DALLAS — The Conservative Political Action Conference that unfolded in a stuffy hotel ballroom here over the weekend could be mistaken for a chaotic sideshow, as some attendees carefully considered which size QAnon T-shirt would fit them best, members of extremist groups including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys roamed the halls, and a man handed out cards with a seven-step plan to restore former president Donald Trump to the White House “in days, not years.”
But the real-world power of a fake idea that was being watered and tended here by panelists and Trump himself — namely, that America’s election system is marred by rampant fraud that cost Trump his reelection — became increasingly evident as the weekend wore on.
Two hundred miles away, in Austin, Republican lawmakers were advancing a raft of voting restrictions they contend will shore up the system so swiftly that on Monday, dozens of elected Democrats fled the state in a desperate attempt to stop them.
“To protect the civil right to vote for millions of Texans, we are breaking quorum,” wrote state Representative Jarvis Johnson of Houston on Twitter. The group flew to Washington, D.C., where they planned to beg for help from Democrats there.
Similar voting restrictions are being considered in more than a dozen states this year. Republican lawmakers, citing the need for more election security, are changing laws in GOP-led legislatures as local Democrats protest to little effect.
With 38 electoral votes and the power to swing elections, Texas has emerged as the latest — and the biggest — battlefield. But the split-screen in Dallas and Austin this weekend laid bare an odd twist in America’s voting rights showdown. In key states, the momentum is on the side of the CPAC crowd, even if their demands are built on the lie of widespread voter fraud and their allegiance is to a defeated incumbent, while Democrats, whose party holds the White House and both chambers of Congress, are stuck running away and seeking help that has been slow in coming.
“We’re under siege by this kind of extreme-right thinking,” said Gary Bledsoe, the president of the Texas NAACP, as lawmakers took up their voting bills in the Capitol on Saturday and Democrats privately debated whether they should walk out to buy themselves more time and attention, as they did when Republicans pushed the voting bill in May.
National developments since then have further shifted the ground under Democrats’ feet. The Supreme Court upheld voting restrictions in Arizona and raised the bar to challenge similar laws in the future, while Democrats in the US Senate failed to advance federal voting rights legislation to counter Republicans’ efforts in the states.
“It is absolutely harder now to protect voting rights,” said state Senator Borris Miles, a Democrat from Houston, as a line of people waiting to testify on the bills curled around him in the Capitol over the weekend.
Texas Democrats’ latest move to delay the vote may bring them more attention but will likely only buy a temporary reprieve from passage of the law.
The Senate and House election bills in Texas would ban drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting and empower partisan poll-watchers. They would add identification requirements for mail voting and ban election officials from sending out applications for absentee ballots unless they are requested, thus making it harder to vote remotely.
Republicans stripped out some of the most controversial provisions of the legislation after Democrats’ initial walkout. Those included a ban on Sunday morning voting, which is often used by Black churchgoers, and a measure that essentially made elections easier to overturn.
Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, called a special session after Democrats stymied the first version of the bill and said passing a voting bill would be a priority. Onstage at CPAC, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick bragged about all that Republicans in the state would be able to achieve.
”Everything is getting done in Texas,” Patrick said, as he vowed never to allow Texas to turn blue.
“In Texas, we are the last man standing,” he said. “If we fall, America falls.”
Democrats in Austin were just as dramatic about the stakes — and they have been openly hinting for days that their best option would be leaving and applying pressure on Washington to pass federal voting rights legislation.
”This is the single greatest attack on voting rights in our lifetime,” said former US representative Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Democrat who narrowly lost a Senate race in 2018 and spent hours at the Texas Capitol on Saturday waiting to testify, which he finally got to do in the middle of the night. “Democrats in D.C. need to do more.”
President Biden is set to speak about voting rights on Tuesday from Philadelphia, but prospects for federal action to counter voting restrictions have dimmed in Congress.
Among Democrats waiting to testify against the bills outside the Capitol on Saturday, the air was heavy with humidity, with anger at Republicans determined to advance the bill, and with frustration with national Democrats.
”I have to come here and do their job while they’re in D.C. doing nothing,” said Michael Sneed, a 64-year-old social worker who has emphysema and moved through the Capitol on a motorized scooter holding two oxygen tanks to help him breathe. He had woken up at 1 a.m. and driven from Dallas to Austin, hoping to testify against bills that, he said, would make it harder for him to vote by mail and avoid waiting in a long line.
Republicans in Texas and other states have cast their new limits on voting as an effort to restore trust in America’s voting system. But they have eroded that trust by embracing Trump’s false claims about widespread fraud, which was on display this weekend at both CPAC and in the halls of the Capitol.
As they took up their bills in marathon hearings on Saturday, Texas Republicans sought to draw connections between fraud and methods of expanded voting access in 2020 without providing evidence to back up those suggestions. Meanwhile, over the weekend, CPAC dedicated an entire panel to election fraud called “Spare the fraud, spoil the child: The future of American elections,” and Republican Representative Ronny Jackson urged attendees to “register as poll-watchers, especially if you live in a heavily Democrat area.”
Then former president Trump took the stage to air out his grievances once more.
“The entire system was rigged against the American people and rigged against a fair, decent, and honest election,” he said.
In interviews, CPAC attendees saw the Texas voting bill as a direct response to the 2020 election, a way of ensuring that something they believed had been taken from them would not be again.
”People want to see they’re doing something,” said Mayra Flores, who is running for Congress in a South Texas district held by Democrat Filemon Vela.
“It destroys our country when people who shouldn’t be here interfere with my vote,” said Ralph Walker, of Granbury, Texas. Around him, vendors sold crocheted hammocks that said: “Trump 2024” and rhinestone Trump clutches, while far-right media outlets including the Epoch Times conducted interviews in conference booths. Attendees ate free sliders and queso or drank Spicy Fox Nation Ritas, stopping to admire a campaign sign that read, “Kamala, you know Trump won.”
The staying power of the conspiracy was underlined by the fact that Rafael Cruz, the father of Texas Senator Ted Cruz whom Trump once baselessly accused of being connected to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, did nothing to bat it away.
“That is an open question,” he said when asked if Biden won the presidency fairly.