AUSTIN — Texas Republicans advanced their effort to enact new voting restrictions on Thursday, passing a far-reaching elections bill in the state Senate after a 15-hour Democratic filibuster and pursuing arrests of House Democrats who have refused to return to the state Capitol in an effort to deny the chamber a quorum.
House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) deputized Texas law enforcement Thursday to arrest the absent Democrats, whose refusal to appear on the floor has stalled business in the chamber for weeks. A spokesman for Phelan, Enrique Marquez, declined to provide details about the move, and it was unclear as of late afternoon Thursday whether any lawmakers had been detained.
The possibility of imminent arrests came after a day that saw the end of a dramatic filibuster by a Senate Democrat and a flurry of legal developments.
Forty-five House Democrats sought and received protection from arrest from Harris County judges, according to Rep. Gene Wu (D), who led the effort and was the first to receive help from the court.
But the Texas Supreme Court nullified Wu's protection with its own stay on Thursday afternoon — potentially exposing him to arrest.
The back-and-forth marked an escalation in the legal and political conflict over voting rights in Texas, which advocates see as ground-zero for a wider national battle over election policy in the wake of the 2020 election.
The passage of the voting bill in the state Senate renewed pressure on the House to reestablish a quorum and pass its version of the measure once and for all.
The state Senate voted
18 to 11 in favor of Senate Bill 1 around 9 a.m. local time, after Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Carol Alvarado finally left the floor for the first time since 5:50 p.m. Wednesday — the latest long-shot effort by state Democrats to try to stymie passage of the legislation.
Filibuster rules prevented her from eating, sitting down, leaning on her desk, taking a bathroom break or speaking on subjects unrelated to the legislation.
“My friends, voter suppression anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere,” a clearly weary Alvarado said as she concluded Thursday morning. “As we draw this discussion to an end, it is my sincere hope that civil acts by everyday Texans — from the Senate floor to the ballot box — can help shed the light.”
“What do we want our democracy to look like?” she continued. “Do we want our state to be more or less inclusive? . . . Instead of making it easier to vote, [this bill] makes it easier to intimidate. Instead of making it harder to cheat, it makes it harder to vote.”
Shortly after Alvarado finished, Sen. Bryan Hughes, the GOP sponsor of the bill, urged its passage, saying the measure contained “simple, common sense reforms.” The chamber swiftly voted in favor.
“That process will begin in earnest immediately,” Marquez said Thursday afternoon, declining to answer further questions.
In an interview Wednesday, Wu, who represents the southwest Houston area, said he would not go willingly if law enforcement attempted to take him back to the state Capitol.
"If someone asked me politely to go back, I would say 'No,' " he said. "You will have to physically take me — you will have to drag me. I am not going to be a willing participant in the destruction of my own community."
After he learned about the state Supreme Court order, Wu said he was feeling "not great."
"We knew that this whole situation was going to be rigged against us from the start," he said in an interview. "The Supreme Court of Texas is known to carry water for [Gov. Greg] Abbott."
Regardless, he said Democrats "will continue to fight this no matter what" and added that he would not rule out fleeing the state — and the reach of the civil arrest warrants — once again, as nearly 60 members of the caucus did last month.
Rep. Jim Murphy, chairman of the House Republican Caucus, said he doesn't expect to see lawmakers "cuffed and stuffed," but rather that they will show up on their own, like one would with a jury summons.
"What you're seeing, at least on the part of the Republican leadership is a sense of desperation," he said in an interview. "If you're not going to come back to help the teachers or the foster kids, and you're not going to come back to help people with covid, you're not going to come back to help your staff get paid — what does it take to get you to fulfill your oath of office?"
Murphy said if Republicans "have a tool and other things haven't worked, we should try to use the tool that hasn't been applied."
"I don't like it particularly, and I don't want to see anybody arrested, but I would've thought they would've come to their senses and come to do their duty by now," he added.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) said Republicans will not give up on passing the election bills, no matter how long it takes.
"The Senate will pass SB 1 over and over again until the House finally has a quorum," he said in a statement Thursday, the sixth day of a session that could last up to 30 days.
After the Senate session concluded, Republican Sen. Bob Hall called the legislation “one of the best bills we’ve passed in a long time.”
