A version of this story ran in the April 2012 issue.
When I was growing up, I’d imagine life in the 21st century and wonder what kind of amazing advances we’d be living with by then. If Hollywood was to be believed, everyone was going to have a flying car and a moving sidewalk outside their home. We were well past the civil rights and women’s movements, so surely in another 20 years racism and sexism would be almost non-existent, if not eradicated. A woman had already been nominated for vice-president, so the political future looked bright for women.
Surprise: there are no moving sidewalks outside the average home and my car is still not only stuck to the ground, but runs on gas, for which people and wildlife die each year. But the biggest surprise is how far we’ve regressed in the areas of civil and reproductive rights. Between anti-Latino sentiment and the assault on women’s reproductive health, Texas has done more damage to goodwill between itself and Latina voters than I’ve seen at any other time in my life.
Let’s start with Planned Parenthood, which was forced out of the state’s Medicaid-funded Women’s Health Program (WHP) in March. Texas law prohibits any clinic that provides abortion services from getting funds from the Women’s Health Program. The Texas Legislature also cut the state’s family planning program from $111 million to $37 million, and then put Planned Parenthood and other traditional family planning clinics without comprehensive coverage at the bottom of a three-tiered list of recipients. The result is that many thousands of low-income women who use Planned Parenthood for basic health care, birth control and cancer screenings will be without coverage.
Then there’s the Voter ID law the state passed last year requiring voters to present a state or federally issued photo ID at the polls. Voters without the required identification may receive a provisional ballot, but it will be counted only if they return and present an approved ID within six days of the election. The problem, as opponents have repeatedly noted, is that the people least likely to have an ID are Latinos. Hispanics make up only 21.8 percent of all registered Texas voters, but account for more than 38 percent of registered voters who lack proper identification, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
For that reason, the Justice Department moved on March 12 to block the law from going into effect before the upcoming May presidential primaries. The department refused to “pre-clear” the new law, saying the statute disenfranchises some of the state’s minority voters.
The day after the DOJ’s decision, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott filed suit, challenging a key provision of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965, which singles out Texas and several other states with histories of minority discrimination. The Voting Rights Act mandates that these states get pre-clearance from the federal government on any changes to election laws. Which is why Texas had to get pre-clearance from the DOJ in the first place. Abbott asked a federal panel that is currently reviewing the Voter ID law to allow Texas’ lawyers to take the DOJ to court. Texas’ challenge to the Voting Rights Act could end up before the Supreme Court.
While Gov. Rick Perry has described enforcement of the Voting Rights Act as “continuing and pervasive federal overreach,” he sees nothing overreaching about his party’s gangly new voter districts, which reach all the way from Austin to San Antonio, and nothing overreaching about the sonogram probe he and his right-wing cronies are forcing into the uteri of Texas women who seek an abortion.
Old white men grasping frantically at their last vestige of power is what’s happening in this state today. They know the decisions they make now will affect whether they remain a relevant political force 20 years from now, and they aren’t messing around. They’re hanging on for dear life.
The rest of us can overreach, too, by standing up for our voting and health care rights. Texas can become a state that represents the majority of its citizens, or it can continue to discriminate. It’s up to us to decide. I, for one, will use the platforms available to me to overreach my way to a place at the table.