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Despite Gains in 2018 Primaries, Latinos’ Battle for Political Representation in Texas Far From Over

Many of the largest barriers to voting come from the state itself, in the form of burdensome voting laws and gerrymandered political districts that suppress Latinos’ civic voice.

  • Phoenix Rice-Johnson
March 12, 2018

The 2018 midterm elections have officially arrived, with Texas holding its primaries last Tuesday. In races for two congressional seats, Latina women — Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia — won their primary. The results, which fell the same week as International Women’s Day, mean that either could become Texas’ first Latina congresswoman.  

The state’s Latino population is severely underrepresented in elected office. Over a third of Texas’ citizens are Latino, but only five of its 36 members of Congress are Hispanic. The lack of representation for women in the congressional delegation is even more pronounced, with only three congresswomen hailing from the Lone Star State.

The battle for Latino representation — and more broadly, minority representation — has been long and arduous for Texas voters. And it’s far from over. Many of the largest barriers come from the state itself, in the form of burdensome voting laws and gerrymandered political districts that suppress Latinos’ civic voice. The Brennan Center has been working with voters and civic groups in Texas to stop these policies and create a more even playing field for all Texans.

One of the most high-profile examples of the Texas legislature working to suppress Latino political participation is the strictest-in-the-nation voter ID law, which the state passed in 2011. The law famously permitted voters to use a concealed carry license as proof of ID at the polls, but not a student ID card from the University of Texas. In the original complaint filed in 2013, plaintiffs — including the state-based Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC) — argued that the law hurt minority voter participation since African American and Latino voters are, and will be, “substantially less likely to possess that photo identification.”

The timing of Texas’ voter ID law is no coincidence — between 2000 and 2011, Latinos and African Americans accounted for 90 percent of the state’s population growth. As lawmakers recognized these communities’ growing political clout, they worked to find new ways to keep them from gaining effective representation. A federal district court has twice found the law intentionally discriminatory, and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has recognized its discriminatory impact. Texas lawmakers have since passed a new law to get around these rulings, which a federal judge said had many of the same discriminatory features as the old legislation. The new — now current — law continues to face ongoing  litigation of its own.

In the same year Texas passed its voter ID law, it also proposed new legislative maps that discriminated against Latinos and African-Americans. Voters sued the state, arguing that the maps diluted these communities’ voting strength by packing minority voters into a few districts, and, in other cases, splitting minority voters up to keep them from acting as an effective voting bloc. In 2017, a district court panel found that four districts in the 2011 maps were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. Later in the year, the panel ruled that a number of districts in the 2011 Statehouse plan resulted in intentional vote dilution in violation of the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. The state’s maps were redrawn, but are still facing litigation.

Texas is far from alone in its effort to suppress minority voices. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is in court now trying to defend a documentary proof of citizenship law that he has long championed, which has disenfranchised tens of thousands of voters since its passage. And as of February 2018, legislators in 14 states have introduced a total of 28 bills restricting access to voting.

Fortunately, in places the picture is not so bleak. Washington is poised to become the next state to pass automatic voter registration, which automatically adds eligible voters to the rolls unless they affirmatively opt-out. This legislation helps bring historically disenfranchised communities into the political process. With the 2018 midterm election in sight, we must be vigilant of discriminatory voting laws, and continue to advance voting legislation that makes it possible for all eligible Americans to cast a ballot.