But on Sunday night, as the midnight end of the legislative session approached, Democratic lawmakers staged a walkout that deprived the body of a quorum and killed the bill. It was a moral victory — but only a temporary one because the governor will now likely call a special session at which the bill can be passed.
Texas Republicans will not be denied. In all but declaring war on democracy, they and their colleagues in other states are mounting a rearguard action against an evolving electorate, freezing GOP power in place so voters in two or four or 10 years won’t be able to translate their own preferences into action.
That would be bad enough on its own. But their chosen method not only makes voting more difficult for certain Americans but also sets the conditions for electoral chaos. These Republicans want local election officials to be vilified, harassed, intimidated and even targeted for prosecution, a process that could end with elections being simply thrown out if Republicans don’t win. If you thought the 2020 election was a mess, just wait until you see what they have in store.
The suppression measures aimed at voters themselves — limiting early-voting hours, forbidding the use of dropboxes, making it harder for people to give other people rides to the polls — have gotten much of the attention. But as in other states, the Texas bill would go after local officials, not only by forbidding them from deciding how to run their own elections without the permission of the legislature but also by creating personal criminal and civil liability for them if they failed to comply with any of the new rules.
And as has happened in close to 20 other states, the Texas bill would expand the rights of partisan poll watchers to inject themselves into the process of both voting and counting votes. It’s a recipe for chaos — which is exactly the point.
Partisan poll watchers already have the right to observe certain parts of the voting process, but rules usually require them to do so without creating a disruption. But given how Republicans now encourage their supporters to believe that fraud and conspiracy are the default in every election, what do you think will happen when they unleash their army of poll watchers who will have the right to go almost everywhere they want, not only at polling places but also in the more secure locations where the counting of votes takes place?
You only have to look at the lunacy in Arizona, where a Republican “audit” of Maricopa County involves holding ballots under ultraviolet lights and searching them for traces of bamboo (because, I kid you not, that might reveal a conspiracy involving the Chinese) to see where this could lead. Election officials trying to do their jobs will be constantly harassed by mobs of unhinged QAnon followers and other extremists bent on “proving” that nefarious goings-on are afoot.
In the Arizona case, it’s happening long after the election ended. But what if that’s what we see in state after state while the votes are still being counted?
The wild allegations of those poll watchers will then be used by Republican legislators, and maybe even the right Republican judge, to declare that untold numbers of votes were “illegal” and therefore an election is void. Any election in which a Democrat wins will be met with a furious effort to undo it so that Republicans can retain power.
If that sounds unlikely, consider this provision of the Texas bill — which, to repeat, may be on hold for now but is almost certain to be enacted in some form soon:
If the number of votes illegally cast in the election is equal to or greater than the number of votes necessary to change the outcome of an election, the court may declare the election void without attempting to determine how individual voters voted.
The bill doesn’t define what it means for a vote to be “illegally cast,” but we saw how Donald Trump routinely claimed that millions of votes were “illegal” if he suspected they were cast for his opponents. It isn’t at all far-fetched to imagine a Republican judge deciding, based on allegations from Republican poll watchers, that a close election for president or any other office contained too many “illegal” votes and is therefore void.
Now let’s pull back to look at the big picture. Though it’s happening in Republican-run states all over the country, it’s no accident that Texas, Georgia and Arizona are at the center of these efforts to undermine democracy. What do they have in common? They’re all states run by Republicans that are trending Democratic — unless those who are currently in charge change the rules so the voters don’t much matter any more.
These states have been moving in an unmistakable direction. In 2012, Barack Obama lost all three badly despite cruising to reelection: He lost Texas by 16 points, Georgia by eight points and Arizona by 10. Then in 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton in all three, but by smaller margins: Nine points in Texas, five points in Georgia and 3.5 points in Arizona. Then in 2020, Trump won Texas again, but by only 5.6 points. He narrowly lost both Georgia and Arizona. Not only that, both Georgia and Arizona had two Senate races in 2020 because of early retirements — and Democrats won all four.
The Republican legislators and governors in these states know very well what kind of threat the future poses for them. A combination of factors — immigration from outside the United States, migration of more liberal voters from within the country, the replacement of more conservative older voters with more liberal younger voters — is pushing all their electorates to the left.
But for now, they still hold the legislatures and governor’s mansions. So they’re going to use the power they have today to try to make it impossible for the voters to take their power away tomorrow.
This is a battle over which party gets to rule. But more importantly, it’s about whether we have a democracy at all, whether all citizens are allowed to vote and the system respects their decisions. That hasn’t always been true in the past. And if some people get their way, it won’t be true in the future.