Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega. Good to have you with us. Now, let's listen to a little political chaos in action.
Speaker 1: The legislation was designed to suppress the votes in Texas, in particular, Texans of color.
Speaker 2: A quorum is apparently not present. The point of order is well-taken and sustained.
Melissa: You're listening into the Texas state legislature where Democratic lawmakers staged a last-minute walk out of a legislative session over the weekend in order to prevent SB 7, a piece of election security legislation that some say restricts voting rights from receiving a floor vote. Without Democrats, the State House lacked the two-thirds quorum required from members to vote on a bill. Texas Democrats are defending the dramatic move as a way to protect voters from a bill they describe as anti-voter legislation. Here's a State Representative Chris Turner.
Chris Turner: They were prepared to cut us off and try to silence us. We were not going to let them do that and that's why Democrats used the last tool available to us. We denied them the quorum that they need to pass this bill and we killed that bill.
Melissa: Meanwhile, Texas Governor Greg Abbott responded via tweet saying, "No pay for those who abandoned their responsibilities. stay tuned." Republicans hold a trifecta in the state of Texas, meaning the party controls the governor's office and both Houses of the legislature leaving Texas Democrats to amplify their calls for federal legislation to shore up voting rights and ensure equal access to the ballot box. The stakes could not be higher.
A growing population of young residents of color means the Texas electorate is becoming more Democratic, but district lines for the two new congressional seats the state gained in 2020 and the rules for casting a vote in upcoming elections will be decided by the current Republican majority, choices that can decide the direction of the Lone Star State for at least a decade. With me now to discuss what's at stake in Texas is Amy Gardner, a national political reporter at the Washington Post who's been reporting on this Texas voting story. Amy, welcome to The Takeaway.
Amy Gardner: Happy to be here. Thank you.
Melissa: Absolutely. Now, Amy, in your reporting, you actually refer to this bill SB 7 as, "A voting measure that would've been one of the most stringent in the nation." Can you tell me about some of the provisions that were in that bill?
Amy: Certainly, the measure would have done a lot of things across the whole breadth of election administration and voting. It would have imposed new criminal and civil penalties on election officials or citizens who help voters who need assistance. It would've made it illegal to send out unsolicited mail ballot applications, would have given new powers to partisan poll watchers to get up close to voters while they're voting, and potentially intimidating them.
It would have banned a raft of practices that were implemented last year, specifically in Harris County, which is where Houston is. Large minority population, where the clerk of elections at the time did all kinds of innovative things to make it easier for people to vote, 24-hour voting marathon, drive-through voting, Dropboxes, a mobile voting unit. All of those things would now have been illegal if this bill had passed. That was a series of provisions that Democrats said specifically were intended to target this democratic stronghold in Houston.
Melissa: Amy, why not have that fight on the floor and then go to a vote? Why did Democrats decide to walk out
Amy: The Democrats who I spoke to told me that they would have gladly debated and worked with Republicans to make this bill more palatable to them and their constituents, but that the Republicans refused. That's true. This bill emerged from a conference committee, which is a team of negotiators from the House and the Senate of the Texas legislature when the two chambers had passed separate pieces of legislation and they had to reconcile them.
A bill came out of that conference committee that had 20 new pages that had never been through the committee process, no hearings, and had a lot of new draconian provisions. One other that I didn't mention earlier was one that makes it easier for a judge to overturn an election result. The Democrats said on the floor Sunday, "We need to talk about this. We were going to do everything in our power to block this since you're not letting us talk about it." They signed up to speak, there were dozens of them that were going to use their 10-minute limit to talk about the bill.
They threw, what are known as points of order at the speaker, which are parliamentary objections, but they were not held up one after the next. Then, as the deadline for legislative action in the House approached because we were at the end of the session for the year on Sunday night, they only had till midnight to act, they got wind that the Republicans were going to pull a legal parliamentary move to call the question and cut off debate. That's when they said, "Okay, if you're going to play those games, we are too." The head of the House, Democratic caucus Chris Turner, who you quoted a minute ago, sent a text out to his members and said, "All right, everybody let's go," and they walked out. It was incredibly dramatic.
