The Poll Truth
Fewer than one in three eligible Texans votes. Is this any way to run a democracy?
There’s one prediction about next month’s election you can take to the bank: Texans won’t show up. We’ve never been prolific voters, but over the past decade our turnout relative to the rest of the country has trended downward, finally bottoming out in the last midterm election at the lowest rate of any state. That’s right: Texas, where no politician seems capable of completing a sentence without dropping “freedom” into it, now sits at the end of the bench when it comes to the actual exercise of democracy’s fundamental freedom. In 2010 fewer than one in three Texans eligible to vote weighed in on a sweeping transfer of power to an unprecedentedly conservative faction of the Republican party.
Yet at the same time that Texans are preparing not to vote, the State of Texas is appealing a voting rights case to the U.S. Supreme Court that, if decided in the state’s favor, will have the demonstrated effect of further reducing our already abysmal turnout, particularly among Hispanics, who are responsible for most of our vaunted population increase. With the national Republican party seemingly intent on building a permanent majority with an increasingly small minority of eligible voters, Texas is once again leading the way. So on this election eve, it’s only fair to ask, “Is Texas a democracy?” And by the 2014 gubernatorial election, it’s all too likely that the answer will be an unequivocal “No.”
It should be noted at the outset that conservative Texas Democrats wrote the book on maintaining a single-party monopoly, perfecting over more than a century the venerable practices of gerrymandering and voter suppression. The former, which requires creatively drawing legislative districts to include a critical mass of sympathetic voters, is high art in Texas, where Democrats concocted districts that allowed them to win a majority of Texas’s congressional seats as recently as 2002, though for almost a decade Republicans had been beating them by double digits in statewide races. However, Texas Republicans have quickly mastered the technique, and their 2011 redistricting plan, rejected in late August by a U.S. district court as discriminating against minority voters, is now headed to the Supreme Court, setting the stage for what could be a landmark decision on voting rights.
Also rejected in the same week by another panel of federal judges, and possibly slated for the Supremes, is Texas’s spanking new voter ID law, which is the GOP’s attempt to catch up with Texas Dems’ storied history of vote-suppressing Jim Crow laws—such as the poll taxes that were devised to keep African Americans from voting Republican back when the party of Lincoln was anathema to white Southerners. Citing the expense and difficulty of obtaining a state-mandated picture ID, which would have to be presented in order to vote, the court said the Texas law is discriminatory because it “imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty.”
If taken up by the Supreme Court, both cases will test Section 5 of Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires states with a history of racial discrimination to submit any changes to their voting laws for “preclearance” by either the Department of Justice or the federal courts before they can be put into effect. Under the aegis of Attorney General Greg Abbott, Texas presented cases to the district court that were so flat-footed, if not outright incompetent, that one might suspect a rope-a-dope strategy on the AG’s part: lose in the lower courts, only to share the winners’ kudos when the Supreme Court strikes down Section 5 as unconstitutional—which a court that has done more to secure the political rights of corporations than those of people is well-disposed to do. If that’s the case, Abbott will win on two fronts, because if he runs for governor in 2014, he’ll do so in a state where the ruling party can suppress minority turnout with almost no accountability.
Of course, in that event, our state’s leaders will finally be able to assure us that we’re protected against what conservatives see as endemic voter impersonation—an alleged crime wave (Rick Perry called the voter ID decision “another victory for fraud”) that has resulted in the attorney general’s office winning a mere three convictions or guilty pleas since 2008 and seems quite manageable under existing law. And Section 5 preclearance will be declared a needless anachronism that unfairly burdens Southern states where racial discrimination is supposedly an evil of the past, as Texas has already claimed in another Supreme Court filing earlier this year.
Yet here in Texas, the past is only prologue to a new era in discouraging minority voters. Latino Texans are much less likely to cast ballots than Anglos and African Americans—or even Hispanics in Florida and California. Fewer than one in four Texas Hispanics who were eligible to vote in 2010 actually did, which played a large role in dragging our turnout to its new nadir. There’s a lot of history behind the no-shows, as the courts have repeatedly found. Texas’s lengthy record of official discrimination, including sometimes lethal intimidation by law enforcement, has traditionally fostered a mistrust of government and a wariness of civic involvement in many Latino communities. Poverty, which tracks statistically with low turnout, weighs particularly heavily on Hispanics, many of who labor long hours for low wages and often can’t leave work to vote on Election Day.
And as even the Supreme Court observed in the 2006 LULAC v. Perry decision (another redistricting case decided, in part, against the state), Texas isn’t eager for change. Conservative justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that the state “acted against those Latinos who were becoming most politically active.” The new plan is just a lot more of the same: although Hispanics accounted for most of Texas’s population growth during the past decade, when our 150 state House districts were redrawn in 2011, not a single district was created in which Hispanics would be more likely to elect a representative of their choice.
The irony of our state pursuing unreasonable remedies against the chimera of voter impersonation while state-sponsored discrimination remains all too real would be delicious if it weren’t so tragic for all of us. Our governor and attorney general could serve Texas far better if they directed their considerable ambitions toward bringing Latino voters to the polls as potential GOP converts rather than keeping our future demographic majority sidelined with a new iteration of Jim Crow. That’s because the foundation of any thriving democracy isn’t abstract prattle about freedom but something even the most limited government must work to secure if “freedom” is to have any meaning at all: the consent of the governed.