Something’s Happening in Texas

The Republican Party’s future dominance of the Lone Star State, and the nation itself, relies on rigging democracy to its advantage. It won’t work forever.

Mike Segar / Reuters

This year, I voted in Texas for the first time. It was complicated.

Registering to vote was simple enough. The post office had a form I could print out with my personal information and change of address. Because I don’t own a car, I had to Lyft to the Bexar County Elections Department and turn in my registration. Although I was more than a week ahead of the deadline, the sheer number of new registrations meant that I was not in the system until weeks after the deadline had passed. I was able to check online and see that I was registered, although my registration card did not arrive until several weeks later.

Obtaining an ID was another matter. Texas has one of the strictest voter-ID laws in the country. It is very selective about which IDs are valid—the Republican-controlled state legislature determined that military IDs and gun licenses are fine, but employee and student IDs are not—and to vote I would have to obtain a Texas state ID. I could get a driver’s license if I turned in my license from Washington, D.C., from where I’d recently moved, and as long as I brought proof of citizenship, proof of my Social Security number, proof of identity, and proof of residency. So I brought along my passport, W-2s, bank statement, insurance statement, phone bill, and D.C. driver’s license. The employee at the Texas Department of Public Safety who signed the piece of paper that would serve as my temporary license was named “Borders”; he made a joke about not crossing him.

Texas billed me $35 for my new license; with transportation to and from DPS and the Bexar County elections office, the cost of my registering to vote in Texas topped $80.* For anyone who is missing any of those documents and would need to obtain them, the price would be far higher. I work from home, so I have the privilege of being able to visit these facilities during working hours, and I can afford both the cost of transportation and the necessary documents. I live in the city, so public facilities are not difficult for me to get to. For people with more traditional jobs or who have less disposable income, these barriers stand much higher.

Moreover, Texas has all but banned voter-registration drives, which is how many low-income and minority voters are registered, through laws that bar anyone but a deputy voter registrar in a particular county from registering voters in that county. If they tried to register a voter in another county, even they would be breaking the law. From trying to register to casting a ballot, it is hard to vote in Texas, maybe harder than in any other state.

That’s by design. Although Republican dominance of Texas long predates these new voting restrictions, their implementation is part of a national GOP strategy of maintaining political control through scorched-earth culture-war campaigns that target historically disfavored minorities and the disenfranchisement of the populations whose growth and influence could challenge that control. It is a consciously counter-majoritarian strategy for a party that wants to maintain its power indefinitely, even if most of the American electorate opposes it.

Immediately after the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Texas Republicans moved to implement a voter-ID law that would have the effect of making voting more difficult for Democratic-leaning constituencies. In 2014, a federal judge found that the law was an unconstitutional “poll tax” that deliberately discriminated against black and Latino voters, who were more likely to lack the required forms of ID or have a difficult time obtaining them. In response, the Texas legislature made the law slightly more lenient, allowing Texas residents to vote without ID if they sign a document stipulating, under penalty of arrest, that they faced a “reasonable impediment” in obtaining an ID. By 2018, the legal battle was over and Texas Republicans had won.

In-person voter fraud is rarer than getting struck by lightning. That said, the requirement that people prove their identity at the polls is reasonable. But there are many ways to do that even without requiring a photo ID—let alone skewing the list of acceptable IDs toward those that voters from one particular party are more likely to have. Under federal law, voters are required to prove their identity before voting in federal elections, but those requirements are more permissive than the ones adopted under strict photo ID laws, allowing voters to provide documents such as pay stubs and bank statements.

“The reality is that in-person voter fraud is not a widespread problem. And the justification for these laws is really empty. And I think that’s a key part of the context here, when you think about the problem that the laws are designed to address,” said Max Feldman of the Brennan Center for Justice. “So with that background, though, I think that it’s important that the IDs required are widely accessible and are not possessed by one group at a significantly lesser rate than other groups.”

The Democrats’ defeat in 2016 ushered in a parade of pundits who argued that the party had failed because it had assumed demographics were destiny, and had relied too strongly on what they labeled “identity politics.” The truth is closer to the reverse. In Texas and other states, Republicans have sought to engineer the demographics of the electorate to be whiter and older, the better to run culture-war campaigns that scapegoat religious and ethnic minorities for the nation’s problems. The question is, how long can the Republican Party manipulate the political process to pursue an agenda on taxes, immigration, and health care that most of the country does not want?

“Texas has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country, and the elected officials who currently hold power want to keep it that way,” said Cristina Tzintzún Ramírez, the director of Jolt, a Latino voting-rights group in the state. “They don’t want the people that make up this state to determine a new direction for Texas.”

