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Voting Rights Stalemate Ends In Texas As Democrats Return To The State Capitol

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Texas state legislature is back in business. Dozens of Democratic lawmakers left the state weeks ago, denying the majority Republicans a quorum. They temporarily blocked a Republican effort to change voting rules. Now some Democrats have returned, enough to legislate anyway. Associated Press correspondent Paul Weber is covering the story in Austin. Mr. Weber, good morning.

PAUL WEBER: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Why did some of the Democrats return now?

WEBER: Well, I think what it boils down to is that as this dragged on, it became harder and harder to keep Texas Democrats on the same page. This was a big group. We're talking about more than 50 Democrats who left Texas and flew to Washington to block this Republican voting bill for what amounted to a second time. And on that goal, they succeeded. By early August, this emergency legislative session that Governor Abbott had called, it ended. And Republicans were forced to go back to square one. But then earlier this month, the governor called another emergency legislative session to try to pass this bill for what is now a third time. And that's when we started to see some cracks among Democrats about what to do next.

INSKEEP: You know, it's interesting. There had been some reports of Republicans quietly negotiating with some Democrats. Did the Democrats get anything in exchange for returning, like, I don't know, tweaking the voting rules that are going to be voted on?

WEBER: There is no indication of that so far. And really, from the outset of this, Republicans, they haven't had a lot of incentive to negotiate with Democrats. I mean, they have a commanding majority in both chambers in the Texas capitol. You know, when Democrats walked out on this bill the first time in May, that did scuttle a couple provisions that were added at the last minute. One was eliminating early voting on Sundays...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

WEBER: ...Which is when Black churchgoers tend to vote. Another would have made it easier for a judge to overturn an election. So that first walkout a few months ago, we didn't see those provisions return after that. But by and large, this bill has remained the same for months despite these ongoing protests by Democrats and the refusal to come back until now.

INSKEEP: Why don't you remind us of a few of the basic provisions. Granting there's a lot of stuff in there, what are the basics?

WEBER: Yeah, there's a lot of stuff in there. The main ones the Democrats have really keyed on - two of them - one would eliminate drive-through voting and ban 24-hour polling places. Both of those were provisions - expanded voting access - that Houston put in place last year during the pandemic. Houston is a crucial place for Texas politically about what direction it's going to go in the future. So Democrats really saw take - Republicans taking off the table as an effort to target their voters. Another provision would give partisan poll watchers more access in polling places. Democrats saw that as inviting voter intimidation. Obviously, Republicans say all of these are just safeguards that are needed to what they say is to secure elections.

INSKEEP: Well, now that some Democrats have returned but other Democrats have not, are Democrats turning on each other?

WEBER: Yeah, there's definitely been some frustration and disappointment that's been expressed over the last 24 hours. You know, the vast majority of Democrats continue to hold out. Republicans did not need a lot of Democrats to return in order to get a quorum. So those that continue to stay away, they haven't seen a real incentive to return. I mean, as long as Republicans have a quorum, they're going to pass this bill. And Democrats can't stop it. There's also other issues happening right now here in Texas. COVID-19 is surging. The governor is under a lot of criticism over his handling of that. So there were Democrats who wanted to keep the pressure on that front and not give the governor or Republicans a chance to turn the focus back on this bill or what's happening in the capitol.

INSKEEP: A few weeks ago, I think there was some mention of Texas Republicans, once they got their quorum back, changing the rules for a quorum. Are they going to do that?

WEBER: We - that remains to be seen. That - it was one of the items that the governor had put on this latest emergency special session. But I think the priority is to get this election bills passed. So I think that's what Republicans are going to really focus on now that they have a quorum again.

INSKEEP: Paul Weber of the Associated Press in Austin. Thanks so much.

WEBER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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