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Texas Democrats Not the First Lawmakers to Flee Their State

Five dozen Democrats left Texas Monday, hoping to block or at least stall voting legislation. It’s a tactic that doesn’t always work but does always cause a stir.

The Texas lawmakers that left the state on Monday, July 12, 2021, to break quorum.
James Talarico/Twitter
Legislative minorities can’t set the agenda, but sometimes they can frustrate the majority party. On Monday, nearly 60 Democratic state lawmakers fled Texas, hoping to block passage of legislation designed to restrict voting rights.

And why not? It’s worked before. As recently as May, Texas Democrats staged a walkout, denying the GOP majority of the quorum necessary to pass voting legislation. That led to the current special session.

These were not the first instances of state legislators leaving home in hope of blocking bills. Back in 2003, more than 50 Texas Democrats hightailed it to Oklahoma, depriving the GOP of a quorum as they were trying to push through a congressional redistricting plan.

“It was only a question of when, and over what issue,” state Rep. Lon Burnham said at the time. “When we saw they were going ahead with this redistricting plan, regardless what anyone else thought, it was time.”

In 2011, all 14 Democratic members of the Wisconsin Senate crossed the state line into Illinois, hoping to block a bill that erased collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. “The plan is to try and slow this down, because it’s an extreme piece of legislation that’s tearing this state apart,” said state Sen. Jon Erpenbach.

Slowing it down is all they could do. Wisconsin enacted its anti-union law, just as Texas Republicans had ultimately been able to draw a favorable congressional map.

But leaving the state can draw national attention to an issue, as is happening now with the Texas voting debate. And sometimes stalling tactics can, in fact, make the majority party cave.

In 2019, the 11 GOP members of the Oregon Senate left the state, denying majority Democrats their quorum on a bill to address climate change. That bill was ultimately shelved.

It worked so well that they did it again last year. Republicans in both the Oregon House and Senate refused to show up at the Capitol, again succeeding in blocking a final vote on the climate legislation.

It doesn’t always work, but maybe the lesson for unhappy minorities is, if you can’t beat ‘em, flee ‘em.
Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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