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4-day ‘March for Democracy’ and voting rights culminates with Saturday rally at Texas Capitol

Dallas Morning News logo Dallas Morning News 8/21/2021 Morgan O'Hanlon, The Dallas Morning News
Beto O'Rourke holding a racket on a court: Former Presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke addresses activists on the South steps of the Texas Capitol after the last leg of the 27- mile " Selma to Montgomery"- style march in Downtown Austin, Texas, on Saturday, July 31, 2021, to protest proposed new voting legislation. © Aaron E. Martinez/TNS" Former Presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke addresses activists on the South steps of the Texas Capitol after the last leg of the 27- mile " Selma to Montgomery"- style march in Downtown Austin, Texas, on Saturday, July 31, 2021, to protest proposed new voting legislation.

AUSTIN, Texas — “If you don’t like who’s in there, vote them out,” Texas music icon Willie Nelson sang on the steps of the Capitol at the climax of the “March for Democracy” rally Saturday.

The 88-year-old country singer, whose politics famously lean left-of-center, was referring to the Republicans that control the Texas Legislature and statewide offices. But many of the protesters at the rally believe their rights to “vote them out” are being threatened by GOP-backed elections bills proposed in the ongoing special session, which is set to end Aug. 6.

a group of people standing in front of a building: Activists march on Saturday, July 31, 2021, in downtown Austin, Texas, on their way to the Capitol for a voting rights rally. © Aaron E. Martinez/TNS Activists march on Saturday, July 31, 2021, in downtown Austin, Texas, on their way to the Capitol for a voting rights rally.

By attending the rally Saturday, they showed their support for the more than 55 Texas Democrats who blocked those bills from advancing by leaving the state for Washington, D.C. until the current special session’s end. In the nation’s capital, those Democrats are lobbying members of the U.S. Congress to pass federal legislation that would override any legislation proposed in Texas.

The crowd of a few thousand people — far less than the 10,000-turnout hoped for by organizers — carried signs expressing their belief that the true aim of the elections bills is to suppress voter turnout, particularly in marginalized communities. The proposed legislation would limit early voting hours, expand access for partisan poll watchers and impose new criminal penalties on election officials — all of which speakers at Saturday’s rally said would complicate the voting process.

Willie Nelson wearing a hat and holding a guitar: Willie Nelson performs during a gathering outside the Capitol in Austin, Texas, during a voting rights rally on Saturday, July 31, 2021. © Aaron E. Martinez/TNS Willie Nelson performs during a gathering outside the Capitol in Austin, Texas, during a voting rights rally on Saturday, July 31, 2021.

During the rally, Benjamin Chou, director of innovation at the Harris County Elections Division, brought up the bills’ proposed ban on drive-through voting, which 130,000 people in his county used to cast their vote in 2020 general election. Chou said drive-through voting was instrumental to preserving democracy during the pandemic.

“It was the reason why thousands of Houstonians felt safe enough to vote last year,” he said.

Some of the signs on Saturday asked federal legislators to “fully restore” the rights granted by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which has been rolled back through several U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

Lucy Baines Johnson, whose father, former president Lyndon B. Johnson, passed that legislation, was among the famous faces present at the rally.

“Working for social justice has been our family’s passion for generations,” she said, adding that her father would be proud of the people at the capitol continuing to fight for equity. She warned: “Those seeking to limit access to the vote will strangle liberty and justice for all.”

Also revving up the crowd at the rally was Beto O’Rourke, a former Democratic congressman and presidential candidate who has not ruled out a run for Texas governor in 2022. O’Rourke helped organize the 27-mile march that took place last week with civil rights activist Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II from Georgetown to the Texas Capitol.

a person with an umbrella: Attendees hold up white and yellow umbrellas with slogans on them before the start of the last leg of a 27- mile march from Georgetown to the Capitol in Austin, Texas, to protest the state's proposed new voting legislation, on Saturday, July 31, 2021. © Aaron E. Martinez/TNS Attendees hold up white and yellow umbrellas with slogans on them before the start of the last leg of a 27- mile march from Georgetown to the Capitol in Austin, Texas, to protest the state's proposed new voting legislation, on Saturday, July 31, 2021.

Barber’s organization, Poor People’s Campaign, an anti-poverty organization, is named after the 1968 campaign founded by Martin Luther King Jr. Barber said during the rally that throughout the week marchers carried “the spirit of Selma” with them, a reference to King’s 54-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery in 1965, which raised awareness for the difficulties faced by black voters and the need for federal voting rights legislation.

Tanisha Thompson of Dallas was among the more than 100 participants who marched with Barber.

Although temperatures were in the upper 90s and she has concerns about the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19, Thompson said she felt it was the least she could do to contribute in what she views as a fight against voter suppression.

“Others before us gave their lives so why can’t we give an afternoon of heat?” she asked.

Attendees of the rally didn’t have to brave the heat for long — after Nelson’s short set concluded at about 1 p.m., the crowd dissipated quickly.

Gone even more quickly was a group of about 20 counterprotesters who also turned out to support the elections legislation. Proponents of the legislation like the counterprotesters argue that it’s necessary to protect election integrity and prevent voter fraud, which they say is widespread.

The Republican National Committee had urged GOP backers and members to turn out to make their voices heard.

If the Democrats in Washington remain there until the special session ends next week, the bills proposed this session will die. However, Gov. Greg Abbott can call another special session immediately after. If the Democrats break quorum again, it’s uncertain how long the political battle could go on.

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