There isn’t an exact moment that Senate Bill 7 officially died. But sometime close to the eleventh hour of Sunday, not long before a midnight deadline that would decapitate dozens of bills, the Texas House lost its quorum, sealing the fate of controversial legislation restricting the vote. Enough Democrats—62 of the 67 in the caucus—had left the chamber to deny the Republican-controlled Legislature the ability to pass one of the top priorities of its leaders. Some were hanging out in Austin representative Eddie Rodriguez’s office, a prime spot on the fourth floor, just under the Capitol dome. Others quietly shuffled through the labyrinth of underground hallways that stretch north beneath the grounds of the Texas Capitol. Others had taken the keys to their voting machines and disappeared into the night, not to be seen until morning. One member from Dallas went to Amy’s Ice Creams, in the Arboretum, treating himself to a coffee-flavored ice cream mixed with crushed Heath bars.
Just before midnight, an hour later, 32 of the Democrats gathered on the concrete steps outside Mt. Zion Baptist Church, a Black church in East Austin, for a triumphant press conference. It was one of the more dramatic victories in recent memory for the long-beleaguered Texas Democrats. Those with long memories cast back almost two decades for a parallel—to May 2003, when House Democrats fled to Oklahoma to disrupt Republicans’ redistricting plans.
At Mt. Zion, Democratic leaders cast their walkout as an act of conscience. As a minority party largely at the mercy of the GOP, they had no choice, they argued. “All the bad things that have been threatened throughout the course of the session, Republicans can do anytime they want and we can’t stop that. But while we’re here, we take our fights one at a time,” representative Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat, told me. “And the notion that the Republicans in Texas wanted to pass the most offensive and most egregious voter suppression bill in the country, and the only thing we can do is sit in our chair and take it, I did not want to be a party to that.”
Though the Democrats stressed the practical and symbolic powers of their show of unity, the act itself crystallized in a messier fashion. For much of the legislative session, the House Democrats were riven by factional fighting primarily centered around representative Chris Turner, the third-term caucus leader from Fort Worth, and a group of largely Black and Latino reps who wanted to take more drastic action to stop a juggernaut of conservative legislation this session. That internecine conflict spilled over into the question of what to do about a bill that many in the caucus considered a threat to both democracy and the Democratic Party.
Though an “elections integrity” bill was considered a Republican priority from early in the session, concern surged in the Democratic caucus after the Senate passed SB 7 in early April. Among its provisions, for example, was language giving poll watchers broad power to video-record voters and to police polling places for fraud in what critics argue would give license for intimidation. It also would impose limits on voting hours and where polling places could be located.
Democrats in the House began debating how to stop, or mitigate, SB 7. At some point, freshman legislator Jasmine Crockett and some others argued to the caucus that they should break quorum when SB 7 reached the floor, according to the Dallas Morning News. “We should have walked out on the voter suppression bill. We should have broken quorum,” Crockett told the newspaper, although it’s not clear how long such a walkout could have sustained, with weeks to go in the session.
Regardless, that didn’t happen. Instead, more senior Democrats calculated that negotiation was the best avenue for jettisoning some of the most objectionable parts. In early May, a group of Republicans and Democrats known for working well with GOP leaders had agreed to remove some of the bill’s “sharp corners,” including the part that empowered poll watchers to record voters. But Jessica González, the vice chair of the Elections Committee, and Briscoe Cain, the controversial chair, were cut out of the negotiations because of their toxic relationship. While Democrats still opposed the bill, those in leadership, including the most powerful Democrat in the House, Speaker Pro Tempore Joe Moody, argued their negotiations helped them remove its most dangerous elements.
On May 19, the Senate and House assigned ten members—five from each chamber—to work out a final bill reconciling the versions each chamber passed. Patrick notably tapped five white senators for his negotiating team, and just one Democrat among them, Beverly Powell of Fort Worth. The House team had two Democrats. Nine days later, the Senate Republican leading the negotiations, Bryan Hughes of Mineola, announced that a deal had been reached. That was evidently a surprise to the Democrats on the conference committee. Powell later said she hadn’t been apprised of twenty pages that had been added to the final bill. On the House side, the two Democratic conferees seemed equally perturbed; both said they were booted out of the group without a chance to meaningfully participate.
Democrats and voting-rights groups were appalled by the deal—not only was the new text of the bill much closer to the Senate’s version, it contained new provisions that had never been debated, including a part that made it easier for a judge to overturn elections without determining that fraud would’ve changed the outcome of the election. With an international spotlight now on what many deemed a “voter suppression” bill, Republicans had just 38 hours to pass it before the end of the session. But what would Democrats do?
