In February, when the new Speaker of the Texas House, Dade Phelan, appointed Deer Park republican Briscoe Cain as chair of the Elections Committee, many were surprised by the decision. Cain had earned a reputation among Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike as a provocateur at best and a legislative lightweight at worst. In 2017, the representative attempted to kill funding for a state palliative care program seemingly without knowing the definition of “palliative care,” as questioning subsequently revealed. Two years later, Twitter temporarily banned him for responding to Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s call to confiscate AR-15 rifles with a tweet that read, “My AR is ready for you.”
The representative’s ascendancy to the committee chairmanship, in other words, was not evidence of meritocracy. Why had Phelan put one of the most unprepared and incompetent members of the House in charge of the committee that will be handling “election integrity,” one of Governor Greg Abbott’s emergency priorities?
Cain has become one of the loudest Republicans in the Lege hawking unsubstantiated claims of mass voter fraud. In November, he flew to Pennsylvania to help former President Trump’s legal team challenge the integrity of election results there. Earlier this session, he proposed legislation to make it more difficult to vote by mail or for anyone to help the elderly or infirm cast ballots. The legislation is widely seen by Democrats less as an effort to root out fraud—which the state attorney general’s office has repeatedly failed to find any significant evidence of—as one to make it hard for minorities to vote.
The bill was bound to be controversial. Phelan, known as a relatively bipartisan Republican who courted Democrats in his bid for Speaker, has avoided speaking in too much depth about his legislative priorities, consternating the far-right wing of his party. In past sessions, he voted for some restrictive voter legislation, including a 2019 bill to prevent county clerks from using mobile voting booths during early voting. But if he were looking for a way to avoid passing controversial elections legislation this year, he couldn’t have made a better pick to chair the Elections Committee than Cain.
On Thursday, Cain managed to turn a hearing on his bill into a farce. As is the custom with legislative committees, when Cain started to present the legislation, he handed the gavel off to vice chairman Jessica González, a Dallas Democrat, so she could run the meeting. Poorly prepared, Cain then struggled to answer questions from Democratic members. He kept claiming he had not fully read his bill because he had received a substitute draft at only 7:30 that morning.
That was bad enough: committee chairs are supposed to be subject matter experts.
But Cain fully showed his incompetence when Fort Worth Democrat Nicole Collier showed up at the hearing to ask questions about the bill and he tried to block her from doing so. Collier is not on the Elections Committee, but it is not uncommon for nonmembers to participate in committee hearings. Moreover, Collier is African American, and there are no Black lawmakers appointed to the elections panel, so her presence offered a voice for a community most targeted by voter suppression efforts.
González said she would recognize Collier to ask questions. “Whoa, no. I’m sorry,” Cain interjected. González then repeated that she was going to recognize Collier. “I’m currently the chair right now,” she said.
“I’m the chair of the committee, and I’m taking it back now,” Cain responded. He told Collier she could testify on the bill as a member of the public but he was not going to take questions from anyone who was not a member of the committee. Then, in a last-ditch attempt to regain control, Cain recessed the hearing. When the panel came back in 32 minutes later, Cain announced that the House parliamentarian had told him that because he had not recessed to a specified time, the committee, under the House rules, could no longer meet that day. The representative apologized to everyone for his error and promised to have another hearing sometime soon.
Hundreds of citizens who had signed up to testify, many of whom had traveled long distances, suddenly had lost a chance for their voices to be heard. Among them were O’Rourke, there to speak in opposition, and Republican Party of Texas chairman Allen West, there to support the effort. It was the second time this week that Republican elections legislation had been derailed in the Lege: the Senate State Affairs Committee had planned a hearing on its version of the bill on Monday, but Democrats used a procedural rule to halt the meeting and delay it until Friday. Cain had proved himself as effective as Democratic lawmakers in scuttling discussion on his prized bill.