“If we roll in there for a special session that is all about attacking Texans of color, it’s going to be pretty hard to keep us in the building.”
—Texas state Representative Erin Zwiener (D)
The state of voting rights in the U.S. is in tatters: As of mid-June, 17 states have enacted 28 new laws that restrict voting access—making 2021 a record-setting year.
In a year of rampant voter suppression, Texas wins in the race to the bottom: Voting laws in the Lone Star State are the most restrictive in the country, according to an index compiled by political scientists at Northern Illinois University, Jacksonville University and Wuhan University in China. Unsurprisingly, voter turnout in Texas is also among the worst in the country.
The fight for voting rights in Texas will reach a new flash point this week: In mid-June, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) called for a special legislative session, which begins Thursday, July 8. While the governor has yet to signal the exact issues “on call,” many believe the session will surround two points of contention amidst a wild 2021 legislative session: voting rights and Abbott’s controversial decision to defund the legislative body’s budget as a punishment to the Texas Democrats who walked out and successfully killed Senate Bill 7, an extreme voting rights bill.
One such Democrat is state Representative Erin Zwiener (D)—one of only 48 women currently serving out of 181 Texas legislators, and one of the 179 women to have ever served in the legislature since the state’s founding. (Compare that to the 5,444 men elected to serve.)
Zwiener hails from District 45, which includes the Austin suburbs of Johnson City, Buda and Wimberley. Elected in 2018, Zwiener unseated former incumbent Republican Jason Isaac and campaigned while pregnant. She’s the current chair of the Caucus on Climate, Environment and the Energy Industry and one of the founding members of the first LGBTQ Caucus in the Texas legislature.
Recently, Zwiener’s colleagues met with Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia on June 16 to discuss the urgency of passing both the For the People Act (HR 1) and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act (HR4). Zwiener and her colleagues continue to be in constant communication with Manchin’s office.
As Texas approaches the start of its special session, the tension following Abbott’s veto on legislative funding is still at the forefront of many Texas Democrats’ minds and the pressure for federal legislation to protect state-level voting rights continues to build.
Zwiener joined Ms. digital editor Roxy Szal for a conversation about what to expect throughout this special session, how she and other Democrats are fighting growing Trumpism among state legislative bodies, and what Texas Democrats are up to next in their attempts to protect the right to vote for all Texans.
Roxy Szal: I wanted to talk to you specifically about the special legislative session starting this Thursday. I’m located in Austin, so it hits close to home for me, but frankly all eyes are on Texas.
Can you expand on the special legislative session a bit for Ms. readers? What are the rules of a special session? How many days do you anticipate it will run? What can we expect?
Rep. Erin Zwiener: Our normal legislative sessions are 140 days, January through May in odd-numbered years. A special session has to be called by the governor, who decides what issues we work on. We use the phrase “on call”—as in, what issues are on call? We have 30 days in a special session to pass bills, and our timelines are condensed, so we can do everything a bit faster.
What makes this special session unusual is that the governor has called us back but hasn’t told us what bills are on call—that is, what issues we can pass bills on. So, we’re all in a bit of a holding pattern to see what issues he’s going to bring up.
Now, we have some suspicions based on public statements. At the end of May within hours of the session concluding, Texas Democrats walked out of the Texas House using the rules to deny a quorum. We have to have two-thirds of the members present to conduct business. We walked out to kill this really bad voter suppression bill [Senate Bill 7]. We expect the governor will bring that bill back.
He has also said he wants to bring back legislation to make it more difficult for folks to get out [of jail] on a personal recognizance bond [which means they don’t have to pay bail] and more difficult for charitable organizations to help people pay bail.
In addition, [Gov. Abbott] has also said he wants to bring back legislation designed to punish social media companies for de-platforming our former president, and he has mentioned wanting to bring back legislation he says addresses teaching critical race theory in schools—legislation that would gag the ability of our educators to talk about race and current events.
We also anticipate he will bring up funding for Article 10—the funding for the legislative branch. The governor used his veto power to veto the entire Article 10 budget, and said it was because we had walked out on the elections bill. That’s sort of this weird Sword of Damocles hanging over the legislature’s head.
The way the governor framed it was that it was about not having to pay for people who didn’t do their job. Democrats would take a few issues with that—one, it’s our job to represent our constituents, and we were absolutely representing our constituents by blocking that bad bill from passing.
The second issue we have with it is, I make $600 a month as a legislator. It’s not about my pay nearly as much as it’s about pay for legislative staff, the folks who do our constituent services, helping people with unemployment insurance. The governor keeps trying to make it about 181 legislators, but it’s really about over 2,100 state employees and the money for their salaries, their health insurance, their benefits, and the work they do to serve the people of Texas. All of them, and more, are defunded through this veto.
