AUSTIN — Texas Republicans hit fresh roadblocks Wednesday in their effort to enact new voting restrictions, facing a Democratic filibuster in the state Senate and signs that legal maneuvering could protect House quorum breakers from arrest.
The unexpected developments threw fresh uncertainty into a months-long standoff that has crystallized the national debate over voting rights. The Democrats' latest moves may not improve their ultimate odds of defeating the GOP bill, but they signal that the party continues to fight bitterly against the voting restrictions, a strategy that could energize its base and has already drawn national attention.
An unknown number of Texas House Democrats have returned from Washington — where they had fled to deprive Republicans of a quorum — and their arrests had appeared imminent after House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) signed 52 warrants late Tuesday. But on Wednesday afternoon, Phelan's office declined to confirm whether officials had managed to carry out any of the arrests, which would enable him to force Democrats to show up and provide the quorum.
For now, Democratic lawmakers are pursuing multiple strategies to continue their protest, which began in May with the first of three successful quorum breaks.
State Rep. Gene Wu (D) found temporary legal protection from arrest Wednesday after he filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Harris County, where he lives. The maneuver — which challenges the grounds for an individual's detention — prompted a judge to schedule a hearing next week on whether his arrest would be legal.
In the meantime, Wu cannot be arrested under Phelan's warrant, he said in an interview, adding that many of his colleagues have expressed interest in pursuing the same strategy.
"People are excited about the ability to have another tool to fight," Wu said. "We're going to try to do everything we can because that's how strongly we feel about these repressive bills. . . . Everyone is looking at every possible avenue of attacking and making this as difficult and as painful as possible for the Republicans."
Democrats' focus on fighting arrests through the courts marks a shift in strategy at the outset of the second special session called by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to push through the voting legislation, which among other things restricts the actions counties can take to make voting easier.
During the first special session, nearly 60 Democrats fled Austin for Washington, stalling business on the House floor and offering the traveling lawmakers a chance to advocate for federal voting rights protections in the nation's capital.
Now, as the U.S. Senate wraps up its work ahead of a summer recess, some of the state lawmakers have returned to Texas, placing them back within reach of state law.
House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner said his members were "very supportive" of Wu's approach, but he declined to comment on how many planned to pursue it themselves.
"We just think it's important to preserve as many options as possible," Turner said. "It's really important that we keep a tight lid on what we're considering, to give any options under consideration the maximum possibility of success. That's sort of the playbook we've followed."
He added: "We're taking it a day at a time. Any day that the legislature can't move forward on these bills, at least in the statehouse, is a good day."
In the Senate, Alvarado announced her plans to filibuster the elections legislation on Twitter, where she posted a photo of tennis shoes — signaling that she was making herself comfortable and planned to speak for a long time.
The latest version of the elections bill is less controversial than previous iterations but still faces strong Democratic opposition.
All three versions — one introduced in the legislature’s regular session, a second crafted in the initial special session and now a third in the current session — would have prohibited drive-through voting and 24-hour voting. Both methods were used in Harris County, which includes Houston and is the nation’s third-largest county.
Republicans have repeatedly said the bill is meant to make it “easier to vote and harder to cheat.”
“We’re not going to stop every bad actor,” state Sen. Bryan Hughes (R), the author of all three versions, said this week. “Doesn’t mean we’re not going to try.”
Democrats argue that the policy changes are unnecessary since there is little evidence of voter fraud in Texas, and that the bill would erect barriers for voters, particularly people of color, who they say particularly utilized Harris County’s alternative voting options in November.
“Whether you intend it or not,” Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria told senators, “this committee is considering rolling back a method of voting that has already been used primarily by minorities.”
The latest version of the bill would require that poll watchers, who are appointed by a political party or a candidate, receive a training manual published by the secretary of state, to satisfy critics who argued that such neutral instruction was necessary.
Another wrinkle that’s now been ironed out required people casting early ballots to use the same identification number on an application for an early-voting ballot and on the ballot itself. In the new bill, the numbers must simply be connected to the same individual.
Disability rights advocates still oppose the legislation and worry that it will further hamper their ability to vote. Chase Bearden, 44, said that a requirement for an early-voting ballot to have a “wet signature” that matches other signatures on file would be a challenge for many who have tremors or inconsistent handwriting styles.
Instead, he asked lawmakers to consider allowing people to use a signature stamp. “These are kept private and secure, and on the person at all times,” Bearden said.
He was one of the dozens of Texans who testified before the Senate’s State Affairs Committee on Monday, two days into the current special legislative session. The hearing came as the Austin area was experiencing a severe surge of the delta variant of the coronavirus — and on the 28th anniversary of an athletics accident in which Bearden broke his neck.
“I didn’t know anyone with a disability before that,” Bearden said. “You never know when you’re going to need some of these accommodations.”
Regardless of the outcome, it’s clear the current battle has embittered the atmosphere in the state Capitol in an unusual way. State Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, has spent 48 years in the legislature and said he’s never seen things more divided.
"This piece of legislation is poisonous," Whitmire said. "It has completely wrecked state government as we stand on this Senate floor. It is wasting taxpayer dollars. It's divided members that break bread together, pray together, laugh together, cry together when we lose a loved one."
Viebeck reported from Washington.