With Republican-backed voting bills moving rapidly through a special session of the state Legislature, Texas Democrats are planning to make a break for it — again.
At least 58 Democratic members of the state House of Representatives are expected to bolt from Austin on Monday in an effort to block the measures from advancing, a source familiar with the plans told NBC News. The unusual move, akin to what Democrats did in 2003, would paralyze the chamber, stopping business until the lawmakers return to town or the session ends.
The majority of the members plan to fly to Washington, D.C., on two private jets chartered for the occasion and use the time there to rally support for federal voting legislation, the source said. Others will make their own way.
The lawmakers risk arrest in taking flight. Under the Texas Constitution, the Legislature requires a quorum of two-thirds of lawmakers be present to conduct state business in either chamber. Absent lawmakers can be legally compelled to return to the Capitol, and the source said Democrats expect state Republicans to ask the Department of Public Safety to track them down.
“It’s really exciting to see Democrats taking a bold move with this potential walkout,” Carisa Lopez, political director for civil liberties group Texas Freedom Network, said.
House Democrats already staged one successful walkout to defeat election legislation prioritized by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. Members quietly left the House floor in the final minutes of the regular legislative session that ended in May, breaking quorum and forcing Republicans to adjourn without passing the key agenda item. But that victory was always likely to be short-lived, as Republicans control both legislative chambers. Abbott kept his vow to call a special session, which began July 8.
Republicans didn’t waste time. Lawmakers advanced a pair of voting measures — House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1 — Sunday after marathon committee hearings in both chambers, with the House hearing lasting nearly 24 hours. Both panels featured members of the public waiting hours to give testimony in the middle of the night. Floor votes were expected to take place as soon as this week.
Both bills would add new identification requirements for mail voting, ban some early voting options and create new criminal penalties for breaking election code while empowering partisan poll watchers.
To block the currently pending legislation, the Democratic lawmakers would have to remain away through the end of the special session, which can last as many as 30 days under the state’s constitution.
Though lawmakers did it briefly in May, breaking quorum is still a rare step. In May 2003, more than 50 state House Democrats left the state to try to block a redistricting proposal supported by the Republican majority. After the plan ultimately passed the state House, The Chicago Tribune reported at the time, Democratic state senators then fled to New Mexico, before eventually a defector reinstated quorum.
The redistricting plan eventually passed the Senate in October. The redistricting bill at the time was known as House Bill 3 — the same legislative moniker as one of current session’s voting bills.