The governor’s veto of the legislature’s budget strikes at the heart of this principle for two reasons:
1. He’s materially interfering with the legislature’s ability to do our jobs.
2. He’s using it as a threat to attempt to to coerce us into a particular action.
— Erin Zwiener (@ErinForYall) June 19, 2021
Szal: I can’t stop thinking about that walkout in early June that caused the House to lose its quorum and subsequently derailed Senate Bill 7—which might rear its head again on Thursday. I think part of the beauty of that strategy was its simplicity. So, I’m wondering, in a special session, can you employ the same strategy? Does it require a quorum?
Can Senate Democrats filibuster, kind of like that infamous Wendy Davis filibuster in 2013? Is that allowed?
What can we expect or should we keep an eye out for?
Zwiener: We’ve discussed our options as a caucus—we’ve agreed all tools are on the table. What we actually end up doing has a lot to do with whatever this election bill looks like, and what other issues are put forward and how bad those issues are.
This past regular session was a tough one for Texas Democrats. From a statewide context perspective, we had the closest presidential results [in 44 years]. But in a year that was pretty decent for Republicans on the ground, we held on.
It’s been wild to see: A lot of my embattled Republican colleagues who survived, survived by campaigning as moderates and focusing on education and health care—so it is perplexing to come back to the building and have the focus mostly be on these culture war divisive issues.
I think Texans still don’t fully understand how extreme this session got—but we banned abortion, effectively, in Texas. It has the nice name of the “heartbeat bill,” but what it is, is an effective ban on all abortions, and the only exception is a medical emergency. There’s no exception for rape or incest; no exception for a terminal fetal diagnosis. It’s a cruel bill.
“This past regular session was a tough one for Texas Democrats … But in a year that was pretty decent for Republicans on the ground, we held on. … Texans still don’t fully understand how extreme this session got—but we banned abortion, effectively, in Texas.”
We passed legislation to remove some of our last remaining safety protections for firearms: the requirement that you need to go through safety training and a background check to be able to carry in public. We targeted cities who tried to become more creative with their police budgets. We already passed some legislation to gag our educators from discussing race. We expect more to come.
It was a really punishing session, and it was particularly hard on Texans of color, who were targeted again and again, whether it was conversations about policing, or critical race theory, or elections—and this really reached a head for us with the elections bill because it did specifically target communities of color, and it was based on a lie that massive voter fraud cost Trump the election.
It makes even less sense in a state like Texas, where Trump won, and our own secretary of state has described it as the safest and most secure election we’ve ever had in Texas. It’s just a giant dog whistle of a bill.
Specific provisions [of Senate Bill 7] would have ended ‘Souls to the Polls’ voting efforts programs, where Black churches on Sundays bring Texans to vote. Others would have made it impossible for an election judge to remove a poll watcher who was intimidating voters. And in the middle of session, there a was a video that leaked of a Republican Harris County precinct chair talking about how he needed people from these areas—and he circled the majority white areas of Harris County—to come to these areas—and circled majority Black areas—“if they have the courage,” because that’s where he said all the voter fraud is happening.
Those words, “if you have the courage”—it’s not implicit. It’s explicit, and people are trying to dress it up on the floor. So if we roll in there for a special session that is all about attacking Texans of color, it’s going to be pretty hard to keep us in the building. That’s not work we’re interested in doing.
I will say it is much easier to break quorum for an hour and a half than it is for 30 days. [During the walkout], we used delay tactics all day long. I personally called several points of order—where you use House rules to say there’s a problem with the bill and slow it up. Other people called points of order as well, asked questions, had conversations, spoke against the bill or the resolution, and that bought us more time. When we finally decided it was the right call to go, we only needed to be gone an hour and a half before the entire regular session was over.
Thirty days is much tougher. There are folks who have jobs that require them to be in the state, folks that have families. I have a 3-year-old. For us, to practically break quorum, it means more than 50 of us getting out of the state and staying out of the state. Does that mean it’s off the table? Absolutely not. It just means we are going to try and look for a solution forward, partially because the governor can keep calling special session after special session.
“It was a really punishing session, and it was particularly hard on Texans of color, who were targeted again and again, whether it was conversations about policing, or critical race theory, or elections—and this really reached a head for us with the elections bill because it did specifically target communities of color, and it was based on a lie that massive voter fraud cost Trump the election.”
Szal: What are you hoping for on Thursday?
Zwiener: We hope folks will be willing to work with us. We also hope that us walking out this last time and the work that a lot of my colleagues did by traveling to D.C. and meeting with the members of Congress will create enough pressure on the federal government to act—because we just don’t have the votes here to block the bill. We have one Republican who is willing to go against the bill, and that’s it: Lyle Larson from San Antonio.
“We also hope that us walking out this last time and the work that a lot of my colleagues did by traveling to D.C. and meeting with the members of Congress will create enough pressure on the federal government to act—because we just don’t have the votes here to block the bill.”
