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WASHINGTON – Following their successful bet to block state legislation that would have reduced voters’ access to the polls, Democrats in Texas expect the federal government to be their last line of defense when Republicans inevitably relaunch their push on the issue.
But even if Democrats control Congress and the White House, those hopes face long odds.
Texas legislative leaders are determined to pass a Republican bill that would enact new restrictions on voting or reduce the latitude local officials have to hold elections. The Texas House Democrats’ dramatic walkout on Sunday is likely only to delay that effort until at least the summer, when state lawmakers are expected to meet for a special session. And despite the desire of nationwide Democratic states to do something to protect voting rights, the weakening of federal voting rights law and filibustering in the US Senate limits what they can accomplish.
“The time has now come for a nationally responsible federal response for voting rights in America,” said State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democrat from San Antonio.
In the most recent form of Senate Bill 7, Republican-backed legislation in Texas would have restricted 24-hour voting, drive-thru voting, and Sunday morning voting; tightened up the postal voting rules; and increased access for observers who support the polls. Democrats see all of this as a way to delay access to the ballot, especially for voters of color.
Civil rights groups have warned lawmakers in recent months that the bill’s provisions may violate federal guarantees for voters of color. As the bill neared the finish line, Harris County officials indicated they were prepared to sue the state if it were to become law. And House Democrats previously warned the Justice Department after a committee rewrote SB 7 without notice and without public input in what they called a “serious departure from procedure. standard operational “.
Prior to the walkout, most of the state’s Congressional Democratic delegation wrote to United States Attorney General Merrick Garland explaining how the Justice Department was preparing to review or challenge the bill s ‘it became law.
But a key tool for the DOJ to intervene was eliminated eight years ago, when the United States Supreme Court gutted a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act known as preclearance.
A section of this landmark civil rights law required states and jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression to approve changes to their voting rules and political maps with the federal government to ensure that they do not harm voters of color. In 1975, Texas joined this group and since then voting laws and redistribution plans have had to be approved by the Department of Justice as part of the preclearance process.
Congress has repeatedly reauthorized the law over the years with bipartisan support. The most recent extension was in 2006, when Republicans controlled Congress and George W. Bush was president. This bill was passed unanimously in the Senate, with the support of the two Texas senators at the time, John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison. The house version of the bill passed 390-33. Most of the Texas delegation supported the legislation, with the exception of six House Republicans.
This reauthorization was supposed to last 25 years.
But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the preclearance section of the voting rights law was no longer needed. Chief Justice John Roberts pointed to racial progress in politics as evidence. However, he left room for Congress to pass a more modern version of the law that would address more recent cases of discrimination in voting restrictions.
In a separate letter last week, the entire Texas Congressional Democratic delegation cited the Texas bill as its main piece of evidence asking the US Senate to act on federal voting legislation that would reform significantly. elections and bring back preclearance.
“Since the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Texas has passed, defended and implemented a number of election laws that have added barriers for communities to vote. Wrote members of Congress.
“… The bills that the Texas legislature is prioritizing this session would close polling stations in communities of color, promote intimidation of voters with disabilities as well as those with limited English proficiency,” and reduce the possibilities for early voting. “
There is no other state where the elimination of preclearance will be more significant than Texas. Decade after decade before the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, federal courts found that state lawmakers intentionally discriminated against voters of color in their political mapping by diluting the power of their votes. The 2021 redistribution cycle will mark the first time in nearly half a century that lawmakers will have a free hand to draw the next congressional and legislative maps without the ability for the Department of Justice to preemptively reverse their district boundaries.
For the past decade, preclearance has also prevented Texas from immediately implementing its strict voter identification law when it was passed in 2011. Voting. The law has been slightly rewritten following judicial intervention.
“Without this federal intervention, we will be open, we would be exposed to the continued assault on our rights,” said State Representative Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, at an online town hall hosted by several Dallas -Fort Worth- Democratic officials in the area Thursday night.
There are two bills in Congress that would restore preclearance, but both face long chances. The most radical is the For the People Act, which was passed by the House earlier this year by 220 to 210 votes, with the Texas delegation following the party line.
This bill would extend automatic voter registration and same-day voting by mail and advance voting and limit the removal of voters from the voters list. Additionally, the bill would call for independent redistribution commissions in all states, which would remove that power from the Republican-controlled Texas legislature. It would also strengthen election security by sharing intelligence with local officials administering the elections and would require presidential and vice-presidential candidates to publish 10 years of income tax returns.
A second, more narrowly crafted bill called the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act has yet to be passed by either house, but its scope is much narrower. That would create a formula that would work for the court and bring back preclearance.
There is little optimism that either bill will pass the US Senate. While Democrats have a slim majority in the Senate – there are 50 Senators from each party, and Vice President Kamala Harris serves as a tiebreaker as Senate Speaker – most of the party’s legislative priorities have died out. arrival due to the Senate. traditions.
While Senate bills only need a simple majority to pass, 60 votes are needed for a bill to be introduced. The two parties have implemented a legislative maneuver called systematic obstruction in recent years, which de facto imposes this threshold of 60 votes.
It is highly unlikely that there will be 60 votes for a bill, and two Democratic senators – US Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona – have refused to end the filibuster.
President Joe Biden lamented Tuesday that his options are limited on issues such as voting while the filibuster remains in place.
“Well, because Biden effectively only has a four-vote majority in the House and a tie in the Senate – with two Senate members voting more with my Republican friends,” he said.
Despite the frustration in Texas, Democrats say they will keep Texas at the forefront of the national debate over voter access.
“If they want to run over the people in Georgia and go to Florida and run over them,” said Martinez Fischer, the state legislator. “If they run over us in Texas, they’re just going to cross this country until everyone loses their right to vote.”
Alexa Ura contributed to this report.