As a native Texan and former civil rights lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, Rochelle Garza is running to be the state’s next attorney general, a vital statewide position that provides legal counsel to the state and defends state laws in court.
In her race, Garza is hoping to unseat current Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R), a full-on election denier who led the failed legal effort to overturn 2020 election results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In Texas, Paxton blocked the use of mail-in voting in Harris County, arrested and charged voters who did not know they were ineligible to vote and released legal guidance allowing anyone to examine ballots after the 2022 elections.
In Democracy Docket’s latest candidate Q&A of the 2022 cycle, Texas attorney general candidate Rochelle Garza discusses the potential effects of Senate Bill 1, Texas’ omnibus voter suppression law; provides her thoughts on the voter removal program in her home county of Cameron and leans on Taylor Swift for her go-to walk up song.
Responses have been edited for style and clarity.
Why is the attorney general crucial in the fight for voting rights and how would you use your position to protect Texas voters?
The Texas attorney general is supposed to be the people’s lawyer, and their job is to protect and defend the rights of all Texans. There is no right more critical to people than the right to vote, and Paxton has shown he is a threat to our democracy and our right to vote.
Paxton is the chief election denier in Texas. He sued to overturn the 2020 election, and he published an opinion that goes against state and federal laws and jeopardizes the security of our elections. His so-called “voter integrity unit” is actually a voter suppression unit, focused on enforcing the Texas GOP’s cruel voter suppression measures and targeting Black and brown voters in particular.
As attorney general, I will create a fully funded voting rights unit as part of my civil rights division that will combat the continued disenfranchisement of our Black and brown communities. I will ensure voting rights are protected in the courts if there are further attempts to make it harder for any Texan to cast their ballot.
The attorney general has immense power in using its office to enforce state laws. If elected, what would be your first course of action to mitigate the effects of S.B. 1?
S.B. 1 is another cruel tactic used by Texas Republicans to attack, suppress and intimidate voters. It significantly limits qualifications for mail-in voting, gives partisan poll watchers the ability to bully election workers and criminalizes anyone who tries to provide voter assistance. The effects of S.B. 1 will impact the entire state, but it will particularly have negative consequences on our most vulnerable Texans — senior citizens, people of color and people with disabilities.
In particular, S.B. 1 is a clear attack on voters with disabilities. Doing away with advances in voting accessibility — like drive-thru voting — is making a difficult process even more onerous. It’s also voter intimidation, creating criminal penalties for people who help others vote is meant to scare us.
Earlier this year, the Texas Republican Party approved its 2022 platform, which rejects the results of the 2020 presidential election, calls for repealing the Voting Rights Act and supports restricting ballot access. What do you make of this platform and what does it mean for future elections?
Texas Republicans have shown their true colors — they do not believe elections count when they lose. The right to vote in free and fair elections underpins our democracy. In order to protect our democracy and our freedoms, we need elected officials who will support and protect voting rights and the results of free and fair elections, — regardless of how they feel about the outcome. That’s why it’s so important for voters to pay attention to state and local races, and to vote for candidates who will govern with Texans’ best interests in mind. This race for Texas attorney general is so critical to protecting not only voting rights, but also the integrity of our elections because my opponent, Paxton, will use the power of his office to undermine both of those things every chance he gets.
In August 2020, Paxton successfully sued to block Harris County from sending mail-in ballots to all eligible voters, and later bragged that his efforts against mail-in voting for millions of Texans were the reason former President Donald Trump won in the state. Why are Republicans so intent on banning mail-in voting?
Experts agree that mail-in voting is incredibly safe and a great way to ensure that registered voters who may not be able to vote in person still have the ability to participate in our democratic process. Mail-in ballots may be used for a wide variety of reasons, and even some Republican voters — particularly in rural areas — have expressed concern that placing limitations on mail-in voting will negatively impact them.
The bottom line is that Republicans in Texas are taking a scorched-earth approach to voting, working to disenfranchise as many voters as they can, especially voters of color. They will use every mechanism they can to make it nearly impossible for us to vote, which means they can see the writing on the wall. Texans are tired of their leadership and they’re ready for change in our capitol.
In multiple instances, Paxton has gone after voters who did not know they were ineligible to vote, including charging and ordering the arrest of Hervis Rogers, a Black man who voted while on parole without knowing he was ineligible. How would you have approached a case like this?
Paxton’s decision to prosecute Mr. Rogers is exactly what we can expect from a criminally indicted attorney general who believes himself to be above the law, especially in light of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals making it clear he does not have the unilateral authority to prosecute violations of the election code.
The right to vote is one of the most sacred rights we have in this country and my vision for a voting rights unit as part of a civil rights division would work towards informing Texans of their right to vote (and under which circumstances) and curbing voter suppression. We should be making it easier for people to participate in our democracy, not working to disenfranchise them.
In January of this year, Cameron County, where you’re from, agreed to halt a voter removal program that was removing individuals from the voter rolls who were suspected to not be citizens. What do you make of this program, and if elected AG, how would you use your office to address an issue like this?
My campaign actually helped bring this issue to light after some people in my community started receiving uncertified letters from the secretary of state’s office notifying them that they would be purged off the voter rolls if they didn’t respond within 30 days. It was extremely worrisome because some of these people had been U.S. citizens for years and had been voting for years. The citizenship data being used by Cameron County was old, but nevertheless, more than 2,000 voters were purged by November 2021.
As Texans, we need to coalesce on the issue of voter suppression and combat it for the sake of our democracy.
In August, Paxton released a legal opinion that allows anyone to examine ballots right after elections. What are your thoughts on the opinion he released and what effect it may have on this year’s elections in Texas?
Paxton’s opinion to allow ballots to become public after 24 hours is incredibly dangerous and a real threat to the legitimacy of our elections. It also goes against state and federal law, which requires that ballots be held securely for 22 months after elections.
Election officials in Texas are the nonpartisan backbone of our electoral system, and they’re already under attack by extremists. In fact, every single election official in one rural Texas county, Gillespie County, has resigned due to the threats and intimidation they’ve received from violent election deniers.
The job of the attorney general is to protect and defend the rights of Texans, and that includes our right to vote. Instead of stepping in to protect those public servants, Paxton is one of the loudest election deniers in the country, and the example he’s setting is putting the lives of public servants in danger.
Favorite way to vote?
Early and with my whole family! It’s a family tradition to vote on the first day of early voting and to go together. Now that I’m a mom, I’m starting to take my daughter with me — her first visit to a voting booth had her mother’s name on the ballot. I was so proud to have her with me in my runoff election for attorney general in May.
If you weren’t running for office, what would you be doing?
I’d continue practicing civil rights law and organizing in my community like I did before I decided to run for office.
Go-to walk up song?
Bad Blood by Taylor Swift.
Most underrated fact about Texas?
The Annual Charro Days Fiesta! Brownsville, Texas is home to the festival that celebrates the relationship between Mexico and the United States through the lens of the sister cities of Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico. The cities share the Rio Grande River/Rio Bravo. It is a celebration that lasts several days, involving music, food, contests, dances and a famous Mexican dignitary named “Mr. Amigo,” or “Mr. Friend,” that officiates events (in 2020, it was famous Mexican boxer Julio Cesar Chavez!).