NOEL KING, HOST:
Democrats in the Texas Statehouse walked off the floor late last night, effectively blocking a Republican-sponsored bill that would restrict voting in the state. Here's Ashley Lopez from member station KUT in Austin. Good morning, Ashley.
ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: What did the walkout look like? How - was it dramatic?
LOPEZ: Yeah. Well, a little more than an hour before Texas' voting bill, which is Senate Bill 7, was coming up against a midnight deadline for final passage, a large group of Democrats in the Texas House just walked out en masse. They had tried a bunch of other stalling tactics throughout the night in the hopes of running out the clock, but in the end, they decided to break quorum, and that means the Texas House couldn't vote on anything. Democrats had complained the bill was being shoved down their throats, and they complained that they were left out of key parts of the legislative process. One Democratic lawmaker said that the walkout was basically the last tool in their toolbox to stop what they say could have been a catastrophic bill for Texas voters.
KING: So it's worth noting that it's not just Democrats in Texas, right? This has gotten a lot of national attention. President Biden recently called this bill, quote, "an assault on democracy." Why has it gotten so much attention? What's in it?
LOPEZ: Well, you know, let's step back for a moment. In the middle of the pandemic, Houston and other major cities in Texas took a number of steps to make voting safer and more socially distant, right? So Houston in particular created 24-hour voting centers and drive-through voting options, and these were options, by the way, that voters of color took advantage of. And fast-forward to the beginning of this year, and Texas Republicans said they wanted to outlaw these options. James Slattery, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, told me ahead of last night's vote that Republicans were trying to make voting harder in a state where it's already pretty hard to vote.
JAMES SLATTERY: But it will also make voting scarier because there are a number of new crimes being created in this law that target both voters and election officials with serious felony offenses.
LOPEZ: Yeah, so Slattery says these provisions were a big concern because they would basically criminalize simple mistakes people make while voting.
KING: OK, so the Democrats walk out - and then is this over?
LOPEZ: No, this is far from over.
LOPEZ: Governor Greg Abbott already said he's going to call a special session, forcing lawmakers to basically come back to Austin and pass a voting bill. Remember; this is, like, a big priority for Republicans, including in Texas. They say they want to make it harder for people to cheat and commit voter fraud in the state. That's even though there's no evidence that there's a widespread problem with voter fraud in the state of Texas or elsewhere.
KING: If the governor is going to force lawmakers to come back for a special session, why did the Democrats bother doing this? What's the point of stalling?
LOPEZ: Well, they say their priority, first and foremost, is to do whatever they can to stop any legislation in Texas that they think makes it harder to vote. But during a press conference last night, members of the group say they hope this would also inspire Congress to pass a federal law protecting voting rights. They say federal protections that are currently waiting to be heard in the U.S. Senate would go a long way in shielding Texas voters from what Democrats see as laws that could make it harder for them to vote. Texas has been tightening access to the ballot for several years now, and Texas Republicans are looking to further tighten those voting rights now in the name of unsubstantiated concerns about voter fraud. And basically, Texas Democrats just, you know, reached their limit, and they took to drastic measures.
KING: Lastly - real quick - do you know when the special session will be? When does everyone come back?
LOPEZ: We don't know yet, but we - it's largely expected it'll be in short order.
KING: OK. Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin. Thanks, Ashley.
LOPEZ: Thank you.
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