Updated: Oct 29, 2021
The Declaration of Independence asserts that a government is legitimate only if it enjoys the “consent of the governed.” But for much of U.S. history, it hasn’t worked that way. Instead, we the people have had to seek consent from the political party in power to participate.
When consent is denied, we call that voter suppression.
Such disenfranchisement can take many forms. It can be overt – a poll tax or a literacy test, or the use of intimidating poll watchers. Or it can be subtler, such as when local officials curb voting hours, limit the number of polling places and/or drop boxes, or change the mechanics of registration to blunt the influence of certain targeted population groups.
Texas has a long history of using voter suppression tactics to keep certain political parties in power and repress the participation of the majority of eligible voters. The history of post-Civil War voter suppression is legendary in its mistreatment of Black Americans. Texas was recently ranked 50th in the nation by the Election Law Journal for ease of voting.
Voter Suppression in Recent History
In more recent times, it seems that whenever the Democratic party’s fortunes are on the rise, the fear of voter fraud gets whipped up by the GOP. That was the case in 1964 with the massive number of GOP poll watchers and the warnings distributed to Black Americans that they could be arrested at the polls.
Fast forward to 2008, when Barack Obama won Harris County, Texas, by a thin margin despite the efforts of the King Street Patriots.
It happened again in 2010 when Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott killed the Houston-based True the Vote organization based on false information. In 2013, Texas Tea Party leader Ken Emanuelson was asked at a Dallas County GOP event how the Republican party was reaching out to Black voters. He spoke the bold-faced truth: “I’m going to be real honest with you. The Republican party doesn’t want Black people to vote if they are going to vote nine to one for Democrats.”
There was the debacle of the new voter ID law in 2016, followed by the report in 2017 of the effect of gerrymandering of electoral districts since 2011, for which the only plausible motivation was to dilute the effect of larger blueish population centers.
In 2019, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley instructed local officials to investigate some 100,000 Texans who his office said voted illegally; it turned out the list was mostly naturalized citizens who had every right to vote. Later that year, a federal judge rebuked Texas yet again for violating federal “motor voter” laws even as the Legislature effectively prohibited the use of temporary voting sites during early voting, which targeted the suppression of young voters on college campuses. Lawmakers have also kept up an aggressive campaign to punish minor violations of election law with severe sentences.
In 2020, we had the really Big Lie, followed by the GOP’s attempts to overturn the voice of the majority of voters in several swing states and culminating with the emergence of fanatical elements participating in the attempted Jan. 6th insurrection. This insurrection was way too close to succeeding and bringing down our democracy.
Meanwhile in Texas, the GOP kept control by holding the state House and thus control of the redistricting process in 2021. Given that Election Data Services estimates Texas will have 39 congressional seats for the next decade, this was arguably Republicans’ single biggest win of the 2020 election. We will know for sure after the 2020 census results are finally published later this year.
Harris County became another target of GOP voter suppression on Oct. 1, 2020, when Gov. Abbott ordered Texas counties to limit themselves to one drop-off location for mail-in ballots. This made it harder, especially in urban counties, for 4.8 million Harris County residents to turn in their ballots in person.
Moving the Battle to the Big City
Now, the battle is moving to the big city suburbs. The GOP has yet to figure how to suppress votes there, but you can be sure they are working on it.
HB6/SB7 is just the latest in the long war against voter suppression in Texas. The pushback against HB6/SB7 from local leaders, Democrats, big business and voting rights advocates is intense. They’re concerned about groups that Texas has long marginalized — voters of color, voters with disabilities, low-income voters and voters with limited English proficiency.
In practice, our governor has been a big fan of voter fraud for many years. You can be sure that Gov. Abbott will call for a special session of the legislature later this year to re-gerrymander the new house districts in response to the 2020 Census. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that the focus of attention will be the usual populous targets (Harris, Travis, Bexar, Dallas), plus attempts to dilute the voters of Hays, Williamson, Fort Bend and Tarrant counties, since they’ve been trending blueish lately. The whole I-35 corridor in Central Texas is likely to turn blue in the next decade. Whether that trend will spread east and west remains to be seen.
Clearly, there continue to be both overt and covert operations by the GOP to suppress the votes of targeted groups so as to maintain their power in our state. Can we let them succeed?
The Changing Electorate in Texas
Texas has been the fastest-growing state in the nation for the last two decades. The Texas population in 2020 was up to 29.4 million, increasing by 378,000 in one year. Over 3.3 million new potential voters have come since 2012. Many of the fastest-growing counties in the US are here, and the big metro areas have gotten bigger faster than the rural counties. Domestic and international migration is the dominant theme, with a good dose of southern boarder migration mixed in. As a result, the state’s population is faster growing, younger and more diverse than the nation as a whole.
