With two weeks to go before the midterm elections, the question of who will vote—and who will be allowed to vote—is the subject of intense speculation, polling, and analysis all across the country. The race for governor in Georgia is tight and there’s been outcry over the purging of tens of thousands of voters there; voter turnout in Michigan’s primaries shattered records; and there are signs that nationwide voter turnout could reach new highs for a midterm election. In Texas, one of the highest-profile races features Republican incumbent Senator Ted Cruz trying to fend off Democrat Beto O’Rourke, and in article after article (and in Texas Monthly and Pineapple Street Media’s own podcast series on the race) the analysis appears to boil down to O’Rourke needing to wildly improve Democratic turnout to have a sporting chance against Cruz.
Rigged, a forthcoming documentary from the American Issues Initiative, doesn’t paint a promising picture for O’Rourke. The film examines states across the U.S. and the effects of gerrymandering and voter ID laws on voter turnout. Texas is home to one of the most stringent voter ID laws, and was ground zero for a recent decade-long battle over gerrymandering that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Texas also happens to have one of the lowest voter-turnout rates in the country. In this excerpt, see the effect of “packing and cracking” in drawing new congressional districts in North Texas. Below, we talk with Democratic strategist Matt Angle, who argues that Texas’s strict voter ID law and detailed gerrymandering amount to nothing less than voter suppression and disenfranchisement.
Texas Monthly: What’s the threat level when it comes to voter suppression in Texas?
Matt Angle: It’s high alert. Vote suppression is a fundamental principle embedded within the short-term and long-term strategy for Republican leaders in Texas. They’ve made a pretty cynical calculation that people of color are becoming a larger proportion of our population and our potential voting population, and they have made the choice to suppress their vote and undermine it.
TM: Now Governor Greg Abbott would say that he expects to win the Hispanic vote in Texas.
MA: Republicans have been talking about that for twenty years, and they often brag about the percentage of vote they get, or the potential percentage of vote they get from Latinos. But the way they work that strategy is to suppress any new Latino vote. Abbott, while he was attorney general, led the whole “nudge factor” effort to increase the Latino population in a district while reducing the number of Latino votes, by loading it up with non-voting Latinos.
TM: What did you call that, the nudge?
MA: Yeah, it’s a pretty famous episode within the Texas redistricting litigation in which there was a memo that was sent from Washington to the Republicans in Texas talking about a nudge factor. How do we nudge these districts up higher in terms of the Latino population, but make them more Republican, or at least not more Democratic?
TM: Ok, so you’re saying he led that effort as attorney general.
MA: He led the Republican redistricting strategy in 2011 that resulted in multiple findings of intentional discrimination. One of the things that Greg Abbott lies about is, the Supreme Court found that there was “no intentional discrimination.” Well, the findings of discrimination were about the original maps that Greg Abbott and Republicans adopted in 2011 that they later abandoned. The findings of intentional discrimination on those maps were never reversed, never nullified, and the substance of those findings stand.
TM: So, ok, parse that out for me.
MA: In 2011, the Republicans passed state house, state senate, and congressional redistricting plans. Those plans were reviewed by a federal district court in Washington, D.C., and intentional discrimination was found. Later on, when those plans were reviewed by the district court in San Antonio, they determined also that there was evidence of intentional discrimination. The Republicans abandoned their Senate map and then they reached a settlement with the plaintiff, and I was part of that group that worked for that settlement. The court imposed new maps for the state house and congressional delegation, and then the legislature took the court’s plans, and they adopted those in 2013. But the ruling by the Supreme Court that Abbott points to is on the 2013 maps, not the 2011 maps. And of course we haven’t even gotten to voter ID yet.
TM: Let’s go to voter ID, because there’s a pretty strong percentage of voters that argue, look, election integrity is so important that we should take every possible step to protect against people voting illegally.
MA: I agree with that. I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with requiring an ID in order for people to cast a ballot. But in Texas, what Greg Abbott and Republicans in the legislature did, is they used that argument to impose a voter ID law that systematically undermined and suppressed the votes of people of color and people who are very old and people who are very poor, and then those actions were found to be intentionally discriminatory. They didn’t have to do that—there were many amendments offered that would have removed the discriminatory features of the voter ID law. Those amendments were, one by one, either not allowed or voted down, and that’s the reason that the court ultimately ruled that there was intentional discrimination in the adoption of the Republicans’ initial voter ID law.
