AUSTIN, Texas — Quorum breaks, chartered planes and loss of leadership positions – it has been quite the week in the Lone Star State! In this edition of Texas This Week, we recap the biggest headlines of the week and talk with State Rep. Nicole Collier (D-Fort Worth) about the Democrats' decision to fly to Washington, D.C.
Three things to know in Texas politics
1. Texas House Democrats break quorum
Just five days into the first special session of the 87th Texas Legislature, things in the House of Representatives came to a screeching halt. After a marathon public hearing on the House election reform bill last weekend, lawmakers voted along partisan lines to send the bill to the full House for a vote. The very next day, nearly all of the House's 67 Democrats boarded private planes bound for Washington, D.C., to ask U.S. Senators to pass two voting rights bills that would thwart the Texas GOP's bill. The move left the Texas House without a quorum, which is two-thirds of the membership, or 100 members, so the lower chamber can't hold hearings, vote on bills or take any action.
2. Republicans issue a call of the House
On Tuesday, House Republicans did the only thing they can do – approve a "call of the House" to try to secure quorum. The move required the chambers doors to be locked and members are only allowed to leave if they have written permission from the speaker. The members present also voted to send the sergeant of arms and appointed officers to find the missing members and bring them back. But those Texas officials have no jurisdiction outside of the state.
3. Republican leaders respond to House Democrats going to D.C.
The rhetoric from both sides of the aisle is reaching new heights, or lows, depending on how you look at it. Gov. Greg Abbott told KVUE he will keep calling special sessions until election reform becomes law. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wants to change the quorum rules to require a simple majority. Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Dade Phelan is demanding the Democrats come back. He relieved Speaker Pro-Tem El Paso Democrat Joe Moody from his position, and Saturday, he used campaign funds to charter a private plane to Washington to try to bring the Democrats back.
State Rep. Nicole Collier (D) discusses quorum break
What exactly in the election reform bills do Democrats oppose? Fort Worth Rep. Nicole Collier, chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, sat on the election reform bill conference committee during the regular session and helped organize the quorum break. She talked with KVUE about the legislation.
Ashley Goudeau: Breaking quorum is a decision you and your colleagues did not come to lightly, I would imagine. So talk to us about how you all came to this decision.
Rep. Nicole Collier: "You know what, you're absolutely right. This was the last option that was available for us. As Democrats, we tried to work with our Republican colleagues to address the legislation that they filed. But let me just tell you, we are starting from the premise that there's no need for any legislation that deals with our elections, and that is because of what has been proven and shown by the Republican leadership. The Republican governor was not able to identify types of election fraud in our voting 2020 elections, and even the representative from the Secretary of State's Office said that they have not identified election fraud or have any reports of it from the 2020 election. And that is an election where we had the highest voter turnout in Texas since 1992, and that's even through a pandemic. And even when we had Motor Voter, which is drive-thru voting and we had 24-hour voting in Harris County, no fraud. So we don't believe that there's any need to have an election bill. But what we do know is that the numbers, we don't have the numbers to stop it. So they have filed, the Republicans have filed, a bill that would not promote voter access. It would restrict voter access. We tried by amending the first bill during the regular session. We even had our Democratic members who were on the select committee file amendments during the hearing that lasted over 23 hours, where 400 people testified against, or registered their support, registered their position against the measure, but yet only 65 or so for it, and that was still ignored. So we tried to work with them. They're ignoring not only us but the people of Texas who have registered their opposition to this latest attack on our right to vote. So there's no working with them. So that's why this week we were here in Washington, D.C., to implore our Senate legislators to pass the For the People Act so that they can provide model legislation that would help all Americans protect their right to vote."
Goudeau: You know, you just said a lot there, and I want to break into some of the points that you said, especially when you talk about voter fraud. I had the opportunity to sit down and do an interview with Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, who said this is not about voter fraud. He said this is about something that you pointed out, what was done in Harris County, where you had a county that implemented drive-thru voting. You had a county that implemented 24-hour voting, and that's something that we can't do across the entire state of Texas. He said it wasn't necessarily written in the code that you could do these things, so we need a code to say what you can and cannot do. Your thoughts on that logic as to being the reason behind this bill?
Rep. Collier: "Why fix what's not broken? Let me tell you, if those elections were successful and safe and secure, what are you trying to fix? What you're trying to fix is elections. You don't want to hear from the people of Texas. You want to limit those voters who used the creative ideas by the Harris County elections administrator to promote voter access. So we know that in Harris County, we have a large number of Black and brown and women of color and people that voted in that last election. So what they're doing is just really trying to silence our voice."
