In Texas, a filibuster for the digital age

Twitter. Videostreams. Liveblogs. And a group effort to figure out what the heck happened amid the #StandWithWendy chaos

AUSTIN, TX — At 10 minutes to midnight Tuesday evening, tempers in the Texas Senate finally boiled over. On the floor, Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) was fighting with every parliamentary knife in Robert’s Rules of Order to both challenge the latest ruling from the chair and to buy time.

That’s when the gallery erupted in shouts and screams that drowned out all other noise. Time was of the essence for Republicans who favored some of the sharpest new restrictions on abortion in the nation, and for the handful of Democrats who opposed them—led by Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Ft. Worth), who had launched a grueling filibuster more than 12 hours earlier.

And for reporters, the battle to cover a fight over one of the nation’s most divisive issues was reaching its peak. But it turned out to be not so much a contest of one news outlet against one another (though there were some definite media standouts) as against the Senate itself. In an era when it’s reasonable to worry about government watching us through the eerie lens of social media, citizens and journalists used streaming video, live-blogging, and Twitter in a collaborative exercise to help each other watch what government was doing in the literal dead of night—and to ferret out what the hell had just happened.

So when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican, tried to ram the bill through—claiming a roll call to pass the legislation came before constitutionally-mandated midnight deadline—the moment may not have been captured on cable news, but a state, and a nation, was watching. And when the official record on the legislature’s website was changed to show the vote getting in under the wire, screenshots flagging the alteration immediately began circulating on Twitter. Nearly three hours later, the galleries cleared, protesters still outside, Dewhurst would reverse himself. The bill, which would have outlawed abortion after 20 weeks and placed new regulatory restrictions on clinics that critics said would restrict the procedure to a handful of major facilities in big cities, died—for now.

A ‘dreadfully dull’ livestream is set ablaze

Texas is, in a way, home to both today’s constitutionally protected reproductive rights and the divisive controversy that continues to surround them. A Texas woman, Norma McCorvey, known under the legal pseudonym of Jane Roe, was the plaintiff against Dallas County Attorney Henry Wade in Roe v. Wade, decided by the Supreme Court in 1973. (McCorvey would later become an anti-abortion activist.)

Forty years later, the state’s conservative legislative majority is at the forefront of efforts to impose restrictions on abortion; proposals to do so had percolated in the House throughout this year’s legislative session. But pro-choice Democrats comprise just over a third of the Senate, which by custom gave them enough votes to keep a measure from coming to the floor in that chamber.

When Republican Gov. Rick Perry convened a special session and announced that the abortion bill was among his top priorities, however, confrontation hung in the air. As Texas Monthly’s Sonia Smith noted in a sharp June 19 story, at the start of the special session the Republican majority had scrapped the longstanding rule that allowed Democrats to have a say on what made it to a vote on the Senate floor. A few days later, after the measure cleared the House, her Monthly colleague Paul Burka observed that on this issue, there was no middle ground to be found: “What is true of abortion is true of all the social issues: They can’t be debated. They can only be argued and argued and argued.”

In fact, endless argument—a traditional marathon filibuster—was now the Democrats’ only weapon. In the US Senate, filibusters are routinely used to block legislation, but “talking filibusters” are so rare that when Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) launched one earlier this year to raise questions about the Obama administration’s use of drones for targeted killing, it became a social media sensation. When Wendy Davis rose to the Senate floor in Austin Tuesday, she had a very specific goal in mind: to run out the clock on the abortion bill. But she was also, like Paul, creating a media event.

“This was the first long filibuster in the social media age in Texas,” said Ross Ramsey, executive editor of The Texas Tribune.

Twitter would play a huge role as the night went on—but only because everyone could see what was happening. And that was possible because the Tribune, alone among news organizations, had secured a live video feed of the Legislature under a contract begun just this year. The video was the building block of everything else Tuesday night. Dubbed LiveStream, it relies upon state cameras and microphones on chamber floors and in some committee rooms. I’ve watched it before. It’s like C-SPAN: usually informative, and usually dreadfully dull. As Brian Stelter of The New York Times wrote on Twitter, the stream “sat on YouTube, mostly ignored, for months. Until the stream was set ablaze.”

