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The Overthrow of American Democracy Begins in Texas

Over the weekend, Republicans in the state tried to pass an extreme voter-suppression bill and hosted a conference in which Michael Flynn endorsed a military coup.

The state flag of Texas hangs on a staff below a tattered American flag.

Two bad omens for American democracy appeared in Texas over the Memorial Day weekend. One of them involved Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, retired general, and active MAGA conspiracy theorist. At a QAnon-flavored event in Dallas, an audience member asked Flynn why “what happened in [Myanmar] couldn’t happen here,” referring approvingly to a military coup in that country in February. “No reason,” Flynn told the cheering audience. “I mean, it should happen here.”

Meanwhile, in Austin on Sunday night, Texas Republicans tried to rush through a late-night bill of strict voting restrictions before the legislative session ended at midnight. The bill, like others floated nationwide by GOP state lawmakers, would curb access to early voting and absentee voting while adding new mechanisms for poll watchers and other bystanders to challenge election results. The bill died that evening after Texas Democrats walked out of the chamber, thus breaking its quorum, but state GOP leaders have said they’ll raise the bill again in a special session.

The two events are symptoms of the same disease: the Big Lie spread by Donald Trump and his allies about the 2020 election. With few exceptions, the GOP as an institution is committed to the false conspiracy theory that Trump lost the 2020 election through some phantasmal combination of fraud and misconduct. There is no evidence that American elections are insecure, but Trumpworld’s attempts to prove the lie could do real and lasting damage to American democracy itself.

The Texas legislation, Senate Bill 7, is a 226-page hodgepodge of voter restrictions. It includes many provisions that resemble restrictions passed in Georgia and other Republican-led states since Trump’s loss in November. As in Georgia, the Texas bill combines an expansion of early voting hours in all counties with new limits on early voting windows in more populous counties. S.B. 7 would also ban efforts in Texas’s largest cities to allow drive-thru voting and 24-hour early voting. If passed, it would ban counties from sending mail-in ballot applications en masse to registered voters and allow felony charges against local officials who do so.

Other measures appear more likely to undermine confidence in elections than bolster it. During the ballot counts last November, Trump and his allies often baselessly accused local officials of blocking Republican-aligned poll watchers from properly viewing election activities. S.B. 7 would remedy that problem by giving poll watchers free rein within polling places, except for within the voting booths themselves. The Texas Tribune noted in its roundup of the bill’s provisions that poll watchers would also be empowered to challenge ballots from voters who receive assistance, raising concerns about voter-intimidation efforts by partisan figures.

Some of S.B. 7’s measures are particularly indefensible. Consider its effect on voters with disabilities. Under current Texas law, a disabled voter is eligible for a mail-in ballot if they have “a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.” S.B. 7 would only allow voters with disabilities to vote by mail if they are “not capable” of going to the polls on Election Day at all, even if it could be harmful to their health or if they might need assistance to do so.

The bill also explicitly states that neither a lack of transportation nor work obligations are enough to qualify a disabled voter for a mail-in ballot. And in a particularly striking move, S.B. 7 removes an exception in the Texas election code that allows pregnant women to request an absentee ballot if they expect to be in labor on or around Election Day. If there is evidence that voters with disabilities and pregnant women are a particularly dangerous source of voter fraud, Texas lawmakers haven’t presented it.

S.B. 7 would also limit the hours on the last Sunday of early voting to 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. That measure appeared to be aimed at Black churches, where congregations often take part in “souls to the polls” drives to polling places after Sunday services to cast their ballots. Even The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, which generally favors the legislation, acknowledged that the provision was a “political mistake” because it could be “spun as an attack on Black churches” (suggesting that the board’s only real concern about it was optics).

What could justify such unnecessary burdens on Americans’ fundamental right to vote? Texas Republicans frame the issue as one of “election integrity.” But there is no evidence of major fraud or misconduct in American elections, even those conducted in Texas. The Houston Chronicle reported last month that the state attorney general’s office only had 43 open voter-fraud cases and that just one of those was connected to the 2020 election. That hasn’t stopped Texas Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Louie Gohmert from sowing doubts about the integrity of the 2020 election for partisan gain.

The legislature’s failure to pass S.B. 7 drew sharp criticism from top Republican officials in Texas, who faulted themselves for the flubbed timeline for passage but reserved most of their venom for the Democratic lawmakers who walked out on Sunday night. “I will veto Article 10 of the budget passed by the legislature,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said in a Twitter post on Monday. “Article 10 funds the legislative branch. No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities. Stay tuned.” It’s unclear whether his threat will succeed.

Local progressive groups countered by denouncing the push to pass S.B. 7 itself as undemocratic. “Look, Republicans have been subverting democracy this entire process,” Ed Espinoza, the executive director of Progress Texas, told me on Tuesday. He pointed to rule changes in the Texas Senate that made it easier to pass the bill in that chamber earlier in the year, as well as additions that were made to the bill in the conference committee when it considered the House and Senate versions. “And then, on top of all that, when Democrats wanted to ask questions about the conference committee report on the floor of the house, Republicans refused to take up questions.”

Right-wing allegations of voter fraud long predate Trump’s rise to power, of course. His lies about the election took root in fertile soil among conservatives, nurturing grievances about their counter-majoritarian status in American politics and amplifying their rhetoric about Democrats’ supposed electoral illegitimacy. A Myanmar-like breakdown in the American constitutional order isn’t necessarily on the horizon, despite Flynn’s apparent wishes for one. But a scenario where it’s exceedingly hard for most Americans to participate in democracy itself, to the GOP’s apparent gain, is closer than it seems.