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Texas House Democrats fled the state to kill a restrictive voting bill. Will their gambit work?

History suggests that the walkout could succeed, but only if Texas Democrats are willing to suffer some significant political pain

/ Managing Editor - July 16, 2021

Over 50 Democrats from the Texas House of Representatives traveled to Washington this week. By doing so, they deprived their chamber of a quorum — the minimum number of lawmakers needed to do legislative business. That kept state GOP leaders from debating a controversial bill that would make it harder for Texans to vote by mail, to ban drive-through voting, and to give more power to partisan poll-watchers.

The Texas Democrats’ unorthodox attempt to block the Republican voting bill garnered national attention. Why did they do it, and will it work? Here are three important takeaways.

1. The Democrats’ ploy was neither unique nor surprising.

The House Democrats’ surreptitious escape to D.C. was hardly the first time that Texas lawmakers have fled their chamber to block bills. A dozen state senators known as the “Killer Bees” did the same thing in 1979. In 2003, Democrats in both the House and Senate left for neighboring states to delay a contentious plan that would redraw Texas’s legislative districts. And just this May, Texas House Democrats walked out to kill an election bill that was almost identical to the one Republicans are trying to pass now.

Bolting quorums” aren’t unique to the Lone Star State, either. In his excellent review of quorum-breaking, political scientist Peverill Squire identified 52 instances of lawmakers breaking quorum in American state legislatures between 1787 and 2012.

As one might expect, most bolting quorums have happened in state chambers that have supermajority quorum rules — rules that require more than a majority of elected representatives to be present for the legislature to meet. Governing parties in these chambers usually depend on some lawmakers from the minority party attending to be able to convene the legislature. Such is the case in the Texas House, where a quorum consists of two-thirds of its members.

Squire also found that bolting quorums are frequently associated with voting rights bills, redistricting measures or other proposals that would give the majority party an advantage in future elections. This week’s bolting quorum fits this historical pattern: The fleeing Texas lawmakers have argued that the GOP’s voting bill will unduly restrict ballot access for Democratic-leaning voters.

2. Bolting quorums can be very effective.

Denying a quorum in a legislative chamber can be a formidable tool of obstruction. If the governing party can’t convince absent lawmakers to return, there isn’t much they can do. Texas Republicans did vote to send the sergeant-at-arms after the absent Democrats, but he cannot arrest them so long as they remain outside of Texas.

Both parties have used bolting quorums to successfully kill bills. In June 2019, for example, Republicans in the Oregon state senate left the state, denying Democrats the quorum they needed to debate a climate change bill. Democratic leaders ultimately gave up and let the bill die.

3. Bolting quorums are costly to maintain.

While bolting quorums can be very effective, the bolting party pays a cost. For one thing, bolting prevents the chamber from considering bills that may be popular with the minority party. In addition, those who flee are often widely attacked for being irresponsible and negligent. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has complained that Texas Democrats are “hanging out on this taxpayer-paid junket,” noting that “everybody who has a job must show up to do that job.”

The majority party can also impose punishments on quorum bolters. They may be forced to forgo their salaries, for example. In Indiana, Democrats who went into hiding in 2011 to block an antilabor bill were fined thousands of dollars. Some Texas Republicans have entertained the notion of not only cutting Democrats’ salaries but removing them from committee leadership positions, though it’s not clear that they have the authority to do so.

Finally, fleeing can inflict longer-term damage to the bolters’ legislative influence. As one Indiana lawmaker put it, “The question on this tactic is it burns up a lot of good will.”

Will the Texas Democrats succeed?

Given these costs, legislators can have a hard time sustaining a bolting quorum for a long period of time. This may be a problem for Texas Democrats. The current session of the state legislature could last a month, and Abbott has threatened to keep calling for special sessions if Democrats won’t return.

The bolters do have one advantage, however: They have chosen to fight Republicans on an issue that has national resonance. Debate over election integrity and restrictive voting rules have been in the news since the Trump presidency. Surveys suggest that Americans support making voting easier, not harder, and are more worried about disfranchising voters than about voter fraud.

Indeed, it was no accident that the Democrats chose to travel to the nation’s capital rather than hide in a neighboring state. By bringing national attention to the Texas election bill, they hope to pressure Congress to pass legislation that would prevent the kinds of voter restrictions that Republicans in Texas and elsewhere are trying to enact, often successfully.

It will not be easy for Texas House Democrats to defeat the Republicans’ election bill. But if they do, it could encourage more bolting quorums in the future — especially on issues that are as salient and polarizing as voting rights.

Matthew N. Green (@mattngreen), professor of politics and department chair at Catholic University, is the author of Legislative Hardball: The House Freedom Caucus and the Power of Threat-Making in Congress (Cambridge University Press, 2019).