AUSTIN, Texas – Country music legend Willie Nelson led more than a thousand spectators to sing ‘vote them’ on Saturday from the steps of the Texas Capitol at a rally concluding a four-day march in support of Democratic state lawmakers who rushed to Washington two weeks ago to block GOP-backed voting restrictions.
Families with lawn chairs spread out on the expansive greens of the Capitol in Austin. Clergy, politicians, voters and musicians have all spoken of the proposals to impose voter identification requirements, limit ballot boxes and postal voting, and strip local officials of their electoral authority.
The special session that was interrupted by the exodus of Democrats from Texas is set to expire next week, but Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has pledged to schedule a new one as soon as lawmakers return to the state.
“If you don’t like who’s in there, vote them up,” Nelson sang, inviting the crowd to join him in singing lyrics he had previously written about taking a stand at the polls.
“I felt I needed to be here. It’s a historic event that’s so needed right now, ”said Brenda Hanson, 75, of Austin. “I’m a descendant of slavery and I’m not interested in going back, I want to see this country move forward. I have lived more than three quarters of a century and I have never seen us go back like this before.
Hanson said she was disabled, but would have otherwise participated in the nearly 30-mile walk. Instead, she hoped to make a statement with his presence as she sat supporting singing on a bench under a tree.
The march began on Wednesday and ended on Saturday when participants marched to the gates of the Texas Capitol. It was led, in part, by Beto O’Rourke, the former Democratic congressman and presidential candidate who did not rule out a bid for Texas governor in 2022. Earlier this week, O’Rourke and the marchers closed the main road off Interstate 35. during the morning rush hour, walked between restaurants, and cut a path between Republican-controlled areas of the state and Democrats.
The walkers compared what the GOP says are measures designed to protect against fraud and restore confidence in the U.S. election to Jim Crow-style restrictions. There was no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
“I ask you to think of every man and woman who took the courage of their convictions and did what they had to do at their own moment of truth in the history of this country,” said O’Rourke to the crowd.
More than a dozen people in favor of proposed Texas electoral legislation gathered outside the Capitol entrance gate behind the rally, holding up signs in support of the proposed changes. Republican State Senator Bryan Hughes, author of the Senate version of the voting bill, told The Associated Press that when he heard about the rally, he decided to visit the people on Capitol Hill to listen to their views and encourage them to read his law piece.
“The right to vote is fundamental and therefore must be accessible and secure, both are important,” said Hughes. “This is America. This freedom of expression, we love it. Whether people agree with me or disagree with me, I’m happy to be here.
Hughes said “a lot of people have heard generalizations,” and his goal is to talk to voters about the details of the wording of the bill.
Caught in the political crossfire, nearly 2,000 legislative workers risk losing their wages after Abbott slashed funding for their wages from the state budget in a punitive veto after Democratic lawmakers left in may. Lawmakers could restore funding during the current special session, if it wasn’t at a standstill with more than 50 Democratic House members in Washington.
A lawsuit filed by Democrats on behalf of legislative staff is pending in the Texas Supreme Court. It is not known when the court could make a decision.
Renee Conley, 52, said she attended the rally with her daughter, for whom she is fighting against the Texas voting bill. When she goes to vote, Conley said she brings her daughter to the polls so she can learn the process in preparation for when she can vote. Now Conley has said she worries that by the time her daughter goes to college, she won’t be allowed to vote if she only has a college ID.
“I’m here for his rights,” Conley said. “There is no reason why she should be threatened with not being able to vote. “