Texas lawmakers: Limit your damage to election laws in special session. Then, go home

·4 min read

Gov. Greg Abbott has put his cards on the table for the special session starting Thursday, authorizing lawmakers to consider a broad mix of red-meat conservative priorities and a few other measures that fell short in the regular session.

But the session will be dominated by debate over election procedures and voting restrictions.

Ideally, lawmakers would restore funding for the legislative branch, which Abbott cut in a line-item veto to gain leverage, and go home. But a Republican election bill seems inevitable, if not in this special session then in a string the governor could call to insist on what he wants.

So, we urge the Legislature to drop the most objectionable election provisions considered this spring, put back the legislative budget and quit while they’re ahead.

Most of the other items Abbott listed Wednesday — such as further abortion restrictions, rules on transgender students in athletics, more state control over what schools teach on race — are divisive and unnecessary.

Democrats have one way to stop the election bill and other measures: breaking quorum. It’s a nuclear option, the same one they used in May. They may contend that the governor left them no choice by adding so many regrettable items to the session’s agenda.

But bolting again would be a mistake. Elected officials cannot repeatedly fail to show up for their assigned duty. Oh, national media and progressives would hail Texas Democrats as heroes for a while, and lawmakers would probably raise a ton of campaign cash. But as it did in 2003, when Democrats left Austin again and again in a futile effort to derail a Republican redistricting plan, public opinion would rightly turn against lawmakers who don’t report to work.

ELECTION LAW INEVITABLE

And after all, the voting bill will almost certainly become law at some point. At least one more special session is coming, once the necessary U.S. Census data is available to redraw political maps, and Abbott would relish pairing an election bill with that if necessary.

Democrats’ better option would be to build the best possible case that the bill treats minority voters unfairly. Challenging a new law in court, as Democrats and voting-rights groups will surely do, will be a tough enough task, now that the Supreme Court has raised the bar on overturning election restrictions.

That doesn’t mean Republicans should run wild. The elections bill, as we’ve said before, is unnecessary, tackling a voter fraud problem many Republicans are sure of but can’t find much evidence to prove. But the legislation can be made less offensive.

One of the worst ideas was to dictate how counties must distribute voting machines. It would have a deleterious effect on Tarrant County, curtailing options for Black and Hispanic voters in the inner city. That’s unacceptable.

SOULS TO THE POLLS

A last-minute provision in the regular session would have cut early voting hours on Sundays, forbidding polls from opening before 1 p.m. It was widely seen as an effort to curtail “souls to the polls” events, in which Black churches help organize outings to vote after services.

Republicans couldn’t get their story straight; one leading senator said it was an effort to let election workers have time for church, but another GOP lawmaker later said it was a typo. Either way, it’s a terrible idea.

Changing the standard by which a judge can order a new election over disputed ballots must go, too. That provision demonstrates the total mess the process around the bill was in the regular session. It had never seen a vote in the House or Senate but was presented to lawmakers at the last minute. Previously, committee hearings on the bill were held late and even cut short.

If Republicans believe what they’re doing is right, they should be upfront and transparent about it. Give citizens and Democratic lawmakers their due rights to participate. Make sure hard-working state staffers get paid and can continue the work of government over the next two years.

And then, declare victory and go home without doing any more damage.