Rep. Morales defends decision to stay on the House floor during voting reform debate

As most TX House Democrats staged a walkout to kill a voter restrictions bill, local Rep. Eddie Morales stayed behind, "to defend my district."

TEXAS –The 2021 Texas Legislative Session came to a dramatic end on Sunday night, when all but a handful of Democrats in the Texas House walked out of the chamber, effectively killing a voting restrictions bill by breaking the House’s quorum. District 74 Rep. Eddie Morales Jr., whose district covers the tri-county and much of Far West Texas, was one of only six Democrats that skipped the walkout and remained on the floor Sunday night.

The Republicans needed two-thirds of the House to be present in order to take a vote on a contentious voting reform bill, Senate Bill 7, but the Democrats’ exodus promptly killed the bill. It was an abrupt end to the legislative session, which only takes place once every two years.

Earlier in the afternoon, leadership of the Democratic minority had directed Democrats to leave the building before the late night vote. “I wanted to support leadership in the Democratic party,” Morales told The Big Bend Sentinel on Sunday night after the House adjourned, “but personally I didn’t feel like it [walking out] was the best thing.”

Instead, Morales had planned “to stay back, defend my district and defend my right to vote no on it and state my opinion.” Five of the six Democrats that remained represent districts on the border, which Morales said was key to their decision not to leave with the others. “The border Democrats, we’re in a much more conservative district,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we supported it [the bill], but we all stayed back to fight it and to say what needed to be said about that bill.”

Prior to the walkout, the Senate had advanced SB7, and the House was on track to pass it and send it on to the governor’s desk for signature. The bill was a major overhaul of voting rules in the state, with provisions that would decrease the number of hours polls are open, expand the rights of partisan poll watchers, end drive-through voting and potentially criminalize those who help fill out mail-in ballots or drive others to the polls.

Democrats used procedural delays to push back a vote on the bill until Sunday night, and from Morales’ perspective, Democrats could have simply run out the clock rather than walking away. Each representative is allotted 10 minutes to speak, and there were enough of them to delay until the midnight deadline.

Morales wanted to speak about the already “very low” voter turnout in his district and the long drives many faced to reach an open polling location. He was ready to talk about the potential criminalization of “promotoras,” voter promoters from within the community, who build trust with unlikely voters, help turn them out to the polls and assist with ballots for English-second-language voters. The walkout killed the bill and Morales’ chance to share those concerns in the regular session.

Democrats have used the quorum-breaking walkout strategy sparingly in the state’s history. Most recently, the 2003 session of the Legislature ended with 51 House Democrats –– including former Representative of District 74 Pete Gallego –– absconding to Ardmore, Oklahoma, to avoid a vote on Republican-led redistricting and get out of the jurisdiction of Texas law enforcement.

Under Texas House rules, the Speaker of the House is allowed to lock all doors leading out of the House, with members only able to leave with written permission from the speaker. Those who are absent can be “sent for and arrested, wherever they may be found,” so that “their attendance shall be secured and retained.”

But during Sunday afternoon discussions, Morales said House Speaker Dade Phelan indicated he would not lock the doors or send DPS to arrest Democrats if they did choose to leave. An hour before midnight, Democrats who left gathered at a nearby church, explaining why their exit was a last ditch effort to leave current voting laws undisturbed.

In response to the bill dying, Governor Greg Abbott guaranteed that he would call a special session to bring widespread voting reform up for a vote once more, though details on what will be included in the new version of the bill and when the session will take place are still unknown.

“Eventually you get back in a special session and the legislation is two or three times worse,” Morales said. The Republicans are currently working to revise the bill ahead of the special session, and have already agreed to remove a controversial provision that would have ended Sunday morning voting –– a voting time traditionally used by Black voters who travel to the polls from Sunday church services. Speaker Phelan has expressed interest in breaking the bill down into smaller pieces rather than an omnibus voting bill.

The future special session date has not been announced, but even before the bill’s demise on Sunday, Abbott had plans for a special session to discuss redistricting. That effort was delayed out of regular session because the census data that’s needed for redistricting has not yet been released. The governor has declined to say whether he will combine the voting and redistricting issues into one special session or call multiple sessions. In the wake of the walkout, a frustrated Abbott has vowed to veto a budget line item that would fund House legislators’ pay, along with their staffers and other workers in the building. The governor has until June 20 to follow through on that promise.

With voting restrictions back on the docket for the special session, Rep. Morales said he worries that other bills that died during the regular session might be revived, like a ban on transgender athletes playing in school sports.

Morales said he hasn’t heard a detailed plan from the Democratic caucus on how they plan to fight off voter reform legislation in the looming special session, saying about his fellow Democrats, “You got a short-term victory. You won the battle, but you lost the war.”