State Rep. Jessica González defends Democrats' walkout on Texas voting bill

What happens next to voting rights in Texas?

With the Texas legislative special session almost a week out, Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, said she is looking for honest and open conversations on voting rights policy, notably the future of Senate Bill 7.

The Republicans' priority voting legislation died during this year’s regular legislative session after Democratic lawmakers walked out of House chambers and broke quorum. Gov. Greg Abbott has said reviving it will be a key goal of the session that starts July 8. Provisions of the bill would limit early voting hours, increase vote-by-mail restrictions, and curb local voting options.

Texas Tribune Demographics Reporter Alexa Ura sat down with state Reps. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, and González to discuss the future of voting rights for Texans and their hopes for how Senate Bill 7 will play out in the special session.

Collier has represented House District 95 since 2013. She serves as chair of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. She also sits on the House Public Health Committee and serves as chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. Collier is a partner at West & Associates law firm in Fort Worth.

González is serving her second term representing District 104. She serves as vice-chair for the House Committee on Elections and also for the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus and the Human and Civil Rights Task Force of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators. She practices personal injury law at her firm, Gandara & González, PLLC, in Dallas.

Here are some highlights of the conversation, recorded June 29:

What was the end goal of the walkout? 

González said that by delaying the bill, Democrats hoped to give Congress the chance to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which might forestall restrictive election measures in Texas and other states. She said the walkout was a way to demonstrate how Democrats want an honest, serious conversation on the contents of this bill.

She hopes that there will be such conversations on policy going forward because “we didn't see that this last session.” The end goal for her would be a good voting elections policy that both sides can agree on.

“We just need to come together and have those conversations,” González said.

Have you talked to your Republican colleagues since that last day of session? Is there any idea of what a starting point might be? 

González said she hasn’t spoken to Republican colleagues about the specific contents of the bill, but mentioned a conversation with a Republican lawmaker who said Senate Bill 7 was a good bill, just misunderstood.

“That gives me the impression that it's probably not going to change too much,” González said.

In later versions, Senate Bill 7 included provisions that Democrats believe would hurt get-out-the-vote efforts by Black churches.

González said these provisions were added behind closed doors, and while Democrats wouldn’t have voted on early drafts of the bill, “It wasn't as awful as the final version that ended up coming through.”

Collier said it is important to recognize the provisions as a method of voter suppression. Although it isn’t as obvious as literary tests or whites-only primaries, the bill would limit voting options for individuals, she said.

“That is overt suppression, but there is subtle suppression,” Collier said.

She said people needed to know that Republicans are enacting legislation meant to limit voting access for Texans. Later versions of the bill also included provisions that would have made it easier to overturn elections, which Republican lawmakers later said was a drafting mistake.

If a bill were to pass in a special session that removed the provisions barring Sunday early voting hours and the part making it easy to overturn elections, would you see that as enough of a victory from the walkout? Assuming that the rest of it could be hashed out in court?

Collier said the walkout is “somewhat” of a victory because Texas is now part of a national conversation on voting rights.

“That gets us in the national spotlight,” Collier said. She said Republicans’ “underhanded maneuvers,” including stripping out of the bill some Democratic-sponsored amendments, are “going to be exposed if they continue to do this.”

What are the realistic things that you-all would want to see in the bill?

Collier said she introduced several unsuccessful measures to widen access for voters, including one that would have allowed people to track their vote-by-mail applications.

“That is making people feel secure because they want to know what their ballot is,” Collier said.

González added that it would be ideal to see efforts to allow individuals to use college or student identification as adequate identification to vote. She’s also hoping for a measure to require training for poll watchers and hold them accountable for violations.

“We need to allow the presiding judge of this election to be able to remove [poll watchers] who violate the policy,” González said.

She said there will also be bills to expand vote-by-mail eligibility to those who are immunocompromised or have health conditions that would put them at risk if they voted in person.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors.

This conversation was presented by Lone Star College and Texas State Technical College.

Tribune events are also supported through contributions from our founding investors and members. Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists or line of questioning.