State Rep. Ina Minjarez struggled with the decision to leave for Washington, D.C. in early July to join a Texas House Democrat effort to block Republican-led election law changes. Her husband’s mother had recently died, and she didn’t want to be away from him for too long.
The El Paso-born attorney, who studied law at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, won her office in 2015. Since then, she’s seen “a lot of bad bills come through,” but none that seemed to call for the extreme blocking move available to Texas House members.
Minjarez is among the San Antonio state legislators who have spent the past month in Washington urging Congress to take action and block the kinds of election law changes Republicans are seeking in Texas and more than a dozen other states.
The voting rights standoff grew more intense this week as lawmakers reconvened in Austin for a second special session in an attempt to pass the bills that would restrict local governments’ abilities to experiment with polling locations and times, create more restrictions for mail-in voting and assisting the disabled in filling out their ballots, and strengthen partisan poll watchers’ freedoms at the polls.
The bills come in the wake of false claims by former President Donald Trump that he only lost the November 2020 election because of widespread voter fraud. Since then, more than 18 states have enacted laws that in some way restrict access to the ballot.
On Thursday, the Texas Senate voted 18-11 on party lines to pass Senate Bill 1. The vote followed a marathon filibuster by State Sen. Carol Alvarado (D-Houston) that began Wednesday, which delayed the bill for 15 hours.
Because of the missing Democrats, Texas Republicans have not been able to assemble a quorum to move legislation through the House.
State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) has spent his time in Washington trying to focus the public eye on the bills’ details and how they would affect voters, such as the provision in HB3 that requires election judges to give unruly poll watchers one warning before ejecting them from a polling site.
Election judges would still be allowed to call the police if they witness a crime, but “calling the cops takes time and it’s super disruptive,” said Bernal, who testified in Congress about the issue earlier this month.
“The manager at Target or Walmart has more authority to protect their customers than the election judge does to protect voters in Texas under this bill,” Bernal said.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Bernal stressed that Texas Republicans have failed to address why these bills are needed. He points out — accurately — that the odds of a voter committing fraud in Texas are lower than being struck by lightning or a meteor.
“What is the problem that we’re solving?” Bernal asked “What about election integrity is allowing someone to commit a felony in a polling place and not be removed? What purpose does that serve?”
Bexar County’s Republican Texas House members are avoiding questions about House Bill 3. Rep. Steve Allison on Thursday through a staff member declined repeated requests to comment; Rep. Lyle Larson has not responded to multiple phone and email requests.
Democratic state representatives Liz Campos, Philip Cortez, and Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, who were among the 52 Democrats who traveled to Washington, also didn’t respond to interview requests. Neither did Leo Pacheco, a moderate Democrat who broke quorum but stayed in Texas and recently announced he would give up his seat to teach at a local college.
Rep. Ray Lopez (D-San Antonio) said in a phone interview last week outside the U.S. Capitol that while “it’s really hard to understand whether progress is being made,” he thinks their presence is making a difference.
“Before we got here a month ago, the issue of voting rights was important, but not on the front burner,” Lopez said. “I think by virtue of us coming here, we not only moved it to the front burner, but also turned up the heat.”
Texas Democrats are now waiting on the U.S. Senate, where Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz on Wednesday blocked a vote on election reforms that would block bills like those being considered in Texas. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said the Senate will take up the issue again in mid-September.
Even then, the path remains unclear because of Senate rules that require a 60-vote majority to bypass the filibuster and pass a bill. Changing the Senate’s rules would require all 50 Democratic senators, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) have said they want to leave some form of the filibuster in place.
State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) was among the Texas Democrats who met with Manchin’s staff within the past weeks. Fischer said he explained the ways in which Texas voter law is more restrictive than West Virginia’s, where all voters were allowed to vote my mail in 2020 because of the pandemic.
“When we made that case, of just how high the hurdles are to vote in the state of Texas, it was like, it was like a microphone dropping in the room,” Fischer told the San Antonio Report on Wednesday. “And they knew right away that we needed a lot of help when it came to voting rights in Texas.”
Moments like these are part of what gives Fischer hope that the U.S. Senate will eventually move on voting rights. He’s not willing to give up yet, at least.
“This isn’t the end of it for us, because the Senate went home,” he said.
Both parties also are duking it out in state courts over whether House Speaker Dade Phelan has the right to have members inside state lines arrested and returned to the Capitiol. So far, no Democrats have actually been arrested.
Minjarez is among those who hasn’t risked being handcuffed. She hasn’t been home in more than four weeks.
“It was a hard decision to make, but I know in my heart it was the right one,” Minjarez said. “At the end of the day, whatever happens, I’m at peace with it.”
Disclosure: State Rep. Ina Minjarez is married to San Antonio Report board member Leo Gomez.