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Democrat In Texas Voting Bill Walkout Says She's Protecting Civil Rights

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to continue our discussion on the fight over voting rights in Texas with State Representative Ann Johnson. She's one of the Democratic members of the Texas legislature who's holding out here in Washington, D.C., in an effort to block legislation that they say targets minority and new voters and is intended to pave the way for a partisan takeover of elections. The group says they will stay in D.C. until early August, holding out until the special session ends on August 6. In response, Texas Governor Greg Abbott says he will have lawmakers arrested when they return. But if they succeed in denying the state House quorum, Republicans could be forced to end their special session without voting on any bills.

These state House Democrats, who typically occupy a low-profile job, are now in the spotlight, so we wanted to know what this experience has been like. Representative Ann Johnson is a lawyer specializing in human trafficking. Her district is part of southwest Houston, and she's one of the Democrats that left Texas and is now in Washington, D.C. Representative Johnson, thank you so much for joining us.

ANN JOHNSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Well, one of the reasons that we called you is that this is your first term in office. You were just elected in 2020. And I'm just wondering, when you decided to run, did you think that part of your job might be holding out in a Washington, D.C., hotel room?

JOHNSON: I did not expect this moment. What I did expect when I ran for office this time was how vital this election was going to be with redistricting coming up. I was not ready for what we had this last regular session, which was an extreme Republican, right-wing Governor Abbott playing to a Trumpian base - passing legislation allowing anyone over 21 to carry a gun, banning abortion, banning teachers from what they could speak about. And then at the end of that original session, in the dead of night, the Senate attempted to send us a bill that would have allowed for the overturning of elections and was going to dismantle a - basic civil rights and method of faith of souls to the polls.

MARTIN: The Republicans nationally and also in Texas have portrayed this fight as kind of, I don't know, a joyride in a way. Like, oh, you know, you rolled up there on chartered planes, and you're kind of absconding from your duties. So I'd like to ask you, what's it really been like? I understand that, first of all, being part of a state legislature is a part-time job. I understand that one member even missed her wedding. And another brought her child - young child with her. So just talk a little bit about what it's been like and why you think this is worth it.

JOHNSON: Each of the Democrats here is making their own personal sacrifice. But the duty that we are upholding is the oath to the Constitution and our promise to represent Texans and not to merely be present to Greg Abbott. The governor has made it really clear. If we are in Texas, we get arrested. We get thrown in our chair, and they move forward and steamroll the democratic process. And so my duty and the only manner in which I can fight for them right now happens to be out of the state of Texas because of the threats of Governor Abbott.

MARTIN: Why do you think that you and your fellow Democrats see this so differently from the Republicans in your state? And I'm not even just saying the Republican lawmakers, but maybe just your neighbors.

JOHNSON: Because we're rooted in reality versus rhetoric. The reality and the facts are, when you look at this bill and you get down to the numbers, you get down to the manner in which they're cutting voting time for urban community, they're dismantling drive-through voting - which 60% of drive-through voters were women - dismantling 24-hour voting. The rhetoric that I am hearing from the Republicans is the same rhetoric that we are seeing in state by state, of which it has nothing to do with state policy. It has to do with a loyalty to this Republican base and think tank who is throwing out good phrases. And people are falling for it.

MARTIN: What aspect of the bills do you find the most noxious?

JOHNSON: The most egregious is the poll watcher. And the second most egregious is the pure criminalization of true election workers. And so when you look at the heart of that bill, there are two sides that are pitted against each other. The poll watchers - if you look back at some of the social media that's been out there, there are these right-wing groups, folks like the Trump loyalists and the Proud Boys, who are putting out a call to people and saying, we need you guys to come be poll watchers. And then on their mouths, they circle the part of Houston, which is Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, which is our traditional African American voting box and truly a heart of a civil rights movement. That's where they are recruiting their folks to come in and be present in those polls.

I have to tell you, these poll watchers would be given unfettered access to the ballot area. No longer would they have to stand in a spot and observe. But they could come and go as they please. This bill makes simple clerical errors in numbering or mistakes on a ballot or by an election judge a third-degree felony, two to 10 years in prison, on the word of the poll watcher. And when you come down to it and you look at the math and you look at the bill, it is overwhelming that their goal here is to stop certain people from voting.

MARTIN: That was Ann Johnson. She represents southwest Houston in the Texas state House. Ann Johnson, thank you so much for talking with us.

JOHNSON: Honor to be here. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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