What’s a Special Session Anyway?

The top of a city hall building accompanied by small text that says "EXPLAINER" and large text that says “Special Sessions"

If you’re following the voting rights news of the week, you’ve probably seen that the Texas Legislature convened for a special session on Thursday. Even though the state’s legislative year has ended, representatives in the state House are now going back to work for previously unscheduled days in order to pass legislation deemed high priority by the governor. Special sessions can mean the difference between bills passing or dying — and the circumstances under which they are called can spell the difference between protecting  or restricting voting rights. Today, we’ll explain what exactly a special session is and why they matter in the legislative process. 

What are special sessions?

The legislative calendar differs significantly from state to state, but most share a common structure. A legislature has a set number of days in a “session,” during which they can propose, debate and pass bills to send to the governor. If a bill does not pass before the end of the session, it will have to wait until the following year to be reintroduced. 

Most regular legislative sessions end before the summer, meaning that legislators stop work for the year around the same time that schools let out. As you might imagine, however, there can be a fair number of government priorities that legislatures don’t get around to tackling in just a few months of work — and if specific additional legislation still needs to be considered, the state government can convene for a special session.

Who can call a special session?

In 36 states, either the legislature or governor can call a special session. These sessions can take place whenever, but for the most part they are limited in their scope — the legislature may only debate the specific legislative priorities outlined when the special session was called. For these 36 states, this agenda can be set by either the governor or the legislature — meaning that if there is a divided government, branches controlled by either party can call their colleagues back to work in order to tackle pending legislation. In Hawaii right now, for example, the Hawaii Legislature has reconvened for a special session to override some of the governor’s vetoes. When either arm of government can call a special session, they both have a chance to pass priorities that were left off the table during the regular session — but in many states in the United States, this balance of power doesn’t exist. 

In the other 14 states, only the governor can call special sessions, giving the executive and the party that they represent an outsized influence on the legislative calendar. Governors can use this to their advantage, holding legislatures hostage to their own agenda and forcing them to return to work if the governor’s preferred bills are not passed during the regular session. While this has obvious disadvantages for the party that doesn’t hold the governorship, it can also lead to intra-party disagreements. In Texas earlier this year, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) tried to push for a special session after legislation he had championed failed in the state House. Gov. Greg Abbott (R), however, was not similarly motivated to see these bills advance at the time. In response to Patrick’s efforts, Abbott made clear the power that governors in these 14 states have over the special session process: “Not only am I the only one with the authority to call a special session, I get to decide when, and I get to decide what will be on that special session. And here’s what I would do if anybody tries to force this,” Abbott said. “The only thing I will put on there are things that I want passed.” 

What do this year’s special sessions mean for voting rights? 

Currently, there are five states in special sessions right now, and many are still wrapping up their regular sessions. Each state is tackling a different agenda, but we’re keeping our eyes on Texas. When calling the session, Abbott released the legislative agenda for the Texas Legislature — a list that included elections legislation, which is a high priority for the governor after Democrats walked out of the chamber in May and denied Republicans the quorum they needed to pass their omnibus voter suppression bill, Senate Bill 7. The new bill that Republicans hope to pass during the special session, House Bill 3, includes many provisions previously considered in the regular session of the Legislature, including criminalizing the proactive distribution of mail-in ballot applications, banning 24-hour and drive-thru voting and adding ID requirements to vote by mail. Although the bill number may be different, the special session allows Republicans another shot at the same suppression efforts they were prevented from passing in the spring. 

As lawsuits continue against voter suppression laws passed in the spring and Congress looks towards their impending recess, it’s vital to remember that Republican efforts to suppress the vote are still ongoing — and we must keep up the fight to protect voting rights no matter what. 

Keep up with updates coming out of the special session in Texas on our page dedicated to breaking news alerts.