Point Austin: How to Suppress the Vote
With its latest lies, Texas GOP reminds us: This is all they’ve got
I'm old enough to remember when the Capitol was a more welcoming place, physically and politically. That was before the triumphalist gun culture necessitated mechanical bollards on the roadways and metal detectors at every entryway, and before Tom "The Hammer" DeLay followed Newt "Contract With America" Gingrich to make Texas hostile to bipartisan government. For the last 20 years, one-party GOP rule has aggravated structural crises in health care, education, the environment, etc., while polarizing the political climate that might otherwise generate rational solutions.
That's not to say the Nineties were any legislative paradise, but it was still possible to make progress. Recall, for example, Glen Maxey's successful leadership on the passage of the Children's Health Insurance Program. Instead, virtually all of the minority's energy is now spent stopping bad bills (another Maxey specialty) like the biennial constriction of reproductive health care or last session's bogus bathroom hysteria.
November's midterm results promise some return to sanity, and early discussions suggest at least the return of essential conversations to the Capitol – movement on public school finance, for example, or on the need to expand Medicaid in the state with the highest number of people who need it. Whether any of this will go from cloakroom conversations to actual floor votes remains to be seen – and might wait yet another two years.
Republicans can also read election results, of course, and their responses to the midterms have included both pacific gestures (Dennis Bonnen) and Trumpist disdain (Dan Patrick). The latter's insistence on enabling his lobbyist sustainers, Empower Texans, to masquerade as media on the Senate floor reflects their actual role as enforcers of hard-right orthodoxy among Republicans.
Massaging the Numbers
That orthodoxy was also proclaimed and praised with Texas Secretary of State David Whitley's release of data suggesting that 95,000 "non-citizens" may have registered as voters, 58,000 of whom might have been voting in elections since 1996 (in that 22-year context, an already diminishing return on an extremely dubious number). After pushback from reporters (notably at The Texas Tribune) and county election officials and an instant lawsuit by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Whitley began backpedaling. By the time you read this, the entire list may have disappeared in a cloud of bureaucratic smoke. (For more coverage of this nonsense, see "Lege Lines," Feb. 1.)
This vote-suppressing gambit was employed earlier in Florida, where a list of voting "non-citizens" that originally numbered 180,000 was eventually winnowed to all of 85 – but not before 2,600 actually eligible voters had been kicked off the rolls, with uncounted others preemptively discouraged from voting altogether. In Texas, at least one county (Galveston) had already begun notifying people that they would need to "verify" their citizenship before Whitley warned that the list was, in fact, unreliable.
Even initially, state officials acknowledged the list was compiled from "WEAK" (their emphasis) name matches – that is to say, one registered "John Smith" or "Maria Garcia" might not actually be the same person as another. Perhaps we should be pleased that the list is rather shorter than those trumpeted by right-wing fringe groups (and Austin's own Laura Pressley), which claim that "more than 280,000 non-citizens in Texas are registered to vote, with another 4,000,000 registered voters in question." They have been demanding that the state "release the data" – and, apparently, Whitley has now provided his official response, with echoing statements from the governor and attorney general.
The Art of Self-Defense
The final, actual tally of names on Whitley's list will hardly matter; the episode has already done its work, with nationwide publicity describing "thousands of illegal voters" in Texas and, inevitably, Fox News as well as President Trump himself repeating the literal fake news as gospel of a piece with Trump's persistent lies about 2016 vote totals, migrant criminals, and fantastical numbers of undocumented immigrants. The Big Lie will be repeated and amplified in the conservative media bubble, and a hard-line core of GOP voters will remain convinced that millions of noncitizens are on the voting rolls, supporting Democrats.
Perhaps it's small comfort to remember that this is all they've got – that without extreme gerrymandering and aggressive voter suppression, the Republican hegemony cannot be maintained, either in Texas or nationwide. That's why they're also trying to weaponize the census with questions about citizenship, in hopes of reducing the residency count in Democratic regions.
The next big battle is November 2020, and beyond that, redistricting – with the latter heavily dependent on the former. Expect the Lege to consider bills that use this latest folly to reinforce voter ID laws and reduce 2020 turnout. Thanks to LULAC and similar organizations, as well as diligent reporters, we're not without defenses. In the end, the best weapon remains the vote – they can't stop all of us.