But they couldn’t stay away forever, and now the bill has become law. So was it a waste of time, nothing more than a delay of the inevitable?
Not entirely — though the effort to hold back the GOP assault on democracy may continue to be one in which Democrats have to measure victory by whether they managed to slow their retreat.
In a situation where one party controls all the power — as Republicans do in Texas — public attention is sometimes the only weapon the opposition has. And in this case, it did accomplish something in the short term, since the bill that ultimately passed did have a few egregious provisions removed, including one that would have given judges expanded power to toss out election results and another that would have restricted early voting on Sundays, a direct attack on organizing among Black voters.
In the longer run, Democrats could argue that anything that brings attention to GOP voter suppression is useful. It helps convince Democratic voters that their rights are under assault, which might then translate into higher Democratic turnout, making it more likely that Democrats can ultimately take control of the legislature, and undo what Republicans have done.
But they have a long way to go in Texas. Though the state is becoming more liberal, Republicans have gerrymandered their way to comfortable margins in the state legislature and control of 22 of the state’s 36 seats in the House of Representatives.
And they’re now poised to increase those margins with a new round of redistricting, especially since the state has gained two more House seats as a result of the 2020 Census.
It’s hardly a done deal — the fact that most of the population growth in Texas has come in Democrat-dominated urban areas will make it a challenge for the state’s Republicans to redistrict themselves into even more seats — but you can bet they’ll give it their best shot.
Every one of these battles over democracy, whether it concerns voter suppression or gerrymandering, represents a wager on Republicans’ part. They believe that the gains they’ll win by keeping Democrats from the polls or redrawing lines to their benefit will outweigh the cost in public displeasure — or the motivating effect it might have on Democrats.
If all you care about is power, it isn’t a bad bet. Of all the things that can get the public angry and lead to a repudiation at the polls, voting procedures tend to be pretty far down the list.
Or at least that’s how it has been in the past. But the current GOP efforts are so cynical, so dishonest, and so pure in their desperate will to hold on to power, it’s at least possible that their war on democracy could be a real motivator of mass mobilization.
But we can’t know yet if it will, because the first test will come in 2022. All the new voter suppression measures will be in place to make voting more difficult for minorities, people who live in cities, and anyone else Republicans see as likely to vote for Democrats. Meanwhile, by then GOP legislatures may have seized power from local election officials in more places.
And the intimidation of those election officials — a key component of the Texas law, in addition to others (it criminalizes certain actions by those officials and gives partisan poll-watchers new ability to harass them) will likely not be fully appreciated until the next election day turns to chaos.
That’s what Democrats are up against, and the opportunity for dramatic stunts like the one they pulled in Texas could be few and far between. But they have to keep finding ways to draw attention to the way their opponents are working to undermine representation and accountability. Where the real voter suppression is happening, organizing voters — and showing them why they ought to be angry — is their best chance.