Why Did Texas Democrats Flee the State? And What Does It Mean?

The Democratic legislators who fled to Washington to thwart the passage of a restrictive voting measure cannot be legally forced to return from out of state.

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SAN ANTONIO — When Texas Democrats walked out of the Statehouse in late May, denying Republicans a quorum and thwarting passage of a restrictive voting measure, it was a dramatic political move not seen in nearly two decades.

They did it again this week, this time fleeing the state for Washington shortly after a 30-day special session to secure passage of the bill commenced. The bill includes restrictions on absentee voting and bans 24-hour and drive-through voting, which drew millions of voters in Democratic strongholds across the state in November.

Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed that the Democrats who absconded will face reprimands, telling Fox News, “Once they step back into the state, they will be arrested and brought back to the Capitol and we will be conducting business.”

On Tuesday, the Texas House voted to issue arrest warrants to compel the lawmakers to return to Austin.

Democrats, so far, have not budged. Those who flew on chartered planes to Washington signaled that they would remain there until the special session concludes. Still, what does their absence mean? And what happens next?

Can Republicans compel Democrats to return?

In short, no.

The Democrats who fled cannot be legally forced to return from out of state. While Mr. Abbott can ask the federal government or attorneys general from outside Texas to issue orders of arrests, those who absconded are unlikely to cooperate, political experts said.

If they were in the state, the legislative body could request their presence, experts said. And the state police and Texas Rangers would then have the power to arrest them and return them to the Capitol grounds. But that is “less likely to occur if they are in Washington,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.

Still, the Democrats have to eventually return home, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “They have jobs, they have lives, they have families.”

Once they are back in the state, lawmakers can pass resolutions to fine the Democrats for every day they were gone, and they could also take away privileges, such as parking spaces, Mr. Rottinghaus said.

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A handful of Republican legislators gathered in the House chamber at the Texas Capitol in Austin on Tuesday. Fifty-seven Democratic lawmakers are in Washington.Credit…Eric Gay/Associated Press

The Republican majority can also potentially censure Democrats and strip them of committee assignments. But after the Democrats fled in similar fashion in 2003, their Republican colleagues did not move to punish them once the session resumed. “It was forgive and forget,” Mr. Rottinghaus said.

In the end, the Republican lawmakers “are going to get what they want,” he added. “It’s going to take a little longer.”

What is the Democrats’ plan?

When the Democrats do finally return, they are unlikely to win the fight over voting legislation. Not only does Mr. Abbott have the power to call for as many special sessions as he wants, but the Republicans, who hold firm majorities in both chambers, are sure to move their agenda forward.

That agenda includes more than the voting restrictions, which would be among the strictest in the nation. The state’s Republicans also want to combat perceived “censorship” on social media platforms and restrict transgender athletes from competing in school sports on teams that match their gender identity.

For the Democrats, political observers say, fleeing the state on Monday was more about taking a political stand than bringing Republicans around to their way of thinking.

Julian Castro, a Democrat who was President Barack Obama’s housing secretary and a former mayor of San Antonio, said the party’s best bet at this point is to push congressional Democrats to pass national voting laws that would do away with many of the restrictions being considered in Austin. Congress is locked in a fight over the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, both of which would seek to strengthen voting protections nationwide.

“What I see coming next for them is to continue to be high-profile and put pressure on Washington for federal legislation,” Mr. Castro said. “I’m convinced they’ll stay as long as they need to.”

Is running away here to stay?

Dade Phelan, the speaker of the Texas House, could have directed the sergeant-at-arms to guard entrances and exits to prevent the mass exodus of Democrats. But it was unlikely that he expected lawmakers from the opposing party to flee for the second time in a little more than a month, political experts said.

“I was actually surprised that Democrats got away with it, the way that they did,” Mr. Rottinghaus said. “Once it happens, the baby’s been born.”

Is running away the last resort for Democrats, who are outnumbered in both chambers? And is it a tactic they will continue to use?

“The Democrats are drawing a line in the sand,” he said, adding: “They don’t have any other options on the table. They are literally and symbolically fleeing to Washington to get help from national Democrats.”

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Democrats from the Texas Legislature traveled by bus to board a private plane heading from Austin to Washington on Monday.Credit…Eric Gay/Associated Press

Mr. Jones said tactics like breaking quorum in such spectacular fashion might bring national attention and help Democrats raise millions of dollars. But the move will ultimately do little to affect legislation.

“The governor in Texas can call as many special sessions as he wants,” Mr. Jones said.

The Republicans may also have few options to prevent similar tactics in the future. They need significant Democratic buy-in to change quorum rules in the Texas Constitution. But “you might see payback” in the next regular legislative session, Mr. Jones said. “You might see a lot fewer Democrats in committee chairmanships.”

What does the current voting bill include?

It has been a challenging year for Democrats in state legislatures across the country. More than 14 Republican-controlled states have passed sweeping election laws that restrict voting access in ways that could hurt Democrats.

In Texas, a state that already ranks as one of the most difficult in which to cast a ballot, Republicans held marathon sessions regarding the voting bill in the last few days of the regular session that ended in late May.

The legislation includes provisions that would ban 24-hour voting and drive-through voting; greatly expand the authority and autonomy of partisan poll watchers; limit third-party ballot collection; increase the criminal penalties for election workers who run afoul of regulations; and add new voter identification requirements for voting by mail.

Is fleeing the state a new tactic?

This week was not the first time Texas legislators in the minority party fled in an attempt to block passage of controversial legislation. In May 2003, more than 50 House Democrats escaped to Ardmore, Okla., 30 miles north of the Texas border, to block Republicans from redrawing congressional districts.

The measure failed without a quorum.

Two months later, after the governor at the time, Rick Perry, called a special session, 11 Democratic state senators fled to New Mexico, a 640-mile trip from Austin, to again deny their Republican colleagues a quorum and stave off redistricting efforts that they believed would hurt their party.

Most notably, in 1979, a dozen Democratic senators known as the “Killer Bees” hid for five days from the Republicans and Texas Rangers to prevent the Senate from reaching a quorum.

They had been objecting to a bill that aimed to create two primaries, one for the presidential race and one for a general primary, which they described at the time as a measure that was likely to favor the candidacy of John B. Connally, the former Texas governor who was up for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980. That bill later died in the Senate.

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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