“We made changes, fundamental changes that will benefit all people,” Hall said in an interview. “It doesn’t matter your background, your ethnicity. It’s aimed at everyone in Texas to ensure that every vote counts.”
Hall said that lawmakers listened to constituents throughout the process and that their feedback helped craft the legislation that was finally passed. “There was a lot of input from all parties in there that, I think, made the bill better,” Hall said. He added: “There is absolutely nothing racist in this bill.”
But Democrats said the legislation will make it harder to vote by mail, impeding seniors and those with disabilities, and will disproportionately affect communities of color.
Speaking to reporters outside her office, an exhausted and famished Alvarado said that as the hours dragged on, she found inspiration in her desk drawer, where she had stored a photo of her father, and in letters from constituents who had experienced trouble voting in the past. Many were from voters with disabilities who wrote about not being able to walk or drive themselves to vote.
“And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I just need to tough it out and stand here for a few more hours or whatever,’ ” Alvarado said. “Because I’m doing this for them.”
A colleague, Sen. Beverly Powell (D), said she was particularly concerned about voting access for people such as her father, a decorated World War II veteran whose hand is permanently injured, causing his signature to look different every time.
“I’m sad that it passed,” Powell said. “You know, you could have expected it, it was inevitable, but we’ll live to fight another day. It’s not over till it’s over.”
Powell said she stayed in the Senate chamber alongside Alvarado until 2 a.m. before going home for a few hours of sleep. She returned Thursday morning.
“I think Carol did a courageous thing last night,” Powell said on the way back to her office. “That was not easy, in a zillion different ways that people will never understand, but she did a fabulous job.”
The current version of Senate Bill 1 has fewer restrictions than previous iterations but still faces strong criticism from voting rights advocates.
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 prohibit drive-through voting and 24-hour voting. Both methods were used last year in Democratic Harris County, which includes Houston and is the nation’s third-largest county.
Other provisions would tighten rules around mail voting, bar local jurisdictions from taking their own steps to expand voting access and establish new rules and penalties for people who help voters with disabilities or those who don’t speak English to cast their ballots.
The latest version of the bill also empowers partisan poll watchers but requires them to receive a training manual published by the secretary of state — a change aimed at satisfying critics who argued that such neutral instruction was necessary.
Republicans have repeatedly said the bill is meant to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat. Patrick highlighted language that adds an extra hour of early voting and seeks to protect election machines from tampering via the Internet.
“SB 1 is about ensuring that every Texan trusts the outcome of every election in Texas,” he said in a statement after the bill’s passage. “It increases transparency and ensures the voting rules are the same in every county across the state. It will require that signatures on mail-in ballots are verified so we know that ballots cast by mail belong to the people they say they belong to.”
Democrats argue that the bill’s more divisive policy changes are unnecessary, since there is little evidence of voter fraud in Texas, and that the bill would erect barriers for voters, specifically people of color, who they say particularly utilized Harris County’s alternative voting options in November.
Alvarado was ready to filibuster the elections bill back in the regular session, but the Senate rules were suspended to bring the bill up to the floor before she was ready to go. This time, she made the decision a couple of days ago, Alvarado said, and sought advice from former Texas senator Wendy Davis (D), who temporarily defeated an abortion bill with a 13-hour filibuster in 2013.
“It was little things, like, ‘Did you have any issues with your catheter?’ ” Alvarado said. “It was really nice to have her advice, her encouragement and her guidance.”
On Wednesday morning, Alvarado gathered a pair of cushy gray sneakers, a back brace and a catheter. She ate breakfast, but that was about it — Alvarado expected to start her filibuster over Senate Bill 1 early, and knew she wouldn’t be able to take bathroom breaks. But the Senate finished other bills first, and her filibuster did not begin until just before 6 p.m. Wednesday.
She said part of her protest was aimed at an audience in Washington, where Texas Democrats have been advocating for federal voting rights protections that would neutralize some of state proposals they describe as harmful to voters.
“I didn’t eat, and then not having water for those, you know, 15 hours. And my back was hurting,” Alvarado said. “This is a real filibuster, and this is what we want the U.S. Senate to see.”
Viebeck reported from Washington.