AUSTIN, Texas - Texas House Democrats who left the state to block GOP-backed efforts to enact new voting restrictions will testify on those proposals before a U.S. House subcommittee this week.
State Reps. Senfronia Thompson of Houston, Nicole Collier of Fort Worth, and Diego Bernal of San Antonio are expected to make appearances on Thursday before the civil rights and civil liberties subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform in a specially called hearing on contentious Texas legislation that would rewrite state election laws. The hearing will come in the middle of Texas Democrats’ third week in Washington, D.C., offering them a more formal stage on which to make their case against the legislation that prompted them to decamp to the U.S. capital.
"America is facing the most sweeping assault on the voting rights of the people since passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965," U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who chairs the subcommittee, said in a statement. "Texas is now Ground Zero in this battle, and we are honored to have these Texas lawmakers come to testify before our subcommittee about the struggle to defend basic democracy in their state."
The Texas Democrats have been in Washington since July 12, when they slipped out of the state so they could deny Republicans the quorum needed to advance the legislation.
Since arriving, they have conceded they don’t have the votes to keep the Republican majority in the Legislature from eventually passing the legislation. Instead, they’ve attempted to frame their protest as a summons for Congress to act on far-reaching federal legislation. Their focus is on a pair of federal bills that would reinstate federal oversight of elections in states like Texas with troubling records and set new federal standards for voting access, like same-day and automatic voter registration.
The Texas legislation in question would ban local voting options meant to expand access to voting, further restrict the state’s voting-by-mail rules, enhance access for partisan poll watchers and create new rules — and possible penalties — for those who help voters cast their ballots.
During their time in a, the Texas Democrats have held meetings with nearly all of the most powerful Democrats in Washington, save for President Joe Biden. But there is still no clear movement to push past the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule and get the federal voting legislation on the floor for a vote.
In his statement, Raskin said he hoped the hearing would help "galvanize attention" on the need for the federal voting legislation.
Still, the legislative theatrics have brought increased national attention to the proposed Texas legislation — and the possible implications for voters. Democrats have argued their audiences with members of Congress have also given them an opening to bring forth the state’s recent violations that could build a record for why federal intervention is needed.
"It is important for them to know the specific stories that are happening in Texas," State Rep. Rafael Anchía said in a recent press conference. The Dallas Democrat pointed to federal court findings of intentional discrimination against voters of color at the hands of state lawmakers in the last decade and the state’s recent botched review of the voter rolls that jeopardized the voting rights of tens of thousands of naturalized citizens. "This is happening in real time, and it’s very, very dangerous."
Republicans have pushed the legislation, citing the need to enhance "election integrity" and reduce the likelihood of fraud, though they lack the evidence that Texas elections are mired by voting irregularities on a widespread basis. In recent weeks, they’ve chided Democrats for abandoning their posts and not engaging in debate over the bills back at home.
Democrats have centered their opposition on concerns about the risk the legislation runs in disenfranchising voters, particularly voters of color and those with disabilities, by raising new barriers or pulling back on voting initiatives like drive-thru voting and overnight voting. They’ve been backed in their opposition by disability rights groups, voting rights advocates and civil rights organizations with long histories of fighting for Hispanic and Black Texans.
Also testifying on Thursday will be Nina Perales, the vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who has raised concerns about the GOP legislation’s possible effect on voting access for Latinos.
A smaller delegation of Democrats previously made their pitch in Washington when the national spotlight turned on the Texas voting fight after their first walkout to derail passage of the legislation in late May. Their second quorum break — this time past state boundaries and the jurisdiction of Texas law enforcement sent to round them up — came just days into a special legislative session called to revive the voting bill and other GOP priorities.