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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.