This story has been updated.

Texas Republicans are on the offensive against Texas House Democrats who left the state, accusing them of shirking their duties and wasting taxpayer resources in their bid to block changes to voter access in the state.

But at Friendship Baptist Church in San Antonio on Saturday, more than 100 people clapped and cheered for a full minute when the faces of seven Texas House Democrats from Bexar County appeared on a Zoom call from Washington, where the group is lobbying for the U.S. Congress to pass legislation they say would safeguard the right to vote.

“If anybody thinks this is a government-funded vacation, you’re wrong,” said Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio), dean of the Bexar County House delegation. “This is not something that we envy doing, but something that we believe is necessary to protect our democracy.”

Local officials and Democratic party members organized the rally to support state Reps. Fischer, Diego Bernal, Philip Cortez, Liz Campos, Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, Ina Minjarez, and Ray Lopez. Bexar County Democratic Party Chair Monica Alcántara credited Sheriff Javier Salazar with pushing for the event.

Bexar County Sheriff Salazar speaks at the Voting Rights Vigil at Friendship Baptist Church on the east side Saturday.
Bexar County Sheriff Salazar speaks Saturday at the Voting Rights Vigil at Friendship Baptist Church on the East Side. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Speaking to the crowd, Salazar referred to his firing of a deputy who was at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot orchestrated by supporters of President Donald Trump seeking a reversal of the November 2020 election results.

“We’ve talked about the insurrection several months ago, that ugly event where, in the name of patriotism, folks sought to knock down the very democracy they claimed to support,” Salazar said. “I think we all know that that affected my agency directly in a small way. I think we also all know the way that I handled that situation. I handled it in the way that y’all would demand of me.”

Texas has become ground zero in the fight over the future of American democracy. Following Trump’s lies about winning the election and unfounded allegations of voter fraud, at least 14 states enacted laws in early 2021 that tightened access to the ballot, according to New York University Law School’s Brennan Center For Justice.

Texas Democrats temporarily killed a voter access bill in June by walking off of the House floor, denying Republican leaders a quorum needed to take a vote. Facing similar bills during Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session that began July 8, House Democrats left the state for Washington in private planes on Monday.

“Voter suppression bills either add requirements to vote, or they add more procedures to vote, or they create new ways to have votes tossed out,” Bernal told reporters in a call before the rally. “The bill at issue here does all three, and that is why we’re so opposed.”

The Bexar County seven are among the 56 House members who left the state to block the passage of Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 1, bills that would give poll watchers more free rein at election sites, enact stricter vote-by-mail rules, and prevent 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting, among other changes.

On Saturday, the Texas House Democratic Caucus announced that three of the representatives who flew to Washington have tested positive for the coronavirus, the Texas Tribune reported. All three of the House members, who were not identified, had been fully vaccinated, according to the report.

GOP leaders say SB 1 and HB 1 are a necessary antidote to voter fraud, examples of which they’ve dug up from isolated cases across Texas. The Election Integrity unit of the Texas attorney general’s office has fraud cases pending against 43 defendants statewide and has successfully prosecuted 155 people for election crimes since 2005. These don’t include prosecutions by federal or local authorities.

Democrats point to the tiny number of fraud cases in comparison to the total number of votes across Texas — 11 million in the 2020 presidential election. Fischer called voter fraud in Texas “a problem that we don’t see.”

Republicans also say the bills would standardize early voting across the state, expanding early voting hours in many smaller counties. They point to a provision that would require employers to allow staff to take time off for early voting, rather than just on Election Day.

“This bill is about making it both easy to vote and harder to cheat,” state Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), the lead author of the Senate voting rights bill, said ahead of an 18-4 vote Monday to approve the bill along party lines.

Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (left) speaks alongside Representatives Liz Campos (center) and Phillip Cortez (right), via a video call to attendees of the Voting Rights Vigil at Friendship Baptist Church Saturday.
Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (left) speaks alongside Reps. Liz Campos (center) and Philip Cortez (right) on a video call with attendees of the Voting Rights Vigil at Friendship Baptist Church Saturday. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Texas House Democrats spent the week in Washington meeting with congressional Democrats and Vice President Kamala Harris. Their plan is to urge Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act, bills that that would block states like Texas from further restricting access to the polls.

But Congress can’t move forward on the legislation without a vote by the Senate. That won’t happen without changing the filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes or more to advance a bill. And that won’t happen without the approval of all 50 Democratic senators, including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Krysten Sinema, who want to leave the rule in place.

Fischer said 12 Texas Democrats, six from the House and six from the Senate, met with Manchin but had not yet heard back from Sinema. Fischer said Manchin “indicated an openness to the dialogue” and spoke about restoring sections of the Voting Rights Act that required Texas and other mostly Southern states to get federal clearance before making changes to voting rules.

“The issue of the filibuster I don’t believe is his general preference, but we all recognize that that is an internal discussion for members of the United States Senate,” Fischer said. “It’s more appropriate for them to have those discussions and not for us to interfere in the inner workings of their chamber.”

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.