan poll watchers to operate inside voting locations; another would ban local election officials from delivering mail-in ballot applications — not ballots themselves, the application to receive a ballot — to all eligible voters. These efforts are just one piece of a nationwide wave of bills that seek to restrict access to mail-in voting, early voting, and other means of voting used by traditionally Democratic constituencies like minorities and young people.

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As the new Republican voting bills sailed toward passage, Democrats agreed to escape the state, and return to Washington where they plan to keep lobbying House and Senate members to pass federal voting protections that could preempt Texas’ bills. By leaving the state, they deny their Republican counterparts the quorum necessary to pass legislation. Texas Democrats say they’re prepared to remain out of Texas for weeks to prevent that quorum.

Gina Hinojosa is one of the Texas Democratic legislators who left her home state to thwart the Republican voting-restriction bills. She represents Austin in the state House of Representatives. Hinojosa says she and her colleagues took Vice President Harris’ words to heart after their first bolt to Washington, a maneuver that killed the previous version of the GOP voting bill albeit temporarily. “That success of that effort — it reminded us of our power,” she says, “We did come off of that pretty tired. But all of the public support we got, the encouragement from the vice president, has given us energy to keep going.”

In an interview with Rolling Stone on Tuesday afternoon, Hinojosa talked about this latest escape from Texas, how long she and her colleagues plan to hold out, and which legislators they’re aiming to lobby while in the nation’s capital.

What’s different about this decision to leave Texas compared to your last walk-out?
We first broke quorum during the regular session but that was a much easier feat. We only had to get out of dodge for a couple of hours. Still, it’s hard to organize that many politicians to row in the same direction. We weren’t really sure it could happen until it could actually happen.

So when this special session came, we’d been talking about what to do. We’re talking now about days, weeks, at a time. Ultimately, we had this hearing last weekend on the bill that was rushed through. People had to wait over 12 hours before they could sign up and testify. It wasn’t until after midnight or 1 a.m. that they started taking testimony on the voter suppression bill.

People testified until seven in the morning. The opposition was overwhelming. The Republicans took zero Democratic amendments and they immediately passed the bill along party lines despite overwhelming opposition. We were not being listened to, our constituents weren’t being heard, and that left us with the same decision as before: to deny them quorum.

There’s something like three weeks left in the Texas special session. Are you prepared to hold you that long?
If need be, yes. We are prepared to stay here through the session. We’re gonna use that time to talk to everyone who will listen at the U.S. Capitol about how we need them to pass voting-rights legislation.

Can you walk me through how getting out of the state works? State troopers can track you down and force to go back and vote if you’re still in Texas, right?
We recessed on Friday until 10am today. We didn’t meet yesterday. There was no way they could arrest us yesterday while we were not on the floor of the (state) House because there was nobody on the floor to make a motion. Today, there was a call on the House. They have the authority to arrest us and make us vote.

But they can’t come get you in D.C.?
Right. There was a window to do it, but it was important to maintain secrecy because once word gets out, the speaker and the Republican majority will try to convince us to stay. We needed to try to keep it under wraps for as long as we could.

I didn’t start packing until an hour before it was time to go. I don’t even know what I packed. I have to look in my suitcase and hope I’ve got something appropriate.

How do these latest state House and Senate versions of these voter-suppression bills differ from regular session?
During the regular session, at the 11th hour, Republicans put two provisions into the bill that had never been debated before on either House or Senate side. One was aimed at Souls to the Polls, which is a longstanding tradition in African American churches where people go vote after services on Sunday morning. The legislation would’ve banned most Sunday voting. The other provision was to lower the legal standard for overturning an election in court.

Both of those provisions were terrible. So much so that the author of the bill in the House disavowed them and neither the House Republicans nor Senate Republicans will claim responsibility for how those provisions got in the bill. Both sides say they didn’t put it in.

Those two provisions are not in the new version.

But what it does have that’s very troubling is making it criminal to send every eligible voter an application for a mail-in ballot. Harris County did that in 2020 and Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, sued to stop it. Another provision that’s troubling is empowering partisan poll watchers to walk around the polling place as you’re voting. Most Texans don’t want partisan poll watchers snooping around their business when they vote. this would have given them nearly unrestricted movement in polling places when they vote.

What did you take away from last month’s D.C. trip that is informing your approach this time?
That our fight is not in vain. It is effective for us to be here. I was in West Virginia a couple weeks ago for a voting-rights rally and I heard that same message from constituents of Senator Manchin’s. We can be here and effective in what is the voting-rights fight of our lifetime.

Anyone you want to get an audience with?
We’re here for a while. We’re working on meetings with lots of members of Congress.

Sen. Manchin has to be on that list, I imagine. What about Sen. Kyrsten Sinema?
Yeah, absolutely.

How long can you and your colleagues drag this out? What is the endgame?
The endgame is federal voting rights legislation. Then (Texas Republicans) can pass whatever heinous voter-suppression bill they want, and they’re preempted by the federal government.

So if Congress passed a bill in a week, you would feel comfortable going back?
I guess it would depend on what they ultimately pass here in Washington. If they pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and For the People Act, yes, absolutely.

And if they don’t?
Then we’ve given it our best effort. At that point, we’ll have to reevaluate what our best options are.

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