By Jose Nieves Herrera and Catherine Chojnowski
One Saturday afternoon in February, Texas State Representative Joe Moody sat in the Abraham Chavez Theater in downtown El Paso surrounded by thousands of people, many of them young Latinos who were awaiting the arrival of Bernie Sanders. The theater was at full capacity. The energy and passion were palpable, recalls Moody.
The scene inside the theater appeared to defy a long history of voter apathy in Texas. “The saying you hear a lot is Texas isn’t a red state, Texas is a non-voting state,” said Moody, who represents Texas House District 78 in El Paso.
However, that was seven weeks before Sanders suspended his campaign. Now Moody worries whether the Democrats will be able to recreate “that energy and enthusiasm” moving into the November elections.
Texas is the second most populous state in the United States. And, although the U.S. recorded the highest voter turnout in more than a century during the 2018 midterm elections, Texas had the third lowest voter turnout that year.
The stakes this coming November are exceptionally high. Texas has become a battleground for Democrats, even as the Covid-19 outbreak will likely hinder voter turnout in the midst of one of the most consequential presidential elections in modern American history. The coronavirus has upended retail politics, which means that campaigns must establish a digital presence in order to engage voters and fundraise if they have any chance to succeed.
And it is not just the presidential election that is at stake. Texas Democrats are aiming to flip the state house, which has been in GOP control since 2003.
A range of forces have converged to make Texas a low-vote state. In a state with a rich history of political corruption, Texans harbor a general mistrust in government. Other contributing factors include, gerrymandering, voter suppression and lack of civics education.
Latino voters, particularly young Latinos, are vital to the Democratic Party’s efforts to flip Texas blue in November. As voter registrations in Texas trend upward, voter turnout remains low. In Moody’s district, which encompasses part of El Paso, around 13,000 voters participated in the last primary election, out of 470,000 registered voters in the county.
“Our voter turnout is really poor,” said Moody. “And I think if you ask most people on my side of the aisle that is by design.” Over 70 percent of the voting age population is registered to vote in Texas, yet registered voters continually fail to show up at the polls.
On Super Tuesday, voters experienced long waiting lines to vote in the Democratic primary. A report by the Leadership Conference Education Fund found that Texas had the most polling- place closures in the country. Texas closed 750 polling places since 2012, and Dallas, Travis and Harris County were at the top of the list.
The majority of El Pasoans are low-income and work hourly jobs, making travel to polling sites difficult. Many communities around El Paso are rural as well, requiring residents to travel long distances to cast their votes. For those reliant on public transportation, trips to polling sites can be quite costly.
Texas State Representative Mary González represents Texas House District 75 in El Paso, which is overwhelmingly Latino. González said people of color and marginalized communities not voting is arguably intentional.
“There is no reason why in Texas we shouldn’t allow online voter registration,” she said. “There’s no reason in Texas why we shouldn’t allow for same-day voter registration, There’s all these arbitrary rules and the only reason they exist is to make it harder to vote, but specifically harder to vote for people who are marginalized and who have intentionally been discouraged not to participate in democracy.”
In González’s district, which encompasses over 125,000 people over the age of 18, only around 10,000 voters participated in the last primary election .
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated obstacles, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, that made it nearly impossible for marginalized communities to vote. Under Section 5 of the Act, Texas was among several states that required pre-clearance before changing voting laws and procedures – including changes to district lines.
In recent years, gerrymandering has become easier to execute due to recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that effectively nullified the Voting Rights Act
In 2013, in Shelby v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the formula used to determine which states must obtain pre-clearance to change voting laws and procedures was outdated, and hence unconstitutional. The House of Representatives tried, in 2019, to pass an updated version of the law, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, but it never got a vote in the Senate.
The law does still permit federal court petitions for pre-clearance before changing voting laws and procedures if plaintiffs can prove discriminatory intent. However, in 2018, in another gerrymandering case – Abbott v. Perez – the Supreme Court reversed a lower court finding that the Texas legislature had intentionally discriminated against Latino and African-American voters. The court noted that under representing a particular racial or ethnic group does not, by itself, prove discriminatory intent—thus, raising the bar for pre-clearance petitions.
