The 87th Texas Legislature came to a sputtering end Monday after a failed attempt by Republican legislators to bully through a voter suppression bill aimed squarely at urban election officials and voters, a response to the historic voter turnout for the 2020 presidential election and the defeat of President Donald Trump.
There was nothing entertaining about the political theater on display in Austin these past 140 days as Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan led their party’s majority to focus much of their time and energy on voter suppression legislation cynically labeled an “election integrity” bill, along with new abortion restrictions, efforts to prevent the teaching of critical race theory, keeping transgender students athletes from playing organized school sports, blocking cities from hiring lobbyists, and criminalizing protests at the same time Texans soon will be allowed to carry guns in public without a permit.
The state’s top elected officials and legislators spent little time debating how to better prepare for a future public health emergency, even after COVID-19 infected nearly 3 million Texans and has led to more than 50,000 deaths in the state. Likewise, only minimal attention was paid to the February deep freeze and historic power outage that cost another 111 Texans their lives, coupled with the needed overhaul of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and the Public Utility Commission. The weatherization and communications bills that passed were modest at best, hurried through with little or no public debate.
Texas is sure to face another pandemic or public health emergency and other severe weather episodes that lead to power outages. Unfortunately, this legislative session was not about lessons learned and enacting responsive policies and strong laws designed to avert or minimize such emergencies.
Instead, Republican state leaders and legislators continued to react irrationally in the wake of the uncontested defeat of Trump and the massive disinformation campaign by many in the Republican Party leadership that he somehow was cheated out of victory, a campaign that culminated with the storming of the U.S. Capitol as lawmakers at work fled for their lives.
Elected officials here and across the nation who continue to perpetuate these baseless claims are engaging in the most disturbing propaganda campaign witnessed in my lifetime. Only sustained resistance to it will eventually wear down the pretenders and restore the integrity of national elections now threatened by overt political meddling. History will judge the anti-democratic extreme elements of the Republican Party harshly and uphold President Joe Biden’s undisputed electoral and popular vote victory.
No evidence of voter fraud in Texas was presented by legislators during the session, and the record 66% of registered voters in Texas who went to the polls reaffirmed the Republican Party’s stronghold on the Texas House and Senate. Still, the governor made an election reform bill a legislative priority, joining Georgia and Florida, where legislators also enacted sweeping restrictions on just about every initiative election officials have undertaken to promote stronger voter turnout, even during the pandemic.
It’s every Texan’s constitutional right to vote, as long as you are 18 or older and not a convicted felon, but that doesn’t mean lawmakers can’t make it increasingly difficult to register and to vote. While the initial effort failed, Abbott has said he will call a special session to get the bill passed.
It’s going to take unprecedented work at the grassroots level to rally unregistered adults and wary voters, especially with the specter of redistricting and further gerrymandering on the horizon as new U.S. census data is released to state officials.
While the choices voters make inside the voting booth are partisan in national and state races, the right to vote is something sacred that rises above the partisan fray. Yet officials in control of the political process are looking backward rather than forward. Suppressing the vote rather than expanding it is their clear goal. There isn’t any pretense of governing on behalf of all the people. It’s about placating the base and surviving the primaries, perpetuating the status quo.