House Democrats’ walkout to stall a Republican-driven Texas elections bill got national attention, but didn’t stop the measure from becoming law.
Texas Democrats looked to Congress for help in derailing a GOP-driven elections bill they described as discriminatory. And they pleaded for protection against a redistricting plan that voting rights advocates contend unfairly manipulates communities of color.
The inaction in Congress on voting rights, particularly in the Senate, should be galling to the Texas Democrats who staged a highly publicized walkout that delayed a controversial elections bill. For weeks they camped out in Washington, D.C., to prevent Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan from having the quorum needed to approve the legislation.
While in Washington, the Texans met with House and Senate leaders, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris. They pleaded with them to act on voting rights legislation. The Democrats didn’t get a meeting with President Joe Biden.
“Today the right to vote and the rule of law are under unrelenting assault from Republican governors, attorneys general, secretaries of state, state legislators,” Biden said last week. “They’re following my predecessor, the last president, into a deep, deep black hole and abyss.”
As Biden pointed out, Republican-led legislatures across the country are tightening election laws to restrict absentee voting. They say they are making it harder to cheat in elections. The rash of legislation is in concert with former President Donald Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
The inability of Biden to meet with the Texas Democrats is indicative of where strengthening voting rights falls on the president’s list of priorities. Yes, he wants action, but there are other items on his agenda that are more important, like getting Congress to approve his projected Build Back Better plan.
Meanwhile, Texas Republicans — as predicted — methodically pushed through their elections reform bill. And last week the Legislature’s third special session ended with Republican-drawn redistricting plans that protect GOP majorities in the state House, Senate and U.S. Congress. Voting rights activists are suing in federal court to have the new maps thrown out, claiming that they discriminate against minority voters.
Before the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, those redistricting plans would have needed approval from the Justice Department.
Despite the talk from Democrats about saving the nation’s democracy, and protecting the cherished right to vote, new voting rights legislation with teeth is unlikely to occur before the 2022 midterm elections.
Texas Democrats are disappointed.
“We need protection,” said Rep. Carl Sherman Sr., D-DeSoto. “If you’re in Illinois and you’re Republican, you should be hoping that the federal government will provide universal voter protection.”
Sherman said that pre-clearance requirements would add vital protections to the nation’s voters. He added that he liked proposals in Congress that would outlaw the gerrymandering of legislative districts.
“There should be no gerrymandering to manipulate power and ensure that you can hold on to power, rather than protecting the people,” Sherman said.
There are proposals designed to bolster voting rights in America.
The For the People Act, which would have set uniform standards for fair and inclusive elections and ended the practice of drawing gerrymandered legislative districts, is a non-starter. It’s been essentially replaced by a watered-down compromise bill called the Freedom to Vote Act, which last week the Senate failed to advance.
Earlier this year the House passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would result in the Justice Department approving changes in election law and redistricting plans. Former Confederate states like Texas were subject to a similar “pre-clearance” requirement since the 1970s. But in 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the requirement.
Voting rights advocates and federal officials are worried they will miss the moment.
“I am here today to sound an alarm. For the Justice Department, restoring and strengthening the Voting Rights Act is a matter of great urgency,” Kristen Clarke, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month.
But the voting rights bills are not likely to get through the Senate.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz has called efforts by Democrats on voting rights “cynical” and “wrong.”
“This bill is an assault on democracy,” Cruz said earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Democrats were tasked with getting Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, in the fold for voting rights legislation. Manchin met with Texas Democrats before and during their quorum break. The Freedom to Vote Act was the product of negotiations between Manchin and Senate Democrats.
He had been the lone Democratic holdout in backing the more comprehensive For the People Act.
The problem for Democrats is that they have a slim majority in the Senate, and Manchin hasn’t found support for the bill among the 50 GOP members of the Senate. That means the legislation won’t survive a Republican filibuster.
Unless Biden and Manchin get behind changing Senate rules, Republicans can use a filibuster to defeat legislation they don’t like.
That’s why Democrats must change their tactics for pushing voting rights legislation.
In Texas, House Democrats seemingly had to fight alone. It didn’t have to be that way. Texas Democrats have a 13-member delegation to Congress. They could have played hardball with Biden, telling him voting rights legislation would have to occur before anything else on his agenda.
Progressives are using their muscle as leverage for a huge human infrastructure package, and they’ve held up passage of the American Jobs infrastructure plan until they get a deal on the American Families Act, which would provide funding for child care, education and paid leave.
Biden’s American Rescue Plan for COVID-19 relief, the first prong in his Build Back Better plan, has been signed into law.
If their cries about saving democracy are genuine, leveraging the president and congressional leaders on voting rights is a legitimate endeavor.
Democrats also have to do a better job with selling their concerns to voters.
Most Texans don’t have problems voting, whether at a polling place or by mail.
So when you call a plan Jim Crow 2.0, you have to back it up.
The 2022 elections are approaching and Democrats are expected to make voting rights a top campaign issue.