Texas Democrats staged a dramatic walkout in the state House late Sunday night to block passage of a restrictive voting bill that would have been one of the most stringent in the nation, forcing Republicans to abruptly adjourn without taking a vote on the measure.

The surprise move came after impassioned late-night debate and procedural objections about the GOP-backed legislation, which would have made it harder to vote by mail, empowered partisan poll watchers and made it easier to overturn election results. Republicans faced a midnight deadline to approve the measure.

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) tweeted that he would add the bill to a special session he plans to call later this year to address legislative redistricting. “Legislators will be expected to have worked out the details when they arrive at the Capitol for the special session,” he wrote.

But it was an unmistakable defeat for the governor and fellow Republicans, who had crafted one of the most far-reaching voting bills in the country — pushing restrictions championed by former president Donald Trump, who has falsely claimed that his defeat in the 2020 election was tainted by fraud.

The exodus from the floor came after Chris Turner, the House Democratic chairman, sent instructions to colleagues at 10:35 p.m. Central time instructing them to exit the House, according to an image shared with The Washington Post.

“Members, take your key and leave the chamber discreetly,” Turner wrote, referring to the key that locks the voting mechanism on their desks. “Do not go to the gallery. Leave the building.”

“We decided to come together and say we weren’t going to take it,” state Rep. Jessica González (D) said in an interview after the walkout, adding that she objected to the measure’s content and the way it was crafted with no input from her side of the aisle. “We needed to be part of the process. Cutting us out completely — I mean, this law will affect every single voter in Texas.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on March 2 urged the House to pass H.R.1, For The People Act, to reform election, voting rights and ethics laws. (U.S. House of Representatives)

The Republican-majority House took up the legislation after the Senate passed it early Sunday following a marathon overnight debate that stretched more than seven hours. The measure mirrors other GOP-backed legislation approved in Georgia, Florida and other states.

In a statement, Turner said that dozens of House Democrats were prepared to give speeches objecting to the bill, but that “it became obvious Republicans were going to cut off debate to ram through their vote suppression legislation. At that point, we had no choice but to take extraordinary measures to protect our constituents and their right to vote.”

After the walkout, House Democrats assembled at a predominantly Black church in Austin, Mt. Zion Fellowship Hall, to speak to reporters. Staff members said leaders chose the location to highlight the party’s successful fight against a bill they said would have targeted voters of color in particular.

“We remain vigilant against any attempt to bring back this racist bill in a special session,” Sarah Labowitz, policy and advocacy director for the ACLU of Texas, said in a statement.

In a statement late Sunday, Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan said the decision by Democrats to abruptly leave the chamber killed a number of other pending bills that had bipartisan support. “Texans shouldn't have to pay the consequences of these members' actions — or in this case, inaction,” he said, adding that majority of Texans support “making our elections stronger and more secure.”

As the night wore on, it became clear that House Democrats intended to do everything they could to block Senate Bill 7, pushing the legislation perilously close to the body’s midnight deadline to act. At one point early in the session, more than two dozen Democrats were absent for a procedural vote, prompting a flurry of speculation that they might try to block a vote by denying the House the necessary quorum.

Calling the measure “egregious” and “horrific,” Democratic lawmakers likened it to the Jim Crow laws of the 20th century that effectively barred Black Americans from voting in Southern states. They sought to slow the process by arguing that the bill had not been properly debated in either chamber.

“That means the voices of Texans were not heard in this debate,” said Rep. John Bucy III (D).

Republicans hashed out a final version behind closed doors late last week over the objections of Democrats, civil rights leaders and business executives, who said the measure targets voters of color. President Biden on Saturday called it “wrong and un-American,” and Democrats vowed to immediately challenge it in court.

“Every American needs to be watching what’s happening in Texas right now,” Rep. Colin Allred (D-Tex.) said Sunday at a news conference. “And we have to have a federal response to this because this has gone way too far.”

“This isn’t legislation,” he added. “This is discrimination.”

Democrats urged Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation, which has been stalled in the U.S. Senate.

“This is a now-or-never moment in American democracy,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) said, adding: “If we don’t act now, then our democracy is not going to look the same either in 2022 or 2024.”

The Texas measure is the latest example of how Republican legislators around the country have pushed for new voting restrictions as Trump has kept up a barrage of false attacks on the integrity of the 2020 election.

GOP lawmakers in Texas argued the bill is necessary to shore up voter trust, even though they have struggled to justify the need for stricter rules in the state, where officials said the 2020 election was secure.

Sen. Bryan Hughes (R), one of the sponsors of the measure, wrote on Twitter on Saturday that it “is a strong bill that gives accessibility & security to Texas elections.”

Senate Bill 7 would have imposed a raft of hurdles on casting ballots by mail and enhanced civil and criminal penalties for election administrators, voters and those seeking to assist them.

The measure would have made it illegal for election officials to send out unsolicited mail ballot applications, empowered partisan poll watchers and banned practices such as drop boxes and drive-through voting that were popularized in heavily Democratic Harris County last year. It would have barred early-voting hours on Sunday mornings, potentially hampering get-out-the-vote programs aimed at Black churchgoers.

The final version included numerous provisions inserted at the last minute, including language making it easier to overturn an election, no longer requiring evidence that fraud actually altered an outcome of a race but rather only that enough ballots were illegally cast that could have made a difference. The legislation also would have changed the legal standard for overturning an election from “reasonable doubt” to “preponderance of the evidence” — a much lower evidentiary bar.

