December 6, 2023

Democrats in the Texas Legislature left the state on Monday to block advancement of Republican-backed electoral laws during a special session convened by the GOP governor, a person familiar with the matter told NBC News.

The escape of at least 51 Democrats comes ahead of the vote on new election measures and is expected to deny Republicans the quorum required to conduct business in the chamber, the unnamed source said. Business is expected to be suspended until the special session ends or lawmakers return to Austin.

“The Texas Democrats’ decision to break a quorum of the Texas legislature and abandon the Texas State Capitol is damaging exactly the Texans they have chosen to serve,” GOP Governor Greg Abbott said in a statement. “As you fly around the country in comfortable private planes, you leave issues open that can help your districts and our state.”

Texas Democratic Party leader Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement that the Texas Democrats are “making history”.

“Republicans are attacking our voting rights for one reason: They know their days in power are numbered, so they are trying to cling to power in the only way possible – by preventing us from voting,” said Hinojosa in the statement. “Texas Democrats have stood up to these attacks all year long and we will not let up. We will continue to hold the line for our democracy and the voice of every Texan.”

Texas is among the states that have worked to implement new electoral measures that critics say will limit access to the ballot box after former President Donald Trump repeatedly wrongly claimed that the 2020 election was stolen by election fraud. The proposed departure of the Texas Democrats encourages the struggle for state legislation and the national debate over voting rights.

The group has arranged two charter flights from Austin to Washington, DC, and will use the time there to gain support for federal voting legislation, the source said. The exit would be the second time the Texas Democrats have used this tactic to prevent a new voting measure from being passed.

Another seven Texas Democrats are en route to DC, bringing the total to 58.

However, the Texas Democrats’ escape plan risks arrest. According to the Texas Constitution, the legislature requires at least two-thirds of the legislature to be present in order to conduct state business in one of the two chambers. The unnamed source told NBC News that the Democrats expect to be tracked down by the Department of Public Safety at the request of the Republicans.

“Texas House will use all available resources under the Texas Constitution and House Rules unanimously passed to achieve a quorum for meaningful debate and electoral integrity, bail reform, retired teacher benefits, child protection reform, Article X funding, and the other important measures who put Governor Abbott on the agenda for the special session, “Texas House spokesman Dade Phelan, a Republican, said in a statement.

“The clock for the special session is ticking – I expect all members to be in our Capitol to work on these issues immediately.”

In May, House Democrats left the Capitol House during a regularly scheduled session that denied Republicans a quorum to pass electoral laws prioritized by GOP Governor Greg Abbott.

Abbott responded to the strike by convening a 30-day special session that began on July 8th.

On Sunday, after about 24 hours of testimony and debate, lawmakers passed two voting measures, House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1. GOP leaders plan to meet for the final vote on Tuesday.

Both measures would require voters to identify themselves for absentee voting, ban drive-thru and overnight options for early voting, and add new criminal penalties for violating electoral laws while empowering partisan election observers.

The bills have been criticized as discriminatory by Democrats and voters who claim the measures will suppress the voices of people of color and people with disabilities.

To prevent the passing of the current legislation, the Texas Democrats would have to stay outside the state until the end of the special session. The step to break a quorum is still rare.

In May 2003, more than 50 Texas Democrats left the state to block a Republican-backed redistribution proposal. The Democratic state senators reportedly fled to New Mexico before a defector restored quorum. Finally, in October of the same year, the redistribution bill was passed.