Analysis: Texas legislators are fighting ferociously — and for voters' attention

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, joined other Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives, who are boycotting a special session of the legislature in an effort to block Republican-backed voting restrictions, as they speak in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., on July 13, 2021.

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Leaving the state to block restrictive voting legislation isn’t any more outrageous than requiring people to wait in line for 17 hours to testify on that same legislation at 3 o’clock on a Sunday morning.

It’s all within the rules, and also a sign of how far elected officials will go to win a fight. On its face, it’s ridiculous to everyone but the politicians themselves. In any other workplace, that kind of manufactured drama and stress would be ominous.

But these politicians have been fighting for a long time, and what looks bananas to the rest of us is, for Texas lawmakers, just another day at the office.

And it works, in its odd way. As long as you don’t watch too closely, the process takes in issues for consideration, debates and refines them, and either drops them (most of the time) or turns them into law. And it keeps going, constantly changing and reconsidering, never really arriving at a final conclusion. Everything’s up for debate.

If you watch closely, it’s crazy. The players behave like kids in a sandbox.

The Republican proponents of the voting legislation want to get it passed quickly and efficiently, to minimize negative attention and to get along with politics under rules that they prefer to the rules they’ve got now. They want to outlaw things like 24-hour voting and widespread voting by mail that seemed to some of them to help the Democrats in the last election.

The Democrats who oppose the legislation want to slow it down, and they’ve been encouraged by their earlier success. Their walkout at the end of the regular legislative session this year blocked passage of the bill, and as the details of the bill became apparent, the sponsors removed a couple of provisions that proved too hard to stomach. One would have undermined “souls to the polls” efforts to get voters from churches to voting booths during early voting on Sundays by moving the opening time at the polls to 1 p.m. from 11 a.m. Another would have made it easier for judges to overturn elections.

Bringing more attention to the legislation led to some key changes last time. From the Democrats’ standpoint, nothing else was working. And that lack of success — they’re a political minority, after all, and they don’t have the votes to change the outcome — pushed them to walk out at the end of the regular session, and to fly away this week.

They’re losing, so they’re trying to change the game.

Republicans, burned in their earlier attempts, had the special legislative session on a fast track. It started last Thursday. They filed their bills and sent them to committees. They held committee hearings on the voting bill, among others, on Saturday. People who wanted to testify stood in line for hours, talking about their support or opposition of the legislation — most were opposed — into the wee hours of Sunday morning. And the bill, virtually unchanged by their words, was approved by the committee and sent to the full House for consideration.

That was, in some ways, the prompt for the Democratic walkout, and the easiest explanation for it: If you can’t win the game this way, find another way to play.

Republicans did it by rushing consideration of the legislation, making it inconvenient for Texans to share their thoughts about it and flipping it to a so-called deliberative body with a preordained outcome.

Democrats did it by surveying the situation and deciding that staying in place was certain defeat. They probably lose this way, too; Abbott has said he’ll call them back, session after session, until the next election until lawmakers produce a voting bill for him to sign.

They’re all mad at one another, but that part doesn’t really matter. They’re all doing their own version of violence to the rules. That doesn’t matter that much to normal citizens, either.

What matters is the subject of the fight, in this case, voting rights — and whether those normal people care about the outcome. The fighting in Austin, and in Washington, is just a little drama that runs while those folks are learning what’s in the legislation.