Can Texas Democrats be arrested? Over 58 lawmakers flee Austin and fly to DC to block voting bill
In a last-ditch effort to stop Texas' controversial voting rights bill, Texas Democratic lawmakers have fled the state for Washington DC on July 12. According to reports, 58 lawmakers flew to DC on two private jets, effectively paralyzing the state House. The move is a repeat of the 2003 effort to stop Republicans' plan to redraw congressional districts. Fleeing the state does have its risks though, most notably arrest, as Texas Governor Greg Abbott cautioned.
The state of Texas has been leading the charge in a wave of conservative bills as the GOP attempts to wrestle back control from Democrats ahead of the 2022 midterms. In May, the legislature approved permitless carry, after a late-night behind closed doors meeting. That makes Texas America's 21st state to allow "constitutional carry". In March, Abbott waded into the battle against tech giants by announcing a bill banning censorship of political views. Earlier in February, GOP lawmakers introduced a bill to ban trans athletes from women's sports.
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Most of these controversial bills are expected to pass or at least be debated on the floor. However, it is the voting rights bill that is currently on everyone's mind. Earlier this year, Democrats walked out of the House to prevent a quorum, thereby stopping debate of the bill. Now, they've fled the state entirely, angering Republicans. In response, Abbott has threatened to resort to arresting the lawmakers, in a bitter campaign over the upcoming elections.
Texas lawmakers flee, risking arrest
In a joint statement, the Democratic lawmakers said, "Texas House Democrats stand united in our decision to break quorum and refuse to let the Republican-led legislature force through dangerous legislation that would trample on Texans’ freedom to vote." They then fled Austin for DC, chartering two flights that cost about $100,000. The Democrats have 67 seats in the State House, and 13 in the State Senate. While that's less than the majority in both chambers, that's enough members to break the two-thirds limit required for a quorum.
Under Texas law, at least two-thirds of members need to be present in each chamber for it to conduct business. The House Democrats staged a walkout in May this year, forcing Abbott to call a special session to debate the bill. Now, they have fled the state, much like they did in 2003. Back then, the Dems fled to nearby Oklahoma, killing the redistricting bill. They then returned to work after four days, while the GOP sought the help of state police to bring them back.
Now, they've repeated the move ahead of the session on July 13, albeit with the eyes of the nation on them and a more aggressive GOP. Nonetheless, lawmakers have taken to social media to boast about their move. Several lawmakers uploaded images on Twitter of them on the flight to DC. Abbott did not rule out turning to law enforcement, saying in an interview "they are risking losing their jobs as state representatives for not showing up." That begs the question, can they actually be arrested? The answer is- yes.
When it comes to protecting our right to vote, all cards are on the table. We broke #quorum again today because the Gov & #txlege Repubs chose to bully Texans out of our constitutional rights instead of finding solutions to problems that really exist. #SuppressionSession #DemsOut https://t.co/muMdHLSy9F pic.twitter.com/9UbJnB8ehW— Julie Johnson (@juliejohnsonTX) July 12, 2021
Can Dems be arrested?
Under state law, the Speaker of the House can issue a call to have the missing members arrested, Abbott told KVUE. He added, "As soon as they come back in the state of Texas, they will be arrested, they will be cabined inside the Texas Capitol until they get their job done." The members would have to be arrested by the sergeant-at-arms "or an officer appointed by the sergeant-at-arms", which can be done with the aid of state law enforcement. However, since the lawmakers have fled out of state, law enforcement lacks jurisdiction, meaning there is little Abbott can actually do.
Issuing an order to arrest is easy. It needs to be voted for by a majority of those present, even without a quorum. That vote is likely to happen any time now, kick-starting the clock against the Dems. It is unclear how long Dems plan to remain out of Austin or their next steps. The GOP though is clear with their plans. Abbott threatened to call multiple special sessions if needed, "all the way up until election next year," to have the bill passed. "If these people want to be hanging out wherever they're hanging out on this taxpayer-paid junket, they're going to have to be prepared to do it for well over a year," he threatened.