Goudeau: The other thing that you said about the legislation that is filed is that it would restrict voter access. Talk to us about the provisions in the bill.
Rep. Collier: In the first one during the regular session, that bill would allow judges to overturn elections if the person appealed it, and you shouldn't have the ability for one judge to overturn the votes of the people. But that measure was removed. However, what it does do in this latest version of the bill is that it empowers partisan poll watchers to give them free reign over the entire polling location where election activity is happening. That means they can follow you around. Let me tell you the problem. If a presiding judge has a, knows that the poll watcher is violating the law, they must first give them a warning to stop that illegal behavior before they can ask the police to remove them. There's no criminal penalties that can be filed against the poll watcher for that. They don't have that in the bill. But yet if a presiding, if a poll worker violates the law they face immediate criminal sanctions. There's no warning for that presiding judge who may, or that poll worker, who may make a simple mistake. No, they can get immediate criminal sanctions by that poll watcher who was sent there to watch them. So there's no fairness in this when one has superior rights over the other. Other provisions of this bill would require an individual, a voter, to state their disability. You must state whether you cannot read or write. That must be something for you to attest to as to why you need assistance with your voting. Moreover, if you had three or more people, you know, they talk about they're not going after Souls to the Polls. But if you are taking three or more people, which is one of the good benefits of Souls to the Polls, you would have to file an affidavit. You have to complete an affidavit indicating that you gave people a ride. Why are they doing this? This is a deterrence mechanism, just like with all of the other provisions of the bill. So if you vote by mail, they want you to complete on the outside envelope your – you have to fill in your social, the last four digits of your Social Security number, your driver's license, or you must say you don't have one. Now, people who are voting already turn in an ID. If you are registered to vote, you've already presented your ID. And when you're voting by mail, they're trying now to say that you have to present these additional personal identification to those where the ballot is turned in. So we have grave concerns about this measure. And remember, suppression doesn't have to be overt like it is with the poll tax. It can be subtle with these minor, with these provisions that would criminalize simple mistakes and reduce access to voting."
Goudeau: Rep. Turner has said this week that the Democrats are prepared to stay in D.C. for the rest of the special session all the way until August. Talk to us about that decision.
Rep. Collier: "The Democrats are committed to making sure that we fight and continue to push for federal intervention, whatever that takes. We want to make sure that the Senate, the United States Senate, knows that we need them to act. We need them to pass federal legislation. We want to bring up the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. We need that one to go through as well. So whatever we need to do to make sure that the Senate understands, 'Hey, look, our backs have been up against the wall. We need you. You are our last resort. You are, we're calling on you to take action.' So we're prepared to continue and maintain that push."
Goudeau: Gov. Abbott has made it clear that he will continue to call specials session until some version of election reform is passed. So what's the end game here? And is there a chance, or even fear, among the Democrats that this could end up like 2003 where you all do all this and still don't get the outcome you're hoping for?
Rep. Collier: "Well, right now, we're asking Congress to act. Again, they have until Aug. 6, they're in session. The United States Senate is in session till Aug. 6. Our special session in Texas ends Aug. 7. So there is an opportunity for the Senate to pass federal legislation, the For the People Act, to provide those protections. So right now, we're looking at, looking to and for the United States Senate to pass this legislation and get it to the president's desk so he can sign it."
Goudeau: You know, there are some people back here in Texas and certainly the Republicans who would say that, what about the other bills – some of those bipartisan pieces of legislation on the call, the 13th check for teachers, the property tax reform – that now hang in the balance? They passed in the Senate this week, but the House can't take any action because the Democrats are in D.C. What do you say to those, those types of comments?
Rep. Collier: "Why didn't they pass during the regular session? Let me tell you, this is a Republican-led Legislature. We passed these bills. In fact, the 13th check, the vital check – my husband's a teacher and one day he's going to be retired. That 13th check, we passed that. The Democratic chair, Rafael Anchia, passed that out of his committee on April 22. It sat in Calendars where it died. So we did our part. But now they bring that up as a way to try to entice us back. But it's their failure. They failed to pass that, that measure. They failed to provide tax, property tax reform. They even failed to reinforce our infrastructure. So don't, don't come back now at the last minute and say that it's our fault, because it was them that allowed these matters to die during the regular session. They had a chance to pass them. We overwhelmingly supported those measures, but they stopped them themselves."
With the Democrats adamant about killing the election reform bill, at least for this special session, we don't expect this showdown between the Democrats and Republicans to end anytime soon.
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