According to a November 2020 study, Texas is the second-most diverse state in the nation (behind California) and ranks in the top 5 states for linguistic, industry, household size, and racial and ethnic diversity, and in the top 10 for religious diversity and educational attainment diversity. We rank in the bottom 5 for generational diversity.
Hispanic Americans have recently overtaken white Americans as a percentage of the total population and is the fastest growing segment of the population. Black Americans make up about 10-12% of Texas’ population. Senior citizens are getting older and fewer. Women now comprise about 50% of the state’s population. In the big cities, Hispanic and Black Americans generally make less money per household than white Americans, which will put more pressure on health care, housing and education systems.
With white Americans’ share of the total population no longer above 50%, the key issue will be to reduce the economic and educational disparities prevalent among the state’s ethnic groups.
State GOP government representation of this changing electorate has not kept pace and is still dominated by white men (GOP legislators are 95% white). Compare this to the 20% of Democratic legislators that are white. The proper 2021 representation of our state’s electorate should be 42% white, 42% Hispanic, 12% African American and 4% other.
Clearly, the GOP in power does not reflect the electorate of Texas.
The historical voter turnout data from 1970 to the present is interesting to examine and tells the story of the last 50 years of voting in Texas. From 1970 to 2016, the general election turnout vacillated between about 20% to 45% of all age eligible voters. In 2020, turnout rose above 50% for the first time. The number of age-eligible voters was 21.6 million. The number registered was 17 million. The number who voted was only 11.3 million.
In 2020, Trump beat Biden in Texas by a margin of about 630,000 votes (52% vs 46%), which represented a bluish shift of 3.4% since 2016. Biden won the big cities by 900,000; Trump dominated rural counties by 1.7 million.
Fortunately, the once-reliable suburbs are following big cities trending into the Democratic party’s fold. This worries the Texas GOP.
The Underlying Culture Wars
A culture war is defined by Wikipedia as “a struggle between social groups for dominance of their values, beliefs and practices. It commonly refers to topics on which there is general societal disagreement and polarization in societal values.” According to Encyclopedia.com:
“The central claim of those describing a culture war is that the major political cleavage in contemporary American politics is no longer economic class, race, gender, geographical region or any of the many ‘social structural’ differences that divide our population. Rather, the idea is that a major realignment of sensibilities and controversial issues has occurred since the 1960s, and now the body politic is rent by a cultural conflict in which values, moral codes and lifestyles are the primary objects of contention.”
Tx has a long history of fighting for freedom and independence which colors the views of many native Texans. It is difficult to succinctly describe the current culture wars in TX, but here are some of the dimensions that come to my mind (in no particular order):
conservatism vs liberalism – whatever that is.
Evangelical Christians vs the separation of church and state – "We're in an all-out moral and spiritual civil war for the soul of America,” a Christian minister stated.
Old white society vs the newer style of diversity and more people of color.
Rural vs urban life and values.
Male-dominated society vs the rise of women.
More guns than people vs common-sense restrictions – “God, Guns & Family: Vote GOP.”
Individual freedoms/privacy/speech vs more government involvement in our lives.
The haves vs have-nots.
The influence of big business and big money on society and politics.
Science vs opinion – e.g., alternative “facts,” truth-bending and widespread disinformation.
Our role on the global stage vs nationalism.
Fanatical groups vs mainstream thinking.
Healthcare as a right.
Climate change vs climate hoax.
Fear of terrorism and hate crimes, etc.
The traditional family vs the modern family.
Other specific hot-button issues include abortion, LGBTQ rights, pornography, sex trafficking, alternative lifestyles and legalization of drugs.
In the contemporary Texas Republican Party, governance has seemingly taken a back seat to waging the culture war. It didn’t keep Texans from dying of COVID-19 or from freezing to death, but it might keep ambitious Republicans in office – especially if they don’t fear being punished for not doing their jobs.
Clearly, the population growth and diversity trends in Texas will continue and perhaps even accelerate. The extent to which our government officials, laws and cultural norms do not represent this growth and diversity will continue to cause problems.
Maybe it’s time to drain the TX GOP swamp. Let’s start with getting rid of those who are actively putting obstacles to voting in the way: Gov. Abbott, Lt. Gov. Patrick, AG Paxton, US Senator Ted Cruz ... To do so means exercising our constitutional rights — being willing to stand in long lines in bad weather without water and facing the risk of catching COVID-19.
Another way we can bring about the necessary change is to make voter suppression efforts politically painful for those who are pushing them. To do so means we follow the money funding their campaigns and lifestyles. Let’s start with the sponsors of HB6 and SB7.
Imagine what could happen if we were able to get 90% voter turnout like they do in Australia. That is the scenario that terrifies today’s GOP in Texas – and the scenario that should inspire every Democrat in Burnet County.