President Joe Biden and Democrats in Washington are clearly concerned about the threat to voting rights that has emerged in states across the country. But too many of the D.C. Democrats lack the sense of urgency felt by Democratic legislators on the ground in states such as Texas, where the Republican Party’s determination to enact voter suppression laws has created a crisis for democracy.
Refusing to be forced to participate in the assault on voting rights in the Republican-controlled legislative chambers of their home state, the Democrats from Texas flew to Washington Monday night with a message best summed up by state Representative Toni Rose.
“Texas Democrats will use everything in our power to fight back,” said the Dallas Democrat. “But we need Congress to act now.”
That action will by all accounts require Senate Democrats to break a Republican filibuster that has blocked Senate action on the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—measures that would thwart gerrymandering and voter suppression. To get Senate Democrats to unite for so dramatic a move, however, President Biden will have to act as strategically and aggressively as a previous Democratic president, Texan Lyndon Johnson, did to get his party on the right side of history. So far, that hasn’t happened.
The Democrats who came to Washington from Texas invoked the name of Johnson, who engineered Senate passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and then signed those measures into law. In so doing, they sent a powerful message to the contemporary leaders of their party about the gravity of the threat that has developed not just in Texas but in states across the country.
The Democratic legislators left the statehouse in Austin in order to deny Republican Governor Greg Abbott and his allies the quorum that is required to enact a draconian assault on voting rights in the state. Abbott has threatened to have the Democrats arrested and forced to participate in a special session of the legislature called to force through the voter suppression measures. But, on Tuesday morning, state Representative Chris Turner, the chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, announced, “Minutes ago, at least 57 letters were delivered to the House general clerk directing the House to lock our voting machines and not unlock them until we provide expressed permission to do so upon our return to the Capitol.”
The Texas Democrats are, with their absence from Austin, blocking action on an omnibus bill being that Republicans want to use to ban 24-hour polling places, outlaw ballot drop boxes, empower partisan poll watchers to challenge voters, and make it easier for partisan jurists to overturn legitimate election results. What Abbott proposes would be devastating for democracy in general, but the greatest threat is to the voting rights of people of color, people with disabilities, and young people.
US Representative Marc Veasey, the Texas Democrat who founded the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus, calls the assault on voting rights in his home state and states across the country “Jim Crow 2.0.”
Texas state Representative John Bucy (D–Austin) put an exclamation mark on that point Tuesday when he said, “The secretary of state’s office in Texas told us that our elections ran smoothly, securely, and were a success. So, you have to question what is the problem these bills are trying to solve? Clearly, all they are trying to do is make it harder for the people of Texas to vote, specifically individuals with disabilities, women and people of color.”
Why? Because the Republicans fear those voters might cast Democratic ballots in a state where elections are getting closer and 2022 and 2024 could finally break the GOP stranglehold on Texas politics. The desperation of Abbott and Republican legislators in Texas is such that they are willing to use their majorities in the state House and Senate to undermine democracy. Democrats had only one option: to go to Washington and demand federal action.
“I’m not up here to take a vacation in Washington, D.C. When I looked at the African American Museum, I thought about the struggle my people fought in this country to get the right to vote. That right is sacred to my constituents that I represent back in Houston, Texas,” declared state Representative Senfronia Thompson. “These Republicans in this legislature may have changed the Messiah, Jesus, to Trump, but I haven’t. I’m going to make sure, with everything I can do, that my constituents’ rights will not be stripped from them.”
Thompson, who was elected to the legislature in 1972, and is now the dean of women legislators in the state, recalled the role that “a Texan…President Lyndon B. Johnson” played when he used his authority as president of the United States to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. She and her fellow legislators urged Biden and Democrats in Washington to act just as boldly.
At least some Democrats in Washington recognize what is at stake.
Texas US Representative Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat who represents communities from San Antonio to Austin, greeted the legislators outside the Capitol. Recalling his own service with Thompson in the Texas legislature decades ago, Doggett said:
“Most of the focus around here these days is about infrastructure, and it’s right that we should focus on crumbling bridges. But today we’re here about something much more important, and that is the infrastructure of democracy—about broken voting rights. These courageous colleagues chose not to be accomplices by sitting at their desks and being steamrollered in Austin. It took courage to do what they’re doing…. No matter what they do, Greg Abbott and his group of extremists will never change. What can change is right here in this building. As dean Thompson mentioned, what we really need today is a Lyndon Johnson moment. We need the power of the presidency…. We need the president and the vice president and every Democrat in this Senate working together to preserve American democracy. There has seldom been more at stake. That’s why they’re here. We need to see in the administration and in the Senate the same courage that these Texans have demonstrated.”
When Doggett finished speaking, Thompson led Texans in singing the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Now, Biden and Senate Democrats must join the chorus.