‘It sends a message’: cheers in Austin for Texas Democrats who fled state

<span>Photograph: Eric Gay/AP</span>
Photograph: Eric Gay/AP
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Happy Thursday,

I’m writing from Austin, where I arrived on Sunday night expecting to cover the high-stakes showdown over GOP-backed voting bills at the Texas capitol.

There’s been a showdown, but that fight has only sort of been at the capitol. On Monday, dozens of Democrats in the state house of representatives quietly left the state on airplanes, breaking the quorum needed to conduct legislative business and blocking Republican efforts to pass the bill. It was a nuclear option for Democrats – seeing no way to stop the bill legislatively, they did the only thing they could to stop it.

It was the second time Democrats had broken quorum over the bill – in late May, they walked out of the capitol during the regular session. Now, they’ve gone to Washington DC, where they plan to lobby senate Democrats to pass sweeping federal voting rights reform. They’ve pledged to stay there until the beginning of August, the end of the special session.

Related: Conservative justices make it clear: they won’t stop anti-democratic voting laws | Fight to vote

Rafael Anchia, a Democrat from the Dallas area, said the effort had already succeeded in helping elevate voting rights and was optimistic Democrats would be able to push through some form of federal voting protections.

“We are grateful that the House has acted and we are hopeful that the Senate will provide Texas with a federal backstop, because the state legislature has proven repeatedly that it’s willing to discriminate against the freedom to vote,” he said.

But Republicans have denounced the move as a mere stunt and even threatened arrest, though the lawmakers are not in the jurisdiction of Texas law enforcement. Governor Greg Abbott can call as many special sessions as he wants, the lawmakers can’t stay away forever, and Republicans will eventually pass their voting bill. That bill currently contains provisions that would impose new ID requirements on mail-in ballots, give partisan poll watchers more latitude, and prohibit 24-hour and drive-thru voting.

No one I’ve spoken with, including Democrats and voting rights activists, disputes that Republicans are likely to pass their bill. But the Texas walkout has unquestionably changed the dynamic of the fight. It has energized activists who have watched Republicans across the country ram through voting bills without any Democratic support. And it has also offered a ray of hope that Democrats in Washington will work around the filibuster and pass comprehensive voting legislation.

I spent Tuesday, the day when the voting bills were supposed to come up for a vote, at the state capitol. For all the attention around it, things seemed relatively normal. Tourists came and went. Legislative staffers walked quickly. But underneath the capitol, Texans from all over the state gathered in a conference room to train on how to lobby. Less than 24 hours after the Democrats left the state, there was palpable excitement in the room.

“They finally grew some balls,” said Michelle Anderson, a 51-year-old who traveled to Austin from Dallas. “For somebody to stand up for me and risk going to jail so that I can vote – it sends a strong message.”

It was also clear that the move raised the stakes for Democrats in Washington to pass federal voting legislation. If they were unable to pass any kind of legislation after such a high-profile walkout, it would be all the more devastating.

“The Republicans would have got away with it if they would have been there,” said Betty Greg, a 70-year-old who traveled to the state capitol from Houston. “I think the Democrats know what they’re doing.”

She later added: “I pray the Democrats know what they’re doing.”

Also worth watching …

  • VoteBeat and Texas Monthly have a great behind-the-scenes look at how the Texas walkout came together. The Washington Post also has a good story on what happened behind the scenes.

  • Why exactly did Texas Democrats leave the capitol? Will their strategy work? Can they be forced back? All the details you need to know about the walkout.

  • Joe Biden gave a fiery speech in defense of voting rights on Tuesday, but the most significant part of the speech came in what he didn’t talk about: the filibuster.

  • Crystal Mason, who faces a five-year prison sentence for voting illegally in 2016, this week met Hervis Rogers, a Houston man who was arrested last week and charged with illegal voting after waiting hours in line to vote. Both Mason and Rogers have attracted widespread attention from critics who say the prosecution is overly harsh and will intimidate other voters.