Partisan gerrymandering is more common in Texas, “because Texas is diversifying,” said González. Since many Latinos tend to vote Democratic, she added: ”There is a fear of Republicans losing the majority and so there’s a lot of effort to maintain that.”
With its population growing rapidly, Texas is projected to gain at least two seats in the House of Representatives after the decennial census. If Democrats fail to flip the legislature, a GOP-controlled legislature will retain the power to draw legislative maps favoring them.
Sharing info about the Redistricting Committee and the upcoming hearings in El Paso with a great group of community leaders and activists. Grateful to the organizers for putting this incredibly important meeting together. #txlege #Redistricting @LWVTexas pic.twitter.com/tU1auHeJa1
— Joe Moody (@moodyforelpaso) November 23, 2019
Corruption also has hindered trust in government–in El Paso and throughout the state. Mary González’s unlikely victory in 2012 owed much to the arrest of her opponent, former County Commissioner Guillermo Gandara Jr. on charges of drug smuggling and money laundering; he pleaded guilty. “If the elected officials are doing shady stuff, then people lose faith in the governmental process and the officials,” said González.
The Covid-19 pandemic poses new obstacles that could further depress voting, especially if voters fear getting sick. Vote-by-mail is seen as crucial for getting out the vote among eligible Democrats—especially low-income Latinos.
Currently, the disabled, seniors, and voters absent from their county during the period of early voting and election day are permitted to vote by mail. Texas Democrats have brought litigation forward to expand vote-by-mail—though that effort is unlikely to succeed before November’s election. Meanwhile, campaigns are doubling down on efforts to make sure individuals who are eligible to vote by mail are applying to do so.
Increasing turnout among young people is another challenge—one that is being taken on by the El Paso Young Democrats, a local chapter of the Texas Young Democrats and one of the largest partisan youth organizations in the country. The group is working to educate and engage young El Pasoans in the political process to overcome an often-common sense of defeat that follows when a candidate they are enthusiastic about loses an election.
Many young El Pasoans were devastated by Bernie Sanders’s withdrawal from the presidential race. What worries J.J. Martinez, President of El Paso Young Democrats, more than turnout “is Biden’s ability to appeal to the Sanders supporters in Texas.”
Beto O’Rourke’s failure to unseat Republican incumbent Ted Cruz in his 2018 Senate bid was another major blow, said Martinez. O’Rourke, a former U.S. congressman from El Paso, won nearly 74 percent of the vote in El Paso.
The lack of adequate civics education also contributes to voter apathy. “In Texas specifically, we start teaching people about government and politics too late,” said Martinez. “The public education system doesn’t seem to have an interest in educating young people earlier about politics and government.”
While Texas high school seniors are required to take a course on government in order to graduate, Martinez explained that these courses tend to only offer a very broad picture of how the U.S. government functions. Unless the course falls on an election year, students are unlikely to learn how to register to vote, or about candidates and their policies.
Carmen Crosse, Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education from the Socorro Independent School District, counters that school principals in her district continuously work to engage young, future-voters in political matters and encourage them to participate in the electoral process by holding voting drives at several of their campuses.
“We do that at the beginning of registration time, we do that in our government and economics classes to make sure that all of our seniors, especially our upcoming 18 years olds are informed as to what they need to do in order to register to vote and what is their responsibility,” she said.
In light of the Covid-19 outbreak, the various issues that hinder voter turnout are likely to be exacerbated. While El Paso has lifted the “stay at home” order to comply with Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s initiative to begin reopening the state of Texas, health concerns are still looming and are expected to discourage voter participation.
“The fewer people you have engaged in their government, the easier it is to maintain the status quo,” said Representative Moody. “It is our job to inform and educate people and engage people on why these things matter to them and their daily lives … [and to] make sure those families understand that getting engaged in this process can play a role in changing the dynamic in our communities.”