On Tuesday, the drama of the moment and the emotional power of abortion—whatever side of the divide one occupies—drew people to the video feed like moths to a flame. As day turned into night and night wore on, and activists alerted each other and everyday people took interest, the usual trickle of viewers swelled into a river of 54,000. “Amazing,” tweeted Evan Smith, the Tribune’s CEO and editor-in-chief. Then there were 100,000 viewers—just on the Tribune site. Elsewhere, far-flung news organizations like The Washington Post were embedding the video on their own sites. Then the river became a torrent of about 200,000 viewers to the Tribune site alone, according to Ramsey—in the middle of the night. (CJR’s Ann Friedman has an interview with Smith about the livestream and other elements of the Trib’s coverage here.)

Meanwhile, on the floor, Republicans had objected to Davis getting help putting on a back brace, and to her discussion of Roe v. Wade and a Texas law on sonograms as not germane to the bill at hand. With three such objections sustained by Dewhurst, she was in danger of being cut off, and Democrats turned to other strategies to run out the clock. On their liveblogs, the Tribune and The Dallas Morning News recorded every procedural twist and turn.

But the updates slowed as midnight approached. Increasingly the state’s leading news outlets simply posted the video on their home pages. Developments were moving too fast. The Austin American-Statesman flirted with its very own “Dewey Beats Truman” moment: even as its reporters kept up with events on a liveblog, at 12:16 am the headline on the paper’s homepage still declared, “Challenge upheld; Davis’ filibuster all but over.”

By that point, the Senate had voted along straight party lines—though over exactly what was unclear amidst the shouting from the gallery. Was it a Republican objection to end the filibuster? Was it the bill itself? Had the vote—whatever it was about—come before midnight?

Fuming senators disappeared from the floor into a closed-door caucus, and Twitter lit up even more, as journalists, citizens, and advocates described the scene, tracked what politicians were saying had happened, and tried to suss out what had actually happened. “Have seen nothing like this in #texaslege in 22 years. Not even close. Waiting for someone to yell ‘Attica,’” tweeted Smith (168 retweets). “If Dewhurst can assert that it passed, I can assert that it didn’t. I believe I was closer to the dais at the time,” tweeted Texas Monthly’s Erica Greider (93 retweets). A minute later, Greider again: “From what I saw on the Senate floor, the last roll call vote was a motion to have a vote on #SB5, ie end discussion, not a vote on the bill” (200 retweets).

Around the same time, a pair of images began circulating on Twitter—screenshots from the Texas Legislature Online site showing a vote on the bill recorded on Wednesday and then, nine minutes later, altered to show the vote on Tuesday, before midnight. “TLO sheet has been edited!” Smith tweeted. The Tribune’s Ramsey had the screenshots, too. Soon, a tweet from the main Tribune account: “The Senate’s revisionists are very fast. Nine minutes earlier, these showed the record votes on 6/26” (1,366 retweets).

Inside the Senate, the jig was just about up. “TexasSens say timestamp issue proved the end of #SB5,” tweeted the Statesman’s Mike Ward. “No way around it.” If the bill was passed after midnight, it would certainly be subject to a lawsuit as unconstitutional. Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak posted on Twitter: “Source inside TX Senate caucus tells me #SB5 will be ruled to have been voted late.” Shortly after 2 am, the Houston Chronicle’s Peggy Fikac tweeted: “Re report that SB5 didn’t pass: Sen West said, ‘you’re on the right road.’” Greider, who had earlier posted a photo of print-outs showing the altered time record, tweeted reports from the floor: “Vote happened at 12:03.”

To be even more precise, the official time stamp read 12:03:14 am, Ramsey would tell me Wednesday. Ramsey believes that the Senate acted honestly to invalidate the vote once the true time emerged, though the change on the Texas Legislative Office’s website remains something of a mystery.

A little after 3 am, senators flooded back into the chamber; the tall, patrician-looking Dewhurst gaveled them back to order and announced that the abortion bill had not passed before the midnight deadline. He turned to leave the dais, but then stooped back to the microphone one more time and grinned: “It’s been fun but see ya soon.” Later, he told reporters, according to the Statesman: “An unruly mob, using Occupy Wall Street tactics, disrupted the Senate from protecting unborn babies.”

The long night in Austin was over—but not the debate. The sun came up and the temperature soared. Later Wednesday, Perry called the legislature back into a second special session at the pink-domed capitol. By then, the Morning News’s Christy Hoppe had perhaps the best recap of the crazy night, under a simple headline: “About Last Night: How the Abortion Bill Failed.”

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Richard Parker is an award-winning journalist and the author of Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America, from Pegasus Books. Follow him on Twitter @Richard85Parker. Tags: , , , , , ,