TM: When you look at this issue across the whole country, if you were assigning a health score for Texas, how does it compare with other states on the issue of voter suppression?
MA: Texas runs just ahead of North Carolina in terms of doing things to intentionally undermine the ability of African Americans and Hispanics to vote their strengths at the polling place–
TM: And when you say just ahead, do you mean—
MA: It’s worse, it’s worse. It’s just a little bit worse than North Carolina. And the reason is, in Texas the numbers are overwhelming. You’ve got huge African American and Latino populations. Texas is growing so rapidly only because of its minority population. Texas picked up four congressional seats for its growth between 2001 and 2010. During that period of time, Latinos grew at ten times the rate of Anglos. African Americans grew at five times the rate of Anglos. However, in the first congressional map that Republicans drew, all four of the new districts were drawn so that they would be controlled and elected by the choice of Anglo Republicans.
TM: One of the interesting strategies that this film, Rigged, talks about is packing and cracking. Can you explain what those are?
MA: “Packing” is putting as many minority voters or likely Democratic voters into one district or as few districts as possible in order to have far more in there than are needed in order for that group to elect their candidate of choice. And then “cracking” is taking the remainder of those minorities and dividing them into as many districts as possible, so that they are always overwhelmed by the majority population. And Texas is a sterling example of packing and cracking, both racially and politically. In fact, if you solved the racial gerrymandering in Texas you’d go a very long way toward resolving the partisan gerrymandering.
TM: Why do you say that?
MA: Republicans in Texas assume that blacks and Hispanics are Democrats, and so they pack and crack the African American and Latino populations, and the result of that is that they end up maximizing the number of Republican districts in Texas. Republican districts in almost every circumstance result in Anglo-controlled districts.
TM: Before this call, I was doing a little googling, and I just put “voter fraud in Texas” … and this headline came up from Fox News that detailed a Mexican national who had pleaded guilty to voting illegally in the 2016 election and in three elections previously. Aren’t examples like that reasons to put in more controls for [protecting against voter fraud]?
MA: No, no, no. We don’t call off all soccer games because someone gets struck by lightning. A lot more people got struck by lightning last year than committed voter fraud. Voter fraud is rare, and when it does happen people are punished, and that punishment was not the result of any new law. In person voter fraud is very, very rare. It was a solution looking for a problem, and an opportunity to engage in aggressive, onerous vote suppression.
TM: What’s an example of a state you know of that has been able to balance this prerogative to protect the integrity of elections and make sure that everybody who’s eligible to vote can do so?
MA: Indiana’s the best example. They have a pretty strict voter ID law. Texas tried to use Indiana as their example—they were holding that up as we’re gonna do it the way Indiana did. Indiana held up the legal muster. A lot of people complain about it, a lot of Democrats complain about it, but it’s more or less held up. But in Texas they went far beyond Indiana, and they intentionally restricted the types of IDs you could use knowing that those types of IDs would be ones more likely to be used by people of color who were very old, or people who were very young, and of course those are people who would be less likely to vote for Republicans across the board.
TM: And what are those specifically?
MA: You can’t use a student ID, for goodness sake. In their original plan that was struck down, you couldn’t use an expired driver’s license. All of us who have elderly parents—a lot of times they stop driving, can’t drive anymore—they maintain their ID for all types of identification purposes.
TM: We are less than two weeks away from the midterm elections. What kind of threat does voter suppression represent in your mind to the integrity of the midterm elections?
MA: If there is a close election, in which the winner prevails by less than a percentage or so, in any district with a sizable minority population there is a good chance that something having to do with vote suppression affected the results of that election. Because it’s not only the people that show up and are turned away, it’s the people that because they know they’re gonna be hassled or because it’s complicated to them or confusing, that voting might be a risky business, they stay away. And Republicans know that. That’s why they love to make sure that there’s a lot of press for someone who’s prosecuted for an improper vote. They want to make voting sound like a risky proposition.
TM: What have I not asked you about that I should have?
MA: The thing that strikes me that doesn’t get paid attention to is the millions and millions of dollars that have been invested by the state of Texas in legal fees. We spent a decade litigating intentionally discriminatory redistricting maps. We spent almost a decade litigating suppressive and illegal voter ID laws. Texans are forced to pay millions of dollars in tax money in order for their government to defend a disenfranchisement of their vote. That’s a huge scandal.