When I showed up to orientation for freshmen Texas legislators as the sole Black freshman this session, I was told by my senior colleagues on the other side of the aisle that “we are not D.C.” What they meant was that the Texas state House was not as divided, polarized or hyperpartisan as our federal counterpart. As a naive freshman, I believed them.
When I showed up to orientation for freshmen Texas legislators as the sole Black freshman this session, I was told by my senior colleagues on the other side of the aisle that “we are not D.C.”
Ironically, of course, I write this op-ed from Washington — where my Democratic colleagues and I have fled in a desperate attempt to stop my Republican colleagues from passing one of the most draconian voting bills in the country. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has just called a new special session to push through the law as soon as we return to the state.
It wasn’t until the permitless carry bill reached the House floor in April that it became clear that Democrats were absolutely outgunned. Every one of our amendments failed on party lines, including my amendment to ban guns in courthouses. (I am the survivor of a courthouse shooting.) The defining moment for me, the moment that let me know that we really weren’t in D.C., but in some place worse, was when an amendment barring known white supremacists from carrying guns was voted down. Mind you, the bill that passed did prevent gang members from carrying — so my colleagues were fine with a rule banning the Bloods and the Crips for carrying guns, but refused to do the same for the Ku Klux Klan. This wasn’t a wake-up call — it was a gut punch.
This wasn’t the first, and it most certainly will not be the last time, that my colleagues chose to implement a set of rules for one population while exempting another. It foreshadowed the many times we, the House Democrats, were steamrolled this session.
Texas’ original voter suppression bill created almost two dozen new felonies for common mistakes, made it harder to register new voters, and had provisions that would allow for the overturning of elections with thin evidence. My sorors in Delta Sigma Theta Sorority showed up en masse to testify against this bill and spent the entire day at the Capitol trying to make their voices heard. Social justice, protecting the right to vote and being engaged in politics has been a hallmark of my sorority since its founding in 1913; its first official act of public service was the Women’s Suffrage March that same year.
After hearing the testimony of so many Texans from every part of the state, the bill was voted out of committee, along party lines. We were determined to stall, amend and vote the bill down. As a civil rights attorney and the daughter of a preacher, I understand I have a debt to pay. By any means necessary, it was my duty to kill this bill.
As the minority party, our options were somewhat limited. But the nuclear option — breaking quorum — was on the table. It’s known as the nuclear option for a reason. For some, this was a difficult decision as they weighed the political ramifications of breaking quorum versus the bill’s potential for disenfranchisement. But for me, breaking quorum was the only option. My decision was simple. This was, in part, because I knew this is what my district expected me to do: fight for their rights. That’s why I ran for this seat.
Meanwhile my colleagues on the other side of the aisle continued to propose solutions in search of a problem and introduced bill after bill that didn’t help a single Texan but instead pandered to fringe right-wing primary voters. And so, on the last day of the regular session, we broke quorum. It was a stinging blow for the governor’s destructive agenda.
But the fight wasn’t over. The governor vetoed our staff’s salaries and called us back for a special session, with voter suppression at the top of his list. Many Democrats waited to see if a newly formed and reportedly more moderate select committee would be able to improve the bill. But instead, the chair made it clear that he would be voting the bill through, no matter how many Texans showed up to testify against it. The hearing ended with every single Democratic amendment being voted down. Hundreds of Texans testified against this bill, while only a few dozen testified in favor of it.
Last weekend, Willie Nelson and over a thousand people sang “vote them out” Saturday from the steps of the Texas Capitol in support of what my colleague and I are trying to do.
But that matters not.
This is the voting rights fight of our lifetime. No matter the consequences, it is a fight we cannot ignore.
The new bill includes many aspects of the original bill, and if passed, will embolden untrained, partisan poll watchers and empower them to intimidate voters, while diminishing the authority of election judges to control polling locations. This, combined with the new permitless carry bill, is a recipe for intimidation. Other provisions would allow an elected official to be potentially jailed for sending a vote-by-mail application to a qualified voter.
We knew there was a strong possibility that the bill would become more extreme in the conference committee or that the final version would be identical to what we killed in May. But it was still terribly depressing to watch the will of the people ignored.
The day after the hearing we knew, yet again, there was only one option left. Once again, some members struggled with this decision. But this time, the commitment would require weeks, not hours, out of the state. And yet, this is the voting rights fight of our lifetime. No matter the consequences, it is a fight we cannot ignore.
I cannot accept being silent in the face of injustice. I cannot accept allowing voting rights, a sacred bedrock of our nation, to be so easily stripped from our most vulnerable. What I can accept is losing a fair election at the ballot box — if that is the will of the people. That is what our democracy demands. What is happening in my state is not fair or right. And so I guess my colleagues were right about Texas — it’s not Washington. It’s so much worse.