Texas’s voter-ID law is part of that, but so is its redistricting process. The Texas delegation to Congress consists of two Republican senators, 25 Republican House members, and 11 Democratic House members. My cousin and I are both represented by Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat who has been in Congress so long that he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act and also voted to repeal it. My cousin lives in Austin; I live more than 70 miles away, in San Antonio. The district, two urban enclaves connected by a long, thin ribbon stretched between them, was ruled unconstitutional twice by federal courts, but was then upheld in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision this year. It is an obvious artifact of the effort to pack liberal whites and Latinos into one district, where they can’t threaten Republican dominance of the delegation.

“The Texas House, the Texas Senate, is majority Republican. The governor is Republican. The lieutenant governor is Republican. The attorney general is Republican. The whole state is a ‘red state.’ I’m not a politician, but it would make sense that these politicians who are in power would want to retain power,” said Edgar Saldivar of the Texas ACLU. “So what we’re seeing not just in Texas but across the country is an effort by state legislatures to make it more difficult for minorities, for poor people and people of color, to cast votes, because they might fear that they would lose power, if everyone had a fair and equal chance to vote.”

Texas’s population is 42 percent non-Hispanic white, or “anglo,” in Texas terms, and 40 percent Latino, but the electorate was 65 percent white in 2016, and only 21 percent Latino. White Texans are substantially more likely to be conservative, and Latinos are more likely to vote Democratic. The Latino population also skews younger, and younger people are less likely to vote. That helps explain the dominance of ultraconservative Republican lawmakers in the state: Texas’s electorate is far more conservative than its population as a whole. A majority of Texans (54 percent) believe that the federal government should ensure that all Americans have health-care coverage, for example, and Texans’ opinions on gun control,  immigration, and abortion are more moderate than it might seem to outsiders. Texas has a reputation as a blood-red state, but if its electorate looked more like its population, it might be more of a light salmon.

So why don’t more Latinos vote? “There’s always this wrong perception of Latinos as the sleeping giant, when in reality it’s not Latinos’ fault that they’re not voting; it’s the party’s fault for not engaging Latino voters and making them see why they should vote,” said Emily Farris, a professor at Texas Christian University. “I think that’s true across the board, not just for Latinos but for a number of people.”

There’s also another, less-acknowledged factor in Republican dominance of Texas politics, alongside voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the failure of the Democratic Party to invest in engaging them. The economic barriers to voting in this state are so strong that it is simply harder for working people to vote, or to believe that if they do vote, their lives will change in meaningful ways.

“The government for a long period of time now has not reflected them or their values, and people need something to vote for,” Crystal Zermeño, the strategic director of the Texas Organizing Project, told me. “People are struggling in a state where it’s hard to be poor, it’s hard for them to see themselves in that process, when there’s not really a vision of what Texas can be.”

When liberals think about the future of Texas, they often look wistfully to California, whose demographics are broadly similar (its population is about 40 percent white and 40 percent Latino) in a reliably blue state. The California electorate is somewhat less white than that of Texas, with white voters casting 59 percent of ballots in 2016—but unlike in Texas, the white voting population is roughly evenly divided between moderates, liberals, and conservatives. California is toward the top of the list of states by voter turnout, while Texas lingers close to the bottom.

“We’re like evil twins,” said Sylvia Manzano, a voting expert at Latino Decisions. “Depending on who you ask, the other is the evil twin.”

I don’t mean to suggest that demographics are destiny—the differences between Texas and California illustrate the importance of organization, persuasion, and mobilization.

One of the key distinctions between California and Texas, activists and experts told me, is that while California Governor Pete Wilson’s anti-immigrant initiative, Proposition 187, turned the state’s Latino voters against the Republican Party, until recently, Texas Republicans were considered moderate on immigration—the last U.S. president from Texas sought to pass legislation granting undocumented immigrants legal status, a proposal that would be a nonstarter in Trump’s GOP.

“Texas Republicans didn’t used to be that way. In fact, George W. Bush used to say, ‘I’m not going to be like California’ in reference to the hostile anti-immigration rules,” said Manzano. “It’s so interesting how saying ‘I’m not going to be like California’ has changed in terms of what that meant to a Republican politician in Texas.”

The mobilization against Prop 187 helped build a Latino turnout organization in the Golden State, while in Texas, neither party has made a similar organizational effort.