Melissa: Of course, the Texas state legislature has been known to be dramatic here and there over the course of the past decade or so, and yet, let me just ask the question in a somewhat different way, if Turner's right, if they've killed the bill and they perceive this as a bill worthy of death, why not do this all the time? Why not just in this way, given that they're constant minority in this trifecta state, but large enough to keep a quorum, why ever show up for work?
Amy: I think it's a great question and I have some theories, I don't know for sure what the answer is, but I think that if the Democrats did this all the time, public support would go down. It's not a long-term solution for governing and for legislating and I think that the Republicans would probably seize on it as a sign of dysfunction and the blame would probably fall to Democrats in the court of public opinion.
The other thing that's worth noting that I don't believe has gotten a lot of attention and should is the fact that the Democrats met behind closed doors on Sunday afternoon with the Republican Speaker Dade Phelan and told him exactly what they were planning to do. They laid it out, "We're going to do the talking filibuster, we're going to do points of order, and we're going to walk out if all else fails." Phelan has the power under the House rules, which I read Sunday night to lock the doors, to order the Sergeant at arms to have the doors locked and prevent people from leaving.
He also has the power to send out the Department of Public Safety to arrest lawmakers who are absent without an excuse. He didn't do that. He probably didn't do it because the optics on that would not be so hot. Literally forcing people at gunpoint point to come back for a vote on voting would have been pilloried right across the country, but at the same time, it's also known widely in Texas that lots of Republicans didn't like this bill, felt compelled to vote for it because of pressure from their constituents who are supporters of former President Trump who believe without foundation that the election in 2020 was stolen.
You have a lot of Republicans who have felt compelled to vote for these bills in Texas and elsewhere, but who don't love them. From my sources, Dade Phelan is one of those people. I think you had a unique set of circumstances where it didn't necessarily bother Dade Phelan too much to let this bill go away, but that would not be the case with every single public policy issue before the legislature going forward.
Melissa: This is fascinating. One, I love the idea that this could have been so much more dramatic and that in part you actually have someone in Republican leadership in Texas using some restraint. We just didn't necessarily know it because who knew that you could make people stay and vote at gunpoint, does seem troubling that piece, but it also makes sense to me that someone who is elected, any current incumbent might not love the idea of the capacity of the courts to overturn an election.
That they have some basis in wanting elections to operate in a more, as we might call it, normal way. It also bears repeating that these innovative strategies made it easier for a lot of people to vote and both Democrats and Republicans had record turnout in the 2020 election.
Amy: That is absolutely true. I would say that it's potentially even truer in other states like Florida, where they passed a big bill that cracks down on mail voting, which has for decades been the domain of Republicans in Florida and so there's definitely a risk here that by throwing these bones to either President Trump or his constituents, depending on how you look at it, they are taking a risk of doing self-harm, electorally speaking.
The point that you raise about the judicial power is an excellent one. I think that you could certainly argue there's a little bit of hypocrisy of giving judges more power when that's been the exact opposite argument that Republicans were making throughout the fall about judicial intervention in the elections when federal judges across the country were tossing baseless lawsuits alleging fraud and wanting the election results state by state to be tossed. That's a little bit of a hypocrisy, I think it's fair to say.
Melissa: Per normal, State Houses are always doing a lot of work simultaneously. We know that SB 7 died on this evening. Were there any other legislative acts that were waiting that also died as a result of the walkout?
Amy: There were. They were still having to deal with a couple of bills. One had to do with bail reform. Another one had to do with the use of police force. I don't know the details of those bills, but they certainly sound like bills that would be Democratic priorities. Same with bill increasing funding for mental health care. They had bipartisan support and they were unfinished, so they died. I think it's interesting though, that right before all the drama started to unfold on the Senate Bill 7, the House took up the two big bills that addressed the failure of the Texas power grid during that winter storm.
