Jessica Gonzalez, a state representative, is at the center of the state’s furor over Republican voting restrictions. She believes Democrats have both legal and political ways to hit back.,
She’s a Texas Democrat, Weighing How to Defend Voting Rights
Jessica Gonzalez, a state representative, is at the center of the state’s furor over Republican voting restrictions. She believes Democrats have both legal and political ways to hit back.
State Representative Jessica Gonzalez of Texas is the vice chair of the House Elections Committee in the state, which is at the middle of the debate over new voting rules.Credit…Texas State House
As Republicans in the Texas Legislature run roughshod over corporate opposition, public protests and Democratic objections to advance a voting restrictions bill to the brink of passage, State Representative Jessica Gonzalez, a two-term Democrat from near Dallas, has been at the forefront of the fight.
Ms. Gonzalez, the vice chair of the House Elections Committee, was the first lawmaker to challenge State Representative Briscoe Cain, the Republican sponsor of the voting bill and the chair of the committee, during the final debate over the bill in the chamber. She previously served as the Nevada voter protection director for former President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012.
We spoke to Ms. Gonzalez about the next steps in Texas and how she views the battle over voting rights writ large. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
OK, quickly: What’s next for the voting legislation in Texas?
So the House version of the “election integrity” bill was vastly different from the Senate version, indicating that both chambers had a different idea of what election integrity will look like. Whether both chambers come together and agree with what the final version looks like, I guess we’ll just wait and see.
Businesses, election officials, faith leaders and Democrats have all opposed the voting restrictions. What else can opponents do to stop the legislation?
Well, we’re still in session, and so fighting against some of these suppression bills hasn’t stopped. And if it goes to a conference committee [a panel of lawmakers who make final changes to legislation], we can be vigilant, and object to the changes made in conference if there are substantial differences, because they will move very quickly.
But I think that it was important and continues to be important for the business community and others to speak out in opposition. I think that definitely put some pressure on the folks that were supporting the bill.
This may be a bit of a hypothetical because we don’t know what the final version of the bill will be. But on what grounds, or under what statute, would legal challenges be made once it passed?
Well, a lot of that I’ll leave to the elections lawyers that have to lead litigation in these types of areas. But even just in being vice chair of the committee, there were lots of deviations from standard procedures and practices.
But it’s still a voter suppression bill. In my experience in working on Section 5 and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act — and obviously Section 5 doesn’t apply anymore — you can use those two standards on whether it’s the intent of the author to discriminate, or also the effect of it having a disparate impact on people of color who have historically been discriminated against.
And Texas has a long history of that. You can’t deny that. So I think that’s going to be where the strong argument is.
Looking at this bill and given your experience with the Obama campaign in 2012, what stands out here as something that could particularly restrict or limit voting?
A lot of the changes that my Republican colleagues argue for are about having uniformity throughout the state. Whether that is the amount of polling machines in every county — and you really can’t have uniformity when every county is different. Harris County is different than Loving County.
And so, in my experience in doing voter protection work, it’s important that these elections officials are able to administer their elections, because they’re the ones who are actually on the ground and able to address those issues.
Gov. Greg Abbott has made an election overhaul one of his “emergency priorities.” So expecting that he will want fellow Republicans in the Legislature to give him something to pass, how do you plan for future elections?
This session overall, a lot of members who have been here for years are saying that this is the worst session that they’ve served in. And I think people need to know that, and so messaging that to Texans — “Hey, this is what’s going on in your Capitol” — I hope will mobilize people to get out and vote.
So it’ll be incumbent on us to message that if these laws are put into place before the next election cycle, that they know what these new changes are, and hopefully that motivates them. So we can say: “Hey, this is what your vote means. If you don’t go vote, these are the folks that are representing you in Austin that are not making it easier for you to vote.”