Fight Over Voting Rights Nears End in Texas as Democrats Return

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More than 50 Democrats fled to Washington last month in a last-ditch effort to prevent passage of a restrictive voting measure.

Gene Wu, a Houston representative.
Credit...Callaghan O'Hare for The New York Times

Aug. 19, 2021, 7:37 p.m. ET

HOUSTON — Ostensibly on the run, a Democratic “fugitive” in the eyes of his Republican colleagues, Gene Wu this week sat cross-legged on the couch in his Houston living room, fielding calls from constituents and occasionally glancing at his phone to view surveillance video from a camera on his front door.

Mr. Wu was among more than 50 Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives who went to Washington last month in a last-ditch effort to prevent a restrictive voting measure from passing in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Dozens have since quietly returned to Texas, vowing to continue the battle over voting rights from their homes or “undisclosed locations.” But their fight appeared to reach its conclusion on Thursday as a handful of Democrats rejoined their Republican colleagues in the State Capitol.

When it began on July 12, few believed that their walkout would last this long.

But the arrival of three Democrats in Austin on Thursday effectively ended the 38-day-old walkout, paving the way for House Republicans to re-establish a quorum. And it removed what appeared to be the final obstacle to the passage of new voting rules and other Republican priorities.

The House adjourned until 4 p.m. Monday, though hearings were expected to take place over the weekend.

“We took the fight for voting rights to Washington, D.C.,” the three Democratic legislators from Houston, Garnet Coleman, Ana Hernandez and Armando Walle, said in a joint statement, adding, “Now we continue the fight on the House floor.”

They added: “It is time to move past these partisan legislative calls and to come together to help our state mitigate the effects of the current Covid-19 surge.”

The political atmosphere had become more charged by the day as a majority of Democrats remained hunkered down in Texas, where they were vulnerable to potential arrest by state law enforcement. Only a small number remain outside the state.

Some have been bouncing between locations in Texas, fearful that, if they were found, they could be detained and hauled into the Capitol. Others, like Mr. Wu, were back at home and their jobs, which most lawmakers maintain in a state where the Legislature meets regularly only once every two years.

“If they believe they have the right to arrest me, they won’t have a hard time finding me because I’m at work,” said Ramon Romero, a Democrat who represents Fort Worth and runs a 40-person business building swimming pools and selling stone.

Democratic legislators began returning to Texas this month, albeit with none of the fanfare that accompanied their departure from Austin.

The representatives, cheered by Democratic activists and voting rights groups, flew in chartered planes to Washington, met with top officials in the Senate and with Vice President Kamala Harris, and succeeded in shutting down a special session of the Legislature called by Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, to pass new laws on voting and other priorities of his party’s base.

The absent Democrats ran down the clock of the 30-day special session, and Mr. Abbott immediately called a second one. But Democrats remained away.


Credit...Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Republicans, increasingly enraged, called for arrests. The House sergeant-at-arms distributed civil arrest warrants — signed by Speaker Dade Phelan — to members’ offices, to their email inboxes and, in some cases, to their homes.

“They came up to the door, rang the doorbell,” said Jon Rosenthal, a Houston representative, describing watching surveillance video he captured of the sergeant-at-arms official delivering the warrant to his home on Tuesday. “Nobody answered so he folded it in half and stuck it in the doorjamb.”

The voting bills in Texas, part of a nationwide effort by Republican-led state legislatures to tighten rules around ballot access, would roll back changes made during the 2020 election to make voting easier during the coronavirus pandemic. The proposed changes would also expand the authority of partisan poll watchers, which voting rights groups and Democrats say could lead to voter intimidation and suppression.

Mr. Abbott, in calling the special sessions, also included on the agenda priorities of his Republican base, such as rules on how race could be taught in schools and restrictions on transgender athletes. He also added several that have broader appeal, such as more money for retired teachers.

The standoff prompted calls for vigilante groups to help track down the Democrats. Outside groups offered rewards up to $2,500 for information leading to the arrest of the Democrats, garnering support from some Republican representatives.

“If you know the whereabouts of a missing lawmaker, submit a tip,” Briscoe Cain, a Houston-area Republican who chairs the House Elections Committee, said in a TikTok video this week, an assault rifle visibly mounted on the wall behind him.


Credit...Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman, via Associated Press

Democrats and activists had been working to ensure that the group held together, holding a daily check-in on Zoom. The roll is taken, and if anyone is absent, there was a system for getting in touch.

But debate during recent morning calls had broken out between different camps, a majority who wanted to maintain their walkout, and a smaller group that wanted to return, according to several who have been on the calls. “Every morning we have this exercise, this same four or five people who want to go back,” said one member, who requested anonymity to discuss the private meetings.

And so some Democrats were caught off-guard on Wednesday when Mr. Coleman announced in The Dallas Morning News that he would be returning to the Capitol. He explained that he felt returning was the “right thing to do” for the institution of the Legislature.

Mr. Wu, the Houston representative, said late Thursday that he felt “angst” about how Democrats would now continue their fight and “where this brings us in the coming days.”

“We knew this day would come,” he said. “It was just a matter of how and when.”

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