I don't think that's a coincidence that Speaker Phelan moved those two bills up so that they would get done before what he knew from that meeting he had with the Democrats earlier was going to be an uncertain and dramatic evening. Again, you had a little bit of collusion to get something done that both parties were under great pressure to deal with. The electrical power grid, arguably the most important public policy measure facing the Texas legislature. If Democrats had allowed voting to prevent action on that, I think that would have damaged them, but I think that Speaker Phelan recognized that he would have been harmed by that failure too. It's kind of interesting to see how it all unfolded.
Melissa: It's not just kind of interesting. You have totally piqued my interest in Dade Phelan. I feel like I'm about to end up down a rabbit hole I didn't mean to go down. Amy Gardner is national political reporter at the Washington Post. She writes about voting and just got me really interested in the Republican State House Speaker in Texas. Thanks for joining us, Amy.
Amy: My pleasure.
Melissa: Joining me now to discuss SB 7 and what's happening with voting rights at the federal level is Congressman Colin Allred who represents Texas' 32nd Congressional District. Y'all have a lot of districts. Congressman Allred, welcome back to the show.
Congressman Colin Allred: Thanks so much for having me.
Melissa: Now, I'm going to just start with the pressure that this potentially puts on the work of the federal Congress. On Monday Erin Zwiener, a state rep in Texas tweeted, "We did our part to stop SB 7. Now we need Congress to do their part by passing HR 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act." Can you respond to Erin's tweet here?
Congressman Allred: She's absolutely right. The House has acted. We passed HR 1, For the People Act, which would set national standards for our democracy around early voting, vote registration, and vote by mail. It also would end partisan gerrymandering in congressional districts, which is extremely important when we think about 2024 and a challenge to the presidential election there. We will soon take up HR 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act in the House to restore the elements of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013.
The question, of course, is what is the Senate going to do? That has been the hurdle for some time on enormous amounts of important legislation because of the supermajority requirement in the Senate that I personally think that certainly needs to be modified in the case of voting rights.
Melissa: You point to what has been called the kill switch in the Senate, that all of this action can be moving, but without this supermajority, you can't move any of this legislative action through the US Senate. You also point to the Shelby v. Holder decision in 2013, because obviously, before that your state-level colleagues in Texas would not have had to walk out because there would have been a pre-clearance requirement for any of these new voting regulations that are contained in SB 7. Do you think that SB 7 could have gotten through pre-clearance in a pre-2013 world?
Congressman Allred: It's a really good question because we did have quite a few really onerous voter restrictions pass in Texas that did get through pre-clearance. I think some of the more egregious aspects of this would not. For example. moving the Sunday early voting period from starting in the morning to 1:00 PM and going to nine at night so that you can avoid or not allow folks to go vote after they go to church, obviously aimed at Souls to the Polls, really explicit aspects of the bill like that I don't think would.
Pre-clearance is not a panacea. It doesn't fix everything. We have to be very clear about that. The Voting Rights Act is extremely important. I was a voting rights lawyer, I litigated under section two of the Voting Rights Act. We're talking about restoring the coverage formula here and getting back into pre-clearance. What we need now is an affirmative expansion of voting rights, which is what HR 1, the For the People Act does. Those in concert can protect the right to vote, but either one of them on their own is likely not enough.
Melissa: Congressman as you were reflecting on why this moment is so important, you point to 2024 and beyond. It's hard to imagine a Democratic party at the federal or national level that doesn't rest on a changing Texas. Have you heard much from the administration, from the Biden administration about how they might respond to this moment?
Congressman Allred: Well, certainly I've been in touch with them and this is a huge concern I know of theirs. I think that President Biden gave a very powerful speech in Tulsa the other day about the need for that. Obviously, is assigning Vice President Kamala Harris to try and address voting rights. It is true that Texas has an enormous role to play in the future of American politics, we're one of the biggest states in the electoral college. We are now becoming an extremely close state at the statewide level. President Biden lost by about five and a half points at the statewide level, these are results that are getting similar to where Georgia was before it flipped. I think Republicans are certainly aware of that as well.
