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Democratic Lawmakers Flee Texas In Hopes Of Thwarting Voting Restrictions

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Dozens of Texas Democrats have left the state and gone to Washington, D.C., in an effort to stop Texas Republicans from passing new voting restrictions. They say they plan to stay away for weeks, until the end of a special session on August 7. Here's Texas Congressman Marc Veasey at this morning's press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

MARC VEASEY: We are always going to push back against these sort of bigoted, racist Jim Crow 2.0-style voting laws whenever you decide to bring them up.

PFEIFFER: Ashley Lopez from member station KUT in Austin joins us for more. Ashley, good morning.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

PFEIFFER: This is the second time recently that Democrats stopped a voting bill. In late May, they walked out of the building right before a vote. Why did this time they leave the entire state?

LOPEZ: OK, so the reason they had to leave the whole state this time is that if Democrats are within state lines during the special session and if a quorum is called in the Texas House, state police could arrest these lawmakers and then force them back into the Legislature to vote on these bills. The Democrats I've talked to say they're prepared to stay out of the state that entire time, though, which could be as late as August 7, which is when the special legislative session is supposed to end.

PFEIFFER: It's basically as if they fled the state. What led to this dramatic step?

LOPEZ: Well, you know, this was kind of another breaking point for Democrats. Republicans have been passing voting restrictions for years, and Democrats say this time they were going too far in proposing massive changes to the election code, based on a lie told by former President Trump and his allies that the 2020 election was stolen. And to give you a sense of what's in these bills, you know, if they pass, Texas would have new restrictions on ballot by mail, voting hours, and there would be a bunch of new criminal penalties related to voting, which voting rights groups have warned - that could lead to people getting in serious legal trouble for, you know, innocent mistakes.

I talked to Democratic State Representative John Bucy about this. And, you know, I asked him why they're, like, walking away yet again instead of working something out through the legislative process.

JOHN BUCY: There is no bipartisan ground to start with when you're working on a bill that is directly tied to a lie and tied to restricting voting access. So that's why this is different. This isn't based on solving a problem.

LOPEZ: Democrats were also facing a timing crunch because two big voting bills were voted out of committee over the weekend, one in the middle of the night. And both the Texas House and the Texas Senate were expected to take full chamber votes on each bill this week. So these bills were moving very fast this time.

PFEIFFER: And Texas Republicans, what are they saying about this?

LOPEZ: Texas Governor Greg Abbott actually issued a video statement yesterday, saying Democrats are leaving Texans in the lurch because there's still a lot of work to be done. In his remarks, he accused Democrats of putting politics ahead of their duties.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: The Democrats must put aside partisan political games and get back to the job they were elected to do.

LOPEZ: I should note that one of the issues that Texas faces is restoring funding for legislative staff, which Abbott actually vetoed in retaliation for the Democrats' last walkout. I talked to Democrats about whether they were concerned about leaving without making sure their staff is getting paid, and they said that it's Abbott's problem to fix, not theirs, since he's the one who cut the funding. So that's, like, another big issue looming all over this.

PFEIFFER: So these Texas lawmakers in D.C., are they just killing time there, or do they have a mission in Washington?

LOPEZ: Well, just like the second - like the first time after they walked out, they're headed to Washington to push lawmakers to pass federal voting protections, including the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. So, you know, that's, like, what they have on their agenda this time.

PFEIFFER: That's Ashley Lopez from member station KUT in Austin. Ashley, thank you.

LOPEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.