Szal: What are the financial or political interests you believe are behind Abbott and the Republicans pushing these restrictions?
Zwiener: Trump conspiracy theories are behind this. There is a very real tension in Texas between the business interests that align with the Republican Party and some of the far-right reactionary politics we’ve seen rise up since the Tea Party. I don’t think this is a straight business interest.
Now, I think some folks on the business side think it may help Republicans hang onto power, and therefore, are supportive, but I think this is more driven by the Trump wing of the party.
— Erin Zwiener (@ErinForYall) May 31, 2021
Szal: Do you think all Republican elected officials really believe in the Big Lie, or they’re just kind of going along with it? Why won’t more Republicans stand up against these restrictions? Where are the rest of the Lyle Larsons?
Zwiener: I think it’s them catering to their primary base, and that’s a fundamental dynamic we have going on in the building, right now.
We’re going into redistricting, which means a couple things. One, Republican hubris is at a very high-level—they think because they’ll be able to redraw the map, they will be unbeatable and don’t have to worry about persuading swing voters.
That’s a mistake because there’s some areas that are always going to be tricky for them to defend, and that’s in our urban counties: Dallas and Houston. They are always going to have swing districts there. They can’t get out of it.
Then in the suburbs, like my county, Hays, as well as Williamson County, Fort Bend County, Tarrant—which is where Forth Worth is—Denton County, Collin County … those are all really competitive counties for them, and those are going to continue to be places where their members are embattled.
But they’re not thinking about that as much because they’re thinking: We can draw the maps, we can protect ourselves—and that might be true for a cycle or two, but it’ll catch back up to them as growth continues in the suburban and urban areas.
“They’re thinking: We can draw the maps, we can protect ourselves—and that might be true for a cycle or two, but it’ll catch back up to them as growth continues in the suburban and urban areas.”
The second reason redistricting is a big factor is that you have this heightened sense of vulnerability to primary challenges, because the lines change—maybe you pick up a new county, maybe you lose a county, but you end up having new people to challenge you.
Particularly in rural areas in West Texas and East Texas, a couple Republican members are going to have to get drawn in with each other because the population growth out there hasn’t kept up. You can see people in neighboring districts and the areas that haven’t had as much population growth, compete with each other for who will be the most conservative. So, they’re all campaigning for their primary election—and there are very, very few Republicans in the building who are willing to break on these high-profile issues with the party.
Larson is someone who’s established his independence for a long time and is confident in his flexibility with that, but most of them aren’t.
“There are very, very few Republicans in the building who are willing to break on these high-profile issues with the party.”
Szal: I listened to a Texas Tribune session last week with state Reps. Nicole Collier and Jessica González, and they implied that they haven’t given up completely on finding some sort of buy-in from the other side in terms of voting reform that might be bipartisan.
I know that you are a big proponent of the For the People Act. But while we wait for that: Are there any small, realistic, reasonable changes that would make the biggest difference? On a small level and in the short-term, where do you see room for small changes to voting rights legislation that could make a big impact immediately and that are realistic?
Zwiener: I remain hopeful about the legislation around [accepting university IDs as a form of voting ID]. I actually filed that bill. We filed it as House Bill 160 this session, and we got it voted out of committee for the first time, and we had two Republicans join the Democrats in voting that bill out of the committee: Jacey Jetton and Travis Clardy. I’m planning to file that bill again and see if we can get it moving.
When Senate Bill 7 came through the House, it picked up a really important amendment that Representative John Bucy worked on, which said that somebody who tries to vote, who thinks they’re eligible, can’t be charged with a felony if their vote is not counted. That’s targeting Crystal Mason, who is doing a five-year sentence because she [cast a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release for a federal conviction]. Mason said she did not know she was ineligible to vote, and her ballot was never counted—but she’s doing five years in prison. Representative Bucy’s amendment would have removed that overly harsh penalty for someone whose vote was never counted, who thought they were eligible. We don’t want to throw the book at people because of paperwork confusion, and that confusion is real. Fixing that over-criminalization would make a huge difference.
Another thing we could do is have better information online about vote-by-mail ballots. I’m originally from Texas, but I went to graduate school in Arizona, where they have universal access to vote-by-mail, and one of the best things you can do is go online, look yourself up, see if you have the correct information, and see the status of your ballot-by-mail—whether it’s been mailed to you, if it’s been received, accepted. That’s something that would help with both election security, because you could see if somebody requested a ballot on your behalf; and election access, because people do get their applications for ballot-by-mail lost in the mail, never have the ballot arrive, and are confused. People in Texas get their signatures unconfirmed, and right now, county voter registrar or county election officials are not required to contact people in a timely fashion for them to correct it and be able to vote.
Those provisions would make sure that people know their vote-by-mail ballot was received and accepted—so if it’s not, they can correct it, and also allow them to see if somebody is attempting to commit fraud using their name.