Melissa: Your point about the pickup of seats, of course, that happens because of the population growth, which we know demographically is primarily from folks of color and often also from young people there in Texas. Yet the districts might be drawn in ways that don't necessarily empower exactly those folks. We've been talking about voting, but what about the redistricting process as well?
Congressman Allred: So much of what's happening in our state legislature right now is about gerrymandering and redistricting. Understanding that they themselves and their state legislative districts are going to get safer districts drawn for them going forward. That's partly why we've had such an extreme session in the Texas legislature. When we're talking about the next midterm election here, Republicans nationally think that they will retake the House not because they're going to get more votes.
They think they're going to retake the House just by drawing the lines in states like Florida and Texas that have a lot of districts, but with full Republican control over the drawing of those districts. In a lot of Democratic states, they have chosen to go to these independent commissions that draw the districts based on communities, keeping those communities intact and allowing for real representation. Democrats in most of the states we control are not able to gerrymander ourselves, but there will be some.
I personally don't think there should be any gerrymandering. I don't think that politicians should pick their voters. I think voters should pick their politicians. That's why I've been such a big proponent of the aspect of HR 1 that requires all states to form one of these independent commissions for the drawing of their congressional districts. Unfortunately, for us in Congress, that's the only thing that we can mandate under the constitution.
We can't reach in with this bill into the state legislative district drawing, but it's incredibly important because what we're talking about here is whether or not we're going to have a decade of the will of the people in the United States being reflected in the House of Representatives. That wasn't really reflected in the last decade where Democrats often did get more votes in the House but did not control the house for most of that decade. That shouldn't be the case going forward. It's a real recipe for gridlock and for folks being frustrated and also loss of confidence in our system.
Melissa: Which brings us back to the strategy itself of your Democratic colleagues in Texas making the choice to walk out. I know it's been both cheered and jeered depending on what side folks are standing on, but I'm also just wondering for you as someone who, again, is watching the kill switch operating in the Senate. If that strategy one where we sort of have to take new-- It's not about a long deliberation on the floor that ends in a vote, but really having to like strategically move around your colleagues, do you see that as an indication of the strength of the strategy of the party or as a fundamental problem with how democracy is operating?
Melissa: In this case, while I am certainly thankful to the Texas House Democrats who took this extraordinary step, this is I think the fourth time it's happened in our state's history. That doesn't happen very often. It's not a solution and it's not a good way to govern. It certainly is not going to actually in the end prevent this legislature from trying to pass this bill because they're going to come back and have a special session to do it at the Senate.
This is something that's extremely troubling, difficult, but we need to recognize the Senate has changed its rules before and quite recently you no longer have to have a supermajority vote to be in the cabinet. That's why so many of President Biden's cabinet was actually confirmed. You no longer have to have a supermajority vote to be put on the federal courts.
Certainly, the Republican Senate took advantage of that during the years when President Trump was in office. I am arguing and believe that we should have a similar lowering of the threshold for civil rights bills, particularly for voting rights bills because of the impact on minority communities across the country. I think that Senator Warnock in Georgia said it well, "We can't have a rule in the Senate that protects the minority, but not protect racial minorities in our own country. That just doesn't make any sense." We can't look back on this time.
I do think that we are speaking and living in a time that is going to be written about extensively for centuries, for decades as long as our Republic stands because of the insurrection on January 6th, because of the challenge by the former president to the results that is still ongoing whether or not we respond to as a country, whether or not our response was that we became less democratic, moved more towards authoritarianism, or whether or not we expanded our democracy, reinvested in our democracy really became and started to really pursue some of those ideals in our founding documents. That's what this is about. I don't think a Senate rule that my opinion in many ways is unconstitutional should stand in the way of that.
Amy: Congressman and Colin Allred. I hope maybe you'll come back and we can talk like all the filibuster reform. We could have big fun with that. Congressman Colin Allred represents Texas' 32nd Congressional District. Thank you for joining us today.
Congressman Allred: Thanks so much for having me.
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