“There is more investment also in that state from progressives into voter registration and voter turnout that Texas does not yet have,” said Tzintzún Ramírez. “People compare us to California all the time and they say, ‘Oh, anti-immigrant laws were passed, and there was a backlash and the state turned blue,’ but what they don’t talk about is the long-term investment it took to make that happen.” The perception that the Democratic Party is waiting expectantly for Republican nativism to provoke a Latino voter boom, without ever investing in organizing the community, is a source of enduring frustration for the activists who work to increase Latino political participation. “[Beto] O’Rourke is doing as well as he is not because of the progressive infrastructure that has been built, but in spite of it,” said Tzintzún Ramírez.

Republican dominance of Texas, which traces back at least as far as 1994, the last time a Democrat held statewide office, predates the party’s recent push to restrict the franchise. But if the party believed that dominance would continue unchallenged indefinitely, those restrictions wouldn’t have been necessary. Demographics aren’t destiny, but the Republican Party has approached its counter-majoritarian social engineering under the assumption that they are.

“Texas is really emblematic of the rise of the Trump administration,” said Tzintzún Ramírez, “in that people are afraid that our demographics are changing, that people of color will become the majority nationally, and in Texas and California we already are.”

This is part of why Texas Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz are constantly invoking the specter of Texas turning into California—a more energized Latino electorate, and a more liberal, urban white population. Cruz once mocked his Democratic rival, Beto O’Rourke, by saying that Democrats “want us to be just like California, right down to tofu and silicon and dyed hair."

It’s impossible to imagine a Democratic politician seeking statewide office mocking millions of people this way without it becoming a major scandal—think of the uproar over Hillary Clinton’s “deplorable” remarks or Barack Obama saying Clinton’s primary voters were “clinging to guns and religion”—but Cruz’s remarks reflect his distinct fear that an influx of white liberals from California to Texas’ metropolises could blunt the Republicans’ advantage in the state. If Republicans believed that liberal-bashing could hold the state for them forever, they wouldn’t need to restrict the franchise. The highest percentage of Californians who leave the state go to Texas, and many of them have been younger and college educated. But it takes only one look at the Trump administration, whose most committed nativists have been Californians, to know that those leaving aren’t necessarily left-leaning.

Nevertheless, Cruz is already too late to stop silicon, tofu, and dyed hair from coming to Texas. There are two vegetarian restaurants in my neighborhood alone—and the last time I was at one of them, a group of uniformed military personnel came in and sat down at the table next to mine. The restaurant was bedecked with Texas iconography—including those ubiquitous signs with the Texan battle cry “Come and take it.” San Antonio has plenty of pickup trucks with Beto stickers, and homes with American flags on their porch and Beto signs in their yard. The liberal culture that Cruz and others consider antithetical to Texas is already here, and the synthesis exists without contradiction: It is inarguably blue, inarguably Texan, and not quarantined to Austin.

The red state–blue state dichotomy has always been reductive—every state has thousands, and in some cases millions, of people who fit the opposite mold. It is no coincidence that Barack Obama’s introduction on the national stage was a speech rejecting that very concept. “We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states,” Obama said at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. “We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.” It is such a simple sentiment—it feels almost dated in its charity and generosity—yet one that inarguably renders a picture of America closer to how it actually is than much political reporting or cable-news programming.

What makes this era different is the lengths to which Republican politicians are willing to go to set the rules to maintain their dominance in areas that are not as red as they would like them to be. The future of the Republican Party relies on its ability to prevent or deter people of color from exercising the franchise. And the more politicians manipulate the process, the more they need to reassure themselves that their voters are the only legitimate ones, that they would have won even if they hadn’t rigged the game.

“No matter whether a suppressive or discriminatory voting law ultimately affects the outcome of a race for political office: These laws can still be unconstitutional, and they still place a burden on people’s constitutional rights that should not be there,” said the Brennan Center’s Feldman. “That said, they can—excluding certain groups of people from the voting booth can obviously have an impact on what their representation looks like. And I think that at least some state legislators are well aware of that.”

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross lied to Congress about the process of adding immigration-status questions to the census; the questions stand to chill participation from Latinos and undercut Democratic-leaning areas. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, seeking a promotion to governor, engaged in one of the largest mass disenfranchisements in U.S. history, in an apparent attempt to blunt the influence of the Peach State’s black voters. Republican legislators in North Dakota, after an upset win by Democrat Heidi Heitkamp in the 2012 Senate race, passed a law designed to disenfranchise the Native American population that put her over the top. President Donald Trump, in a last-ditch effort to energize his base for the midterms, has promised to repeal the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship, which would create a permanent, stateless, hereditary, nonvoting underclass for the first time since the nation abolished slavery.

Whatever happens on Tuesday, the Republican Party cannot govern forever with the support of a shrinking minority of the population. Eventually there will be a reckoning. Even in Texas.

* The original version of this story misstated the cost of a license in Texas. We regret the error.