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Eddie Lucio Jr.: I joined Texas Democrats’ walkout in 2003. Here’s why I’m staying in Austin this time.

By Eddie Lucio Jr. Special to the Washington Post

Eddie Lucio Jr., a Democrat from Brownsville, has represented South Texas in the state’s Senate since 1991.

More than 50 Texas state legislators, all Democrats, have taken flight from the state in an effort to block legislation that, in our party’s view, would suppress the votes of our constituents. This is an unusual action in Texas history – but by no means an unprecedented one.

In 2003, with the prospect of a gerrymandered congressional map passing the legislature, 10 of my senate colleagues and I ventured to New Mexico to gain leverage in redistricting negotiations. Earlier that year, Democrats in the Texas House used a similar strategy to run out the clock on the regular legislative session by waiting it out in Oklahoma.

Both tactics were a response to redistricting maps that we felt would put our party at an unfair disadvantage in the state’s congressional delegation. In the end, however, our efforts were unsuccessful. With the quorum break dragging on longer than expected, and a razor-thin margin keeping our effort alive, it took the return of only one senator to doom our effort. We had to go back to Austin to acquiesce to the maps on the table, which led to six Democratic congressmen losing their seats, just as we had feared.

Now, Democrats in the Texas House are again attempting to block legislation that threatens to diminish our constituents’ voices, this time in the form of a voting-reform proposal known as Senate Bill 1. The circumstances they face are different: As opposed to the one-vote margin that determined the outcome of our 2003 quorum break, the Texas House today requires 17 Democrats to consider a bill. As long as fewer than that number remain in Austin, Senate Bill 1 will not pass. The Democratic legislators waiting in Washington show every sign of being able to run out the clock on this bill. This is a consequence of recent elections, during which Democrats have made gains in both chambers of the Texas legislature.

That is precisely why Democrats have taken such extraordinary measures to protect the ballot in Texas. To have a truly representative government, we must ensure a robust, competitive democracy, which requires that all eligible voters be given the opportunity to have their votes counted. As we heard in hours of testimony, the provisions in Senate Bill 1 will block ballot access for many people, especially people of color, individuals with disabilities and others without the means to meet new restrictions on the times and methods by which they may vote.

The House Democrats bringing attention to our cause in Washington are an important part of our effort to stop this bill. In the meantime, those of us still in Austin – all of us veterans of the 2003 walkout – determined that we could be most useful staying here, asking questions of the bill’s author and bearing witness to the continuing problems in the bill.

On the Senate floor, we questioned the author about provisions that eliminate voting methods such as drive-through and overnight voting, which were disproportionally used by minority voters in cities such as Houston, and about a requirement for curbside voters to be alone in the car while filling out a ballot, a requirement that would prove practically impossible for some voters with disabilities.

Fortunately, that latter requirement was removed from the bill during our debate. This willingness to negotiate supports my belief that every Texas legislator ultimately wants elections that maximize turnout and minimize fraud. In recent sessions, Texas Senate leadership has worked to bring all parties together to develop solid legislation that addresses the needs of our diverse state. I still think that, if my Republican colleagues return to this approach – and if all senators can move past political posturing and deliberate in good faith – we can reach an agreement that tempers the bad provisions of the voting bill and builds on the good ones.

It’s just a shame that this compromise couldn’t have been reached during our regular session, when the Republican majority focused more on debating the bill’s provisions among themselves than on reaching out to potential partners in the minority. There’s a useful lesson to legislative majorities here, too, which is that bipartisan compromise is possible. It would just be better if in the future it could be forged during the respectful back-and-forth of regular legislating rather than under duress because of a minority walkout.

Eddie Lucio Jr., a Democrat from Brownsville, has represented South Texas in the state’s Senate since 1991.

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