Who’s Really to Blame for Poor Latino Turnout in Texas? (A Debate!)

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My column on why Texas Democrats should fear the GOP effort to win over Latinos angered a lot of Democratic Party insiders. The most formal response came from Ed Espinoza, a former DNC official, writing at Politico. The upshot of Espinoza’s piece is that Democrats aren’t to blame for the abysmal Latino turnout in Texas; Republicans are. Says Espinoza:

While it’s true that Latinos in Texas do underperform in elections, it’s also true that Republicans have kept their thumb on the scales to keep Latino voter participation low. This is an important topic to address, but it’s also important not to over simplify the reasons behind the issue.

The Latino vote in Texas is often referred to as “The Sleeping Giant,” a rapidly growing population which has the potential to wield tremendous political influence if the community becomes politically engaged. Seeing as Latino voters typically vote Democratic by a 2-to-1 margin, this coming wave will change the stranglehold that Republicans have had on Texas for two decades.

But the Sleeping Giant won’t wake up on its own. Republicans know this, so it has been in the interest of that party to let the giant sleep as long as possible.

Espinoza goes on to offer three examples of how Republicans have suppressed Latino voter turnout: redistricting; hostile rhetoric and legislation such as Voter ID and the Sanctuary Cities bill; and making Latinos believe their vote doesn’t matter.

Espinoza concludes his piece by writing:

It’s true that Democrats – and the progressive community as a whole – need a stronger and more robust effort in mobilizing Texas Latinos. But it’s a tall order when attempting to organize a community that has had institutional barriers layered onto it for years by Texas Republicans.

In examining the weakness of the Latino vote, the Texas Observer takes aim at those who are trying to fix the problem, when it should be aiming its guns at the Republican culprits who built the problem in the first place.

Completely missing in Espinoza’s piece is any discussion of the core of my column: That not only are Texas Democrats failing to increase Latino turnout, they are ignoring Republican efforts to actively win over Latinos at their own peril.

Instead, he focuses exclusively on the turnout problem, blaming it on “institutional barriers” imposed by Texas Republicans. Here’s my question: When, exactly, did the GOP set up these institutional barriers?

Now, it’s certainly true that Republican-led redistricting in 2000 and 2003 wasn’t kind to minority voters. However, Espinoza only mentions the latest (2011-2012) redistricting effort.

The latest redistricting maps just went into effect. We haven’t even had an election yet to test the impact on Latino turnout.

The Sanctuary Cities legislation didn’t pass and, in any case, many Democrats and even some Republicans think Arizona-style anti-immigrant laws would have a galvanizing effect on Latinos in Texas. You don’t have to take my word for it. Just ask state Rep. Roberto Alonzo, a Democrat from Dallas. During the Texas Legislature’s debate on the Sanctuary Cities bill, he said:

The vote would come back to haunt Republicans in the next election, Alonzo said. “After Arizona passed its immigration bill Latinos got organized and turned out to vote,” he said. “The same thing is going to happen in Texas.”

You ask Democrats in Texas why Latino turnout in Texas is significantly less than, say, California and they point to Prop 187, the anti-immigrant initiative approved by California voters in 1994.

As to Voter ID: This magazine has extensively and repeatedly covered for years this solution in search of a problem. Our editorial stance is that Voter ID is largely a GOP effort to suppress minority voters and that it’s likely to further depress turnout. However, Voter ID in Texas hasn’t gone into effect. So it makes no sense to blame Voter ID for the long-standing problem of poor voter turnout among Texas Latinos. It could be in the future — and that’s a huge problem — but it doesn’t explain the current dilemma.

Between 2004 and 2008, the nation-wide Latino voter turnout climbed from 47 percent to nearly 50 percent. In Texas, the Hispanic turnout dropped from 42 percent to 38 percent. And 2008 was a year in which Texas, for the first time in a very long while, mattered in a Democratic presidential primary.

Overall, the trend in Texas is of static, or even falling, participation among Latinos.

chart_of_latino_voter_turnout

It’s hard to see how Republicans shoulder most of the blame here.

Finally, the point of the column was not to talk about how Texas Democrats need to mobilize Hispanics. Everyone acknowledges that, Espinoza included. The point was that Texas Republicans have now begun their long game of trying to make inroads with Latinos. Will they succeed? I don’t know. The GOP will certainly have to exorcise some of its own demons to attract Latinos in large numbers. The haters like Leo Berman and Debbie Riddle will probably have to be booted out or at least sidelined. That won’t be easy. But given the Republicans’ near-total lock on the state, they really have nothing to lose by trying. Democrats, meanwhile, have staked everything on demographic change. It would be smart to take the competition seriously.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.