The Senate debate began late Saturday night and lasted more than seven hours into early Sunday, as Democrats argued that the measure would create barriers for many voters of color.

One Black senator from Houston, Borris Miles (D), took issue with a provision requiring anyone who transports more than two voters to the polls who need assistance to fill out a form, saying that many of the voters he represents lack transportation and get rides from other residents.

“You really have no idea and no realistic vision about how things work in my neighborhood and neighborhoods like mine,” he said during the overnight debate. “Everybody doesn’t have access to cars.”

Miles gestured to portraits of Confederate leaders hanging on the walls of the Senate chamber and asked, “Why are we allowing people to roll back the hands of time?”

The proposed voting hurdles came after the state logged record turnout in the 2020 election, including huge surges in early voting in cities including Austin and Houston.

One lawmaker accused Republican proponents of Senate Bill 7 of intentionally erecting barriers for voters in Harris County, home of Houston and an increasingly Democratic stronghold with a large minority population.

“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room,” said Sen. Carol Alvarado (D-Houston), according to Houston Chronicle reporter Jeremy Wallace, who chronicled the debate on Twitter through the night. “This is about Harris County.”

The bill would have broadly prohibited local election officials from altering election procedures without express legislative permission — a direct hit against Harris County, where election officials implemented various expansions last year to help voters cast ballots during the coronavirus pandemic. It also specifically targeted some of those expansions, explicitly banning drive-through voting locations, temporary polling places in tents and 24-hour or late-night voting marathons.

Republican Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston defended the restrictions, claiming without evidence that “drive-through voting didn’t work” and resulted in a 1.5 percent error rate.

Chris Hollins, who served as elections clerk in Harris County last year, disputed that claim.

“Drive-thru voting is safe, convenient, and secure for Texas voters. It worked so well in 2020 that nearly 1 in 10 in-person voters in Harris County cast their votes at drive-thrus,” he said in a text message.

“It’s a great service for Democratic and Republican voters, and everyone in between. Senator Bettencourt is not a fan because in 2020, too many of those voters were women and minorities.”

Republican sponsors of the bill dismissed the criticism.

“Senate Bill 7 is one of the most comprehensive and sensible election reform bills in Texas history,” Rep. Briscoe Cain (R) and Hughes said in a statement issued Friday evening. “There is nothing more foundational to this democracy and our state than the integrity of our elections.”

Cliff Albright, co-founder of the group Black Voters Matter, said such rhetoric mirrors the language used during the Jim Crow era to bar Black Americans from voting without explicitly stating that as the goal. He noted that an earlier version of the voting bill described the need to protect the “purity of the ballot box,” a phrase in the Texas Constitution. Similar language was used decades ago by white supremacists to limit Black voting.

“This bill is exactly in the Jim Crow tradition,” Albright said. “While not mentioning race, it is inarguably the case that these provisions are squarely aimed at Black and Brown voters.”

Critics also took aim at the process as much as the substance of Senate Bill 7, the details of which were hammered out behind closed doors. And they slammed Republican leaders for not appointing a single Black lawmaker to the negotiating team on a bill with major civil rights implications in a state with a long history of voting discrimination.

Marc Elias, a prominent Democratic election lawyer, promised to challenge the law in court quickly if Abbott signs it. He also noted that the measure’s restriction of early voting before 1 p.m. on Sundays is a direct assault on “souls to the polls,” the longtime get-out-the-vote effort that encourages Black voters to cast their ballots after church services.

Elias also accused business leaders of doing too little to block the bill.

“Can anyone send links to the statements about the new Texas bill from the 700 companies that said they were standing up against voter suppression?” Elias tweeted on Saturday. “Specifically, what steps they will take in Texas now?” The tweet also included images of crickets, denoting the business community’s silence in recent days about the Texas bill.

GOP lawmakers in dozens of states are pushing new voting measures in the name of election security, under intense pressure from supporters who echo Trump’s false claims of rampant fraud. States including Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Montana have passed measures that curtail voting access, imposing new restrictions on mail voting, the use of drop boxes and the ability to offer voters food or water while they wait in long lines.

During debate in the House earlier this month, Cain maintained that he was not backing a voter “suppression” bill but rather a voting “enhancement” bill, insisting that the measure was designed to protect “all voters.”

According to the final text approved Sunday, the Texas bill would have:

● Imposed state felony penalties on public officials who offer an application to vote by mail to someone who didn’t request it.

● Allowed signatures on mail ballot applications to be compared with any signature on record, eliminating protections that the signature on file must be recent and that the application signature must be compared with at least two others on file to prevent the arbitrary rejection of ballots.

●Imposed new identification requirements on those applying for mail ballots, in most cases requiring a driver’s license or ­Social Security number.

● Imposed a civil fine of $1,000 a day for local election officials who do not maintain their voter rolls as required by law, and impose criminal penalties on election workers who obstruct poll watchers.

● Granted partisan poll watchers new access to watch all steps of the voting and counting process “near enough to see and hear the activity.”

● And required individuals to fill out a form if they plan to transport more than two non-relatives to the polls who require assistance, and expand the requirement that those assisting voters who need help must sign an oath attesting under penalty of perjury that the people they’re helping are eligible for assistance because of a disability and that they will not suggest for whom to vote.

Amy B Wang contributed to this report.