O'Rourke to host Texas voting rights rally as U.S. Democrats push reforms

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Democratic presidential contenders attend a party dinner
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By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) - Former presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke will headline a voting rights rally in Texas on Sunday, a day before Democrats in the U.S. Senate take up a sweeping bill aimed at combating new Republican-backed voting restrictions in that state and others across the country.

Democratic lawmakers in Texas staged a dramatic, 11th-hour walkout as the legislative session was ending last month, blocking the Republican majority from passing a wide-ranging bill that would have eliminated drive-through and overnight voting, made it easier for judges to overturn election results and given partisan poll watchers more access to polling sites.

Texas is part of a national push by Republicans to tighten voting laws after former President Donald Trump's false claim that he lost last year's presidential election due to voter fraud. Republican-controlled legislatures have passed new rules in several battleground states, including Georgia, Arizona and Florida.

The reprieve in Texas is likely temporary. Republican leaders, including Governor Greg Abbott, have said they will hold a special session to take up the legislation again.

But in an interview on Thursday, O'Rourke, a former Democratic congressman who ran for president in 2020 and has not ruled out a gubernatorial campaign challenging Abbott in 2022, said he has already seen signs that the grassroots effort against the bill is working.

A handful of Republican lawmakers have backed away from some provisions in the measure, such as a prohibition on early voting on Sundays before 1 p.m. – a measure widely seen as targeting Black churches' "souls to the polls" drives.

"That's a good sign that this public pressure works," said O'Rourke, who has visited 18 cities and towns in recent weeks to hold voting rights events. "This state is the epicenter of the fight for voting rights, and if this state comes together in numbers large enough, I really do think that helps advance the cause."

Organizers say they expect thousands of attendees at the weekend rally in Austin, the state capital.

The U.S. Senate is expected on Monday to begin bringing a sweeping Democratic-sponsored election reform bill up for a vote. The legislation, known as the For the People Act, would expand ballot access and outlaw partisan redistricting, among other measures.

The bill's prospects in the Senate, however, are dim. Democrats cannot afford to lose a single vote with Republicans universally opposed, and moderate Democratic Senator Joe Manchin has already said he does not support the legislation.

On Wednesday, Manchin suggested a series of revisions to the bill, though any compromise would require at least 10 Republican votes under the Senate's filibuster rules.

O'Rourke said Manchin's proposal shows the bill's chances are improving.

"I think this is a very good sign, especially for everyone who was wanting us to believe the sky was falling and that this would never pass," he said.

O'Rourke said he has had conversations with members of the Biden administration, which has called on Congress to pass voting protections.

Democratic President Joe Biden has put Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of a national voting rights push; she met on Wednesday with 16 Texas Democratic legislators who participated in last month's walkout.

O'Rourke, who became a Democratic star when he narrowly lost a U.S. Senate race in 2018 to Republican Ted Cruz, said he is focused on voting rights at the moment, not his political future.

"After that work is done, I will think about what it is I can do to further help here in Texas," he said, adding that running for office is one possibility.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis)