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Voter Suppression, Deep in the Heart of Texas

May 17, 2024 2:36 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Written by Ryan O’Connell; edited by Marilyn Go, Jim Harbison and Jacki Swearingen

The demographics of Texas are shifting rapidly, as its booming cities draw waves of migrants attracted to the state’s growing economy, low taxes, and warm weather.

Between 2010 and 2020, Texas’ population grew by about 16% or four million people, and almost all of them (95%) were people of color. The change stemmed from births (50%) and people moving to Texas (50%). Half of the new residents came from other states (particularly California, Florida, and New York), and half from other nations. Mexicans represented 60% of the foreigners who moved to Texas.  

The main driver was a surge in the Latino population. The number of Texan Latinos rose 21% over that decade, and they accounted for half of the state’s population growth, according to Texas Redistricting and Congressional districts.  In 2020, the Latino share of the population was almost the same as that of whites (40%), and by 2022, it was slightly larger, according to updated figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.  

Here is the key takeaway: four out of 10 Texans are Latinos. 

The number of Black and Asian Texans increased rapidly, too, although from smaller bases.  In 2020 those groups constituted 11.8% and 5.4% of the population, respectively.  Meanwhile, the white population grew by only 2% in 2010-20.   

Source: Pew Research

Growth is Concentrated in The Big (Democratic) Cities  

Furthermore, almost 90% of the population growth has occurred in five major metropolitan areas:  Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio.  Rural areas and small towns, which tend to be whiter, either have had little growth or have lost population.  Since most Latinos, Blacks and Asians lean Democratic, four of those cities have become solidly blue.  The fifth city, Fort Worth, is an evolving political mix, but has essentially become purple.    

When Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat,  ran for governor against Greg Abbott in 2022, he carried Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, as shown in the chart below.  Fort Worth voters preferred Abbott to O’Rourke, but in 2020 Joe Biden carried the city by a razor-thin margin. Biden carried the other four cities by wide margins.

Source:  Dallas County Republican Party

The voters in these four cities have mostly elected Democratic or progressive leaders to local offices.  The mayors of Austin and Houston are Democrats, while the one in Austin is a progressive independent.  On the other hand, in 2023, the mayor of Dallas switched parties, becoming a Republican.  Fort Worth’s mayor is also a Republican.

But the Political Landscape Seems Frozen in Time

Despite these significant population shifts, the distribution of elected officials in the Texas state legislature and congressional delegation remains heavily skewed toward Republicans.  Not surprisingly, the Republican Party has retained its dominance, since the state has a unique political culture, and many rural and suburban areas are bastions of conservatism. 

There is a strong sense of Texas exceptionalism, shared by Texans of all political persuasions, based on the state’s huge size –it has an area the size of France—and its history as part of America’s frontier. In fact, Texas was a separate country for ten years, from 1836, when it gained its independence from Mexico, until it joined the United States in 1846.

Texans prize the virtues of self-reliance, independence, and grit.  Although these are admirable traits, the nostalgia for the frontier days and virtues cannot obscure the reality that most Texans live in large cities or the adjoining suburbs.  They work in a complex economy, with large technological and medical sectors as well as more traditional industries like oil and gas.  

In addition, many Texans are evangelical Christians, who are predominantly Republicans. Furthermore, turnout tends to be lower among Latinos and other minorities than among whites, partly because of obstacles to voting we will discuss below.      

Nonetheless, one would have expected Democrats to win a larger share of state and congressional districts as the number of Latino and other minority voting-age citizens increased significantly.   

Why hasn’t this happened?   

Fighting Demographic Change

The political establishment, seeing the handwriting on the wall in view of the changing demographic trends, has fought tenaciously to retain its hold on power.  Republicans have relied on two main techniques to disenfranchise minority voters:  gerrymandering and voter suppression laws.     

The entrenched party has redrawn election districts on a highly partisan basis to stack the deck against its opponents.  Republican lawmakers engaged in very aggressive gerrymandering in 2010 and again in 2021, as described by New York University’s Brennan Center for Law and Justice:

"Texas also enacted an extreme partisan gerrymander that insulates Republican rule against voter dissatisfaction. Under the new map, Democrats would have to win 58 percent of the popular vote in order to be favored to carry more than 37 percent of the state’s congressional seats. Put differently, even if Texas turned dark blue, Republicans could hold a two-to-one advantage in the state’s congressional caucus." 

Texas also has a long history of voter suppression and restrictive voting laws.  After the 2020 election its legislature adopted even more stringent measures as it sought to maintain one-party control.   We will discuss these in more detail below.  

Partisan Split in Texas 

Because Texas state officials do not collect or publish figures on voters’ political affiliation, precise numbers on Democratic and Republican voters are not available.

However, here is one possible indicator: since 1995. Republicans have won every race for governor, usually by wide margins. However, the close Senate race between Republican Ted Cruz and Democrat Beto O’Rourke in 2018 demonstrated the growing power of Democratic voters.  Cruz won re-election, but only by 2.6 percentage points.  

Since people of color have accounted for almost all the state’s population growth since 2010, it seems easy to assume that the percentage of Democratic voters has increased.  After all, Latinos still lean heavily toward the Democratic Party, according to Pew Research

Of course, many Latinos, like other Texans, are Republican, and the GOP may be attracting support from some Latinos concerned about inflation or border issues. But reports of a massive Latino swing toward the GOP in the Lone Star State are probably overblown. Black and Asian Americans remain overwhelmingly Democratic in their political views.    

Expanded Voting Options During Covid 

During the 2020 election, local officials in Houston and other metropolitan areas devised creative ways to make voting safer and easier during the Covid pandemic.   They established drive-through polling stations, which allowed citizens to cast their ballots from their cars.  They encouraged early voting and voting by mail as well as providing drop boxes where voters could deposit their ballots.  

These new options were particularly helpful for minority voters, most of whom were blue-collar and did not have flexible work schedules.  The drive-through polling stations and drop boxes were especially popular, since Houston is a huge, sprawling metropolis and commutes can be time-consuming.  These initiatives helped spur good turnout among voters despite the pandemic.  From a civic-minded point of view, these new approaches were a great success.  

However, the result did not please the state political establishment, since Joe Biden carried the large Texan cities.  

Setting The “Gold Standard” for Voter Suppression 

Many Republican lawmakers raised issues about alleged voting fraud in 2020, and several leading Texas politicians echoed Trump’s claims about a “stolen election”.   In 2021, state legislators enacted Senate Bill 1 (“S.B.1”), which eliminated or imposed severe restrictions on the expanded voting options.  The ostensible rationale for these measures was to protect “election integrity”.   

However, no significant voting fraud has occurred in Texas in recent years. [1]The goal, and the effect, of S.B.1 are to disenfranchise minority voters, particularly Latinos.  

The new law created numerous impediments to voting, including  

The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You

The last two items are particularly troubling, since Texas has a long history of minority voters being intimidated.   S.B.1 expands poll watchers’ right to move around and observe polling places, including the ballot transfer and tabulation process.  Furthermore, the law makes it a crime for election workers to refuse to accept credentialed workers. 

In addition, election workers cannot remove poll watchers for violating certain election laws, unless they have personally witnessed the conduct.  So if a partisan poll watcher --perhaps wearing a gun in a state with “open carry” laws-- threatens or intimidates Black or Latino voters and they complain to an election official, an election worker cannot take any action unless he or she sees the intimidation.   

S.B. 1 had a very tangible negative effect on the conduct of the 2022 primary election.  According to the Brennan Center, 12% of mail-in ballots were rejected for failing to satisfy the new requirements. That was a 12-fold jump in the rejection rate compared to 2020.  In some counties the initial rejection rate reached 40%.  The rejection rate for minority voters was much higher than that for whites.

Federal judges have already nullified certain provisions in S.B. 1 that pertain to assisting voters and mail-in ballots.  In a lawsuit challenging other provisions of S.B.1, the parties held closing arguments in February after a six-week trial before Federal District Judge Xavier Rodriguez in San Antonio.

Severe Restrictions on Reproductive Freedom

Since 2021, Texas has been one of the most restrictive states for reproductive freedoms, after Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation that banned terminating pregnancies after six weeks’ gestation, with rare exceptions that physicians say are unclear.  Doctors who violate the law can lose their medical licenses and face up to 99 years in prison.  This draconian measure exacerbates the state’s pre-existing physician shortage, especially for rural communities that need reproductive healthcare.

While Texas does not allow ballot initiatives, reproductive health is among the issues for Texans to consider as they head to the polls in November. Senator Ted Cruz, up for re-election, has been a staunch foe of abortion and transgender health care. Cruz supported the failed Life at Conception Act, which would have provided equal protection under the law to “preborn children” from the time of conception.  

Cruz has received endorsements from the Texas Alliance for Life, the Republican Party and Governor Greg Abbott.  Cruz’ Democratic opponent, Colin Allred, a three-term congressman, has cited freedom as a top issue, including reproductive freedom and freedom to vote. Allred’s endorsers include the Texas AFL-CIO and the Human Rights Campaign

Candidates’ stances on abortion in down-ballot races appear to conform strictly with their party affiliation, but the polls of likely voters reflect more nuanced views. Democrats  hope that abortion rights will be a winning issue that will drive voters to the polls. However, a recent University of Texas poll suggests that voters may consider border security and immigration more important issues.

What Can You Do?  

S. B. 1 has created a serious risk that Texas election vigilantes could intimidate voters or otherwise disrupt the election in November.  To help ensure that voters are treated fairly, you can volunteer to serve as a poll monitor.  Get in touch with Common Cause Texas.

You can also volunteer with Common Cause to contact voters who need information and support and to monitor social media, so you can report misinformation and disinformation about election issues.  You can fill the last two roles on a remote basis.  

You can also join Common Cause in advocating that Texas establish an online voter registration program.  Texas is one of the few states that does not have such a platform, which would make it easier for voters, including minority voters, to register.    

If you are a lawyer or a paralegal, you can volunteer for Election Protection, which provides advice to citizens who want to register to vote or who may encounter problems when they try to vote.  If you have a relative in law school, ask him or her to volunteer.  You can work from your office or home. EP provides training and materials on each state’s election laws and procedures.  Election Protection operates under the auspices of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a civil rights organization with about 100 partners.

Disability Rights Texas helps people with disabilities understand their voting rights, surveys polling places for accessibility, and works with election officials to ensure fair voting.

Mi Familia Vota is a national organization with a branch in Texas that is committed to empowering the Latino community and helping Latinos register and to vote.


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