Members of the minority party began scheming on how to take advantage of the looming deadline. All bills had to pass by midnight Sunday and debate on SB 7 couldn’t begin until 5 p.m. that night for parliamentary reasons. One faction of about a dozen members, led by Black and Latino House Democrats, including Martinez Fischer and Nicole Collier, the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, gathered on a Zoom call on Saturday evening. They began hatching a plan to launch a walkout to break quorum, which would require an absence of 51 members. “Can we hold out for seven hours basically? Is that possible?,” representative Eddie Rodriguez, one of the members on the Zoom call, told Texas Monthly. “And then from there, we just heard everything organically. We start talking to some members that we trust, just kind of feeling their temperature.”
Overnight, interest built. Martinez Fischer, along with representatives Senfronia Thompson of Houston and Yvonne Davis of Dallas, called what members have since referred to as a “Black and Brown Summit” Sunday afternoon. Although no one counted votes in the meeting, interest in breaking quorum was palpable, according to several who were in the room.
But other Democrats, including Turner and representatives Rafael Anchía and Joe Moody, worried that doing so would only make matters worse. Even if the walkout was successful, they argued, the governor would likely add the elections bill back to the agenda for a special session. Perhaps that version would be even more draconian. By Sunday, Turner had developed a strategy: they planned to use a mix of tactics to gum up the process to avoid a dramatic walkout. Turner enlisted thirty members of his caucus to “chub,” or slow things down by giving speeches and asking endless questions in order to push a vote on SB 7 until after midnight, when it would no longer be eligible to pass. Representative Erin Zwiener and others were tasked with hurtling “points of order”—technical objections—in the hopes that one would prove fatal. The risk was Republicans could use their own procedural move to call for an immediate vote, leaving little time to break quorum before the vote.
Speaker Dade Phelan, elected by both Republicans and Democrats, was invited to speak to the full House Democratic Caucus about a half hour before Senate Bill 7 was scheduled to be heard. Phelan tried to start on a positive note. The session, he told the gathered Democrats, many of whom had backed his speaker’s candidacy early on, had been a “very good session.” But the mood quickly turned. Some of the Black and Hispanic reps ripped Phelan for allowing SB 7 to go forward. Several gave heartfelt pleas about how hurtful the legislation was, including Thompson, who spoke about the history of voting-rights issues in this state and how she and her family experienced them.
Phelan found one conciliatory note. If the Democrats wanted to break quorum, then that was their right. He would not lock the House doors to keep them there, nor would he order state troopers to track them down and force them back. In 2003, House Speaker Tom Craddick ordered state police to bring members back, but they escaped their jurisdiction by crossing over state lines. “If they felt like walking out was representing their districts, I was not going to force them to vote on a piece of legislation that was offensive to their district,” Phelan told reporters later. After that meeting, many members had decided they were going to break quorum while others were intent on trying to kill the bill on a point of order.
Debate began on the bill around 7:45 p.m. But it soon became clear that Turner’s strategy wasn’t enough. Republicans had collected enough signatures—25—to end debate and force a quick vote, one high-ranking Republican told me. There was only one option left: break quorum. It was mostly those who decided at the outset they wanted to break quorum who left first. Entire sections of the House floor slowly emptied as a small team of House Democrats remained to make the mass exodus less obvious, in case it caused a scene and pushed Republicans to trigger an immediate vote. By 9 p.m. dozens of chairs sat empty. At 10:35 p.m., Turner texted the caucus: “Members, take your key and leave the chamber discreetly. Do not go to the gallery. Leave the building.” By then, some forty Democratic members had already left the floor, with more to follow. The quorum was broken. But some critics of Turner later grumbled that he had only gotten on the quorum-breaking bandwagon once it was well underway. Turner countered that the timing of the walkout was important. “The later that play could be called the better,” Turner told me. “You don’t throw the Hail Mary pass on first down. You try to get some yards.”
Differences aside, the mood at Mt. Zion just before midnight was mostly jubilant. Though only half the House Democrats were in attendance—some had gone home; at least one did not know of the press conference until it was happening—the Democratic leaders stressed the unity needed to pull off the walkout. And they were eager to point to the symbolism of their venue. They had tarred SB 7 as blatantly racist. Its Republican authors had been at pains to explain the urgency of certain provisions. Why, for example, did the bill ban voting before 1 p.m. on Sunday? For decades, Black churches had organized “Souls to the Polls”—post-church voter caravans to exercise the hard-won franchise. Mt. Zion was one such place that mixed civic duty with the Black church.
After spending much of the session on the losing side, it would have been easy to adopt a defeatist attitude, said representative Ina Minjarez, a San Antonio Democrat. “I think we were feeling tired that we don’t have options to fight, and that day we realized we did have an option and we were able to send a message.” The Democrats had all the rules at their disposal, she said, including breaking quorum and “killing it together.”
But the victory may be short-lived. Abbott has already announced that he will add the elections bill to the agenda of a special session, which is expected this summer or in the fall, when lawmakers will convene to take up redistricting. On Monday Abbott showed once again who’s in charge. He tweeted that he would veto the Legislature’s budget, cutting off paychecks for lawmakers, personnel, maintenance crews, and expenses after September 1.