87th LegislatureElections 2020IssuesState HouseProcedural Error Halts Marathon Election Law Hearing, Preventing Testimony of Beto O’Rourke, Other Witnesses

Deer Park Republican Briscoe Cain made a parliamentary mistake that prevented the committee from hearing testimony on an election security bill.
March 25, 2021
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After former congressman and potential candidate for governor Beto O’Rourke publicized a trip to Austin to testify against House Bill (HB) 6, a lunchtime procedural snafu by Texas House Elections Committee Chairman Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) derailed O’Rourke’s plans.

So he could testify on behalf of his own bill, Cain relinquished control of the chair to the committee’s second in command, Vice-Chair Jessica Gonzalez (D-Dallas).

Before committee members broke for lunch, Gonzalez tried to recognize Rep. Nicole Collier (D-Fort Worth) — who is not a member of the Elections Committee — to ask Cain questions about his bill.

Cain ruled no one would be allowed to ask him questions in that format unless the person was a committee member. Gonzalez retorted that she was “currently the chair right now” because Cain had relinquished the gavel, prompting Cain to state that he had “taken back the chair,” reminding the committee that he was the chair and had full control at all times.

Later in the exchange, Gonzalez remarked, “I have not yielded the gavel.”

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“I don’t think it’s something that really has to really be asked for,” Cain replied.

Chairs have historically wielded complete jurisdiction over their committees. Texas House Rule 4, Section 6(7) states, “The chair of each committee shall […] preside at all meetings of the committee and control its deliberations and activities in accordance with acceptable parliamentary procedure.”

In fact, Cain had already made that clear earlier this week.

Letters obtained by The Texan show Collier and Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) had requested in writing at 5:40 p.m. on Tuesday that Cain allow members of the Texas House Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC) and the Texas Legislative Black Caucus (TxLBC) to “fully participate on the dais during the hearing.” Two members of MALC currently sit on the committee itself. 

They also wanted the committee to invite “voting rights experts” and provide “an opportunity for virtual testimony.”

On Wednesday, Cain wrote in reply that while Collier was welcome to testify as a witness, it was contrary to his practice to allow individuals who are not committee members to participate in questioning. 

“It is my practice as Committee Chair to have Committee members asking questions on the dais and no other non-committee Members,” Cain wrote. “This has been my practice since I’ve been Committee Chair and I intend to continue that practice.”

Cain offered to allow Collier to testify first and reminded her that she was able to submit written materials to the committee.

Collier said in a statement, “Typically, as a matter of courtesy, when a fellow Member of the Texas House appears on the dais of a Committee, that Member is afforded the opportunity to ask questions of the bill author and/or witnesses, even if that Member is not on that Committee.”

“Representative Cain, who had relinquished the gavel as Chair to Vice-Chair, Jessica Gonzalez, during the layout of his bill, decided he would deny the opportunity for me to fully participate. His offer to ‘allow’ me to testify was a meaningless gesture and is in many ways condescending and disrespectful.”

Earlier on the House floor, Collier foreshadowed her attempt to ask questions from the Elections Committee dais when she lobbed a few parliamentary inquiries at Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont).

She asked, “Do the House Rules address attendance of members at committee hearings?” Phelan replied that her inquiry was not in order.

Collier inquired again, “As the chair of a House committee, is it the duty of the chair to preside at all meetings of the committee to control its deliberations and activities in accordance with the parliamentary procedure?”

Phelan again ruled the question to be out of order.

In support of Gonzalez’s effort in the committee to recognize Collier, Rep. Michelle Beckley (D-Carrollton), who had given Collier her seat, objected when Cain tried to move the committee to the witness testimony period then recess for lunch.

After overruling objections to the break, Cain recessed the committee but failed to set a time for the committee to return from lunch. 

About half an hour later, committee members filed back into the room and Cain announced that the committee’s parliamentarian had advised him that his error meant the committee had concluded for the day.

Several individuals waiting to testify groaned as it became clear that no one would be heard on HB 6, and some approached state representatives at the dais to discuss what had taken place.

O’Rourke had made what appeared to be a spontaneous decision to take a trip from his hometown of El Paso to the state’s capital to testify.

In a video he recorded during part of his road trip, O’Rourke said the legislation is “perhaps the greatest attack on voting rights in our democracy in Texas in nearly a decade.”

O’Rourke spent time in the committee room visiting and taking pictures with supporters in advance of what was supposed to be his testimony against the bill.

In a similar event this week, Democrats on the Texas Senate’s State Affairs Committee employed a parliamentary tactic that added a requirement for 48 hours’ notice of the consideration of five election law bills. More than 200 witnesses had planned to give testimony that day, but those plans fell through due to the Democrats’ maneuver.

HB 6, also known as the Election Integrity Protection Act of 2021, aims to prevent the abuse of Texas elections by making changes to the Government Code and the Elections Code.

“The purpose of this Act is to exercise the legislature’s constitutional authority under Section 4, Article VI, Texas Constitution, to make all laws necessary to detect and punish fraud and preserve the purity of the ballot box,” the bill reads.

The proposed language includes a statement of intent that election laws should be administered “evenly,” and that elections should be “uniform and consistent.”

In the case of electronic voting that entails printouts of votes, the proposed policy would require election officers to keep a log of ballot serial numbers, including spoiled ballots, that are “subject to public inspection” under relevant law.

Among other policies, the bill would create additional protections for poll watchers by explicitly prohibiting their removal from a polling place, with exceptions in place for cases in which a poll watcher is committing election fraud or otherwise committing a crime.

It would also make it a Class B misdemeanor for an election officer to deny entry to a poll watcher who is legally entitled to be present at the polling station.

Under the bill, poll watchers would be allowed to witness election workers move electronic data.

“A watcher appointed to serve at a polling place in an election may observe the sealing and transfer of a memory card, flash drive, hard drive, data storage device, or other medium now existing or later developed used by the voting system equipment,” the text states.

The bill also requires transparency related to assisting voters with disabilities, toughens criminal sanctions for election violations such as improper vote harvesting, and gives priority to election fraud allegations in state courts, among other reforms.

Voting in a Texas election and in an election in another state on the same day would also be criminalized.

Thursday’s events are not the first time O’Rourke and Cain have been at odds.

When he was running for president, O’Rourke said during a Democratic debate, “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

In response, Cain tweeted, “My AR is ready for you Robert Francis.” O’Rourke interpreted Cain’s remark as a death threat and reported him to Twitter, and the social media network forced Cain to delete the tweet.

HB 6 has dozens of Republican coauthors and is among many election security bills that lawmakers have introduced to respond to instances of voter fraud as well as suspicions of irregularities in the 2020 general election.

Those who criticize election security reforms — such as Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, who testified before the Elections Committee on Thursday — believe voter fraud is not a systemic problem and does not require a change in state law.

Rep. Mike Schofield (R-Katy) contended that a lack of prosecutions and investigations of voter fraud is not necessarily an indication that election fraud is not occurring, and Rep. Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches) compared increases in instances of voter fraud to an infection that will only worsen if left untreated.

Brad Johnson contributed to this report.

Update: Comments from Rep. Nicole Collier have been added to the piece.

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Hayden Sparks

Hayden Sparks

Hayden Sparks is a reporter for The Texan. He has coached high school competitive speech and debate and has also been involved in community theater and politics. A native Texan, Hayden served as a delegate at the Republican Party of Texas Convention in 2016. He is on track to receive a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Liberty University. In his free time, Hayden is known to take walks around the neighborhood while listening to random music on Spotify.