No Shows: Why So Few Texans Bother to Vote


A version of this story ran in the October 2012 issue.

I WAS SITTING IN A COMMUNITY RESOURCE CENTER in the Houston suburb of Alief trying to get a glimpse of the state’s future. Alief is a mostly working-class neighborhood on the western rim of the city. Twenty years ago, Alief was a rural rice-farming community touted as the next big suburb; today it has grown into one of the most racially diverse areas in the state, if not the country. More than 70 percent of Alief’s residents are minorities. The area has a huge Latino population as well as a large Vietnamese community. Alief’s strip malls are dotted with businesses advertising in Spanish, Vietnamese, Thai and even Arabic. Yet Alief is represented in government, almost entirