Austin at Large: New Voters for a New Texas?

Kirk Watson says it’s possible: “Two million more people are now paying attention”

Austin at Large: New Voters for a New Texas?

I wanted to talk to someone who's been around Austin and Texas politics for a while, who understands how elections work, but who wasn't directly involved in a campaign this cycle. So I called our old friend Kirk Watson.

The former Austin mayor and state senator, now dean of the University of Houston's Hobby School of Public Affairs, is careful not to overanalyze the details of partisan performance in the elections, though he sees the same numbers we do. "Sensible centrism," or "pragmatic progressivism," is part of his job description now in academia, although it's also on brand for the former "Mayor Wonderful" who made his name as a consensus-builder. But he emphasizes a point that he also made in an op-ed during early voting: "You must focus on the fact that so many people voted," he told me, "and that by itself – regardless of outcomes or who they voted for – was a clear message. Two million more people are now paying attention, and that by itself says we ought to do things differently."

The most obvious of those things, to Watson, is "making it easier to vote. People wanted to come out and vote, more than ever before, during a pandemic. Everybody came out to have their voice heard. Nobody wants fraud, but nobody wants the fear of fraud to be cynically used to make it harder for people to vote."

Or at least nobody should want that, but here we are, with President Apesh*t being enabled by Republicans who really do know better. "Harris County established a model for the nation of how to make it easier to vote, and people did it. It's OK to experiment and try new things, and it's ridiculous that we're making people stand in line like they did. We can do both – make elections secure from fraud while making it easier to vote. It's not a zero-sum game, but that's not how we do politics these days."

An Inflection Point

Perhaps the most unexpected, and ironic, outcome of the 2020 elections was that both parties were able to turn out huge numbers of their voters, including lots of people with little or no voting history whose political views went uncaptured by opinion surveys and horse-race polls. That was the Democrats' game plan all along, and they did not underperform per se, but the GOP was able to match them – despite being the party that consistently aims to limit the franchise. (That's not just Democrats' opinion; plenty of Republicans also thought that the record-breaking early voting numbers would do them no favors.)

That's why Watson sees this as an inflection point. "We have this much civic energy, and every elected official should figure out how to address it," he says. The fact that we really don't know yet the real wishes of the much larger electorate makes it possible to "experiment and try new things" in policy, not just in elections administration. As the 87th Texas Legislature has already started prefiling bills, it's not too early to game out what might change.

For example, Watson says, "I think people that ran on protecting and preserving [House Bill] 3" – last session's major boost to public school funding – "did well, and elections matter. Even though we'll go through tough budget discussions, and people will scream that we are or will be broke, people elected to the Legislature [were] committed to that transformation."

The COVID-19-ravaged state budget has already kicked many small-government Republicans into their default austerity mode, but to Watson the pandemic "creates an enormous opportunity; everything ought to be on the table, all of our revenue sources." That includes giving real consideration to expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, assuming it survives at the Supreme Court; Texas is now one of only 12 states still leaving billions in federal dollars on the table out of spite. "With COVID, it's time to ask the hard questions, now that we've seen the impact on rural hospitals and our continuing health disparities. We need to focus on the social determinants of health more than ever before; Medicaid is the obvious place to start, but we need to think bigger."

The Needs of All Sides

There are other policy directions that the new Texas voter might want the state to pursue in earnest, Watson says, such as providing statewide access to broadband internet – a major goal of rural communities seeking economic growth, but now a basic need for everyone during pandemic sheltering-in-place. It's an issue where the GOP strength in exurban and rural Texas, shown quite robustly in these election results, overlaps nicely with the Democratic commitment to, and support from, disadvantaged communities.

That's especially true if, as those trying to control the post-election narrative have been wont to tell us, Texas voters of color are more interested in the GOP message than ever before. "I think issues of race and racism have to be at the forefront of what we've learned this year, right through the election," Watson says.

"There's no question that there's a reaction to the killings and oppression of people of color. But both parties are coming out of this election focused on their support from people of color, so they've all admitted they have a stake in undoing the effects of systemic racism. They owe it to the people who voted for them."

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