The one I wish had a possibility of bipartisan support, that we get so much pushback against, is online voter registration—it just makes sense. Most states have it, and it reduces the workload at our county elections’ offices because we’re not having to manually enter things from paper cards for everyone. It’s easier. It’s more accessible. It also reduces errors. The reason we have such strong Republican opposition to it is because they know young people will use it to get registered. It makes it easier, and therefore, folks are opposed.
In terms of things that are really important to Republicans, there have been conversations about ensuring tracking of the physical ballots or the data cards—that’s something I don’t think Democrats have a major problem with. We want to make sure if we’re putting really onerous requirements on our smaller counties, we’re helping them fund it. There’s been talk about live streaming a video of the ballot box. If we require something like that, we are going to have to help small, rural counties get the equipment for that.
The space is there, but we need folks to be willing to come to the table with us. And what was so difficult about this past session is we did come to the table to work with Republicans in the House and passed a bill that we didn’t like, we couldn’t vote for, but we could live with—and it went over to the Senate and disappeared from our view.
They came out with the final version at the last minute: a 200-page report we had just over 24 hours to review as a body. There were 20 pages of entirely new provisions that were not contained in either the Senate version of the House version of the bill, including ending the ‘Souls to the Polls’ voting efforts by not allowing voting on Sundays before 1 p.m., and a new provision that would’ve allowed district judges to overturn election results without any proof that fraud had occurred—an incredibly dangerous provision that now we have Republicans saying they don’t know where it came from. The Republicans in the House have also claimed that the provision saying you can’t vote before 1 p.m. on Sundays was a mistake, and it was supposed to read 11.
It’s been a very wild ride, but they tried to push through a bill that was an extremist wish list after we had negotiated in good faith. I think one of the challenges my Republican colleagues are going to have is trust has been damaged.
Earlier this month I visited Independence Hall, where our nation’s founders established the principles of our government.
— Erin Zwiener (@ErinForYall) June 25, 2021
Szal: I wanted to ask about that meeting with Senator Manchin (D-W.V.). Your colleagues essentially got him to change his mind on the For the People Act, HR 1. I’m wondering: How and why did that work? And are Texas legislators still in touch with Manchin about HR 1 or the John Lewis Act, HR 4?
Zwiener: Yes; several of my colleagues are still in touch with him and his office.
What made the difference is us talking to him about what things are like on the ground in Texas. That’s something that people in other states find unbelievable until they have somebody credible sitting across from them, walking them through it. Manchin was actually startled to hear that you could use a concealed carry permit to vote in Texas but couldn’t use a state university ID.
He was very alarmed by the provisions limiting Sunday voting and the provisions allowing a district judge to overturn election results, as well as the provisions that would’ve empowered voter harassment and taken away tools from election judges to protect their voters. We as Democrats were trying to work in good faith but got railroaded—and it made an impression that there are things that states like Texas are going to need help from D.C. on.
I remain hopeful that something in Congress budges on the For the People Act. I also understand they are going to start doing a robust series of hearings on the John Lewis Voting Rights Act; that’s what we need. Quite frankly, and what we need here in Texas is, most of all, that Voting Rights Act because we need to back under preclearance. The moment Texas left preclearance, we started passing laws limiting people’s access to the polls.
An example of restrictive ID:
— Erin Zwiener (@ErinForYall) June 17, 2021
Szal: What do you want Texans to do to advocate for voting rights? What do you think is the best use of their time? If we have readers that are going to read this and aren’t in Texas, what can they be doing?
Zwiener: If you’re in Texas, I want you to come down to the Capitol [on Thursday, July 8]. There are going to be big demonstrations to show up for our freedom to vote, and we need people there to make an impression. We need to show Texas leaders how mad Texans are about this issue, and we need to show national leaders how large a contingent we have of folks who are willing to fight back and who are asking for their help.
We will have a hearing on this bill at some point. We don’t know exactly when, but when that hearing’s announced, and they only have to give 48 hours’ notice in a special session, we need Texans to come and testify about why this bill is bad for them.
I know you and I have talked a lot about the race factor, but the other piece in this bill that’s really heinous are provisions that make it harder for Texans with disabilities to vote. It restricts who they can ask to help them—just arbitrary rules. I hope we have a really strong contingent of folks coming out to talk about how the bill affects them, whether it’s the heightened criminal penalties making them nervous to go out and register voters, whether it’s folks who’ve helped people with vote-by-mail applications worried about their activities being criminalized, or people who are worried about loss of access themselves. We need to send a strong message at those hearings and at demonstrations in advance of those hearings.
If you don’t live in Texas, reach out to your senators. Reach out to your U.S. representatives and tell them that we need a national reform so that Republicans in states like Texas, who see their margins eroding, don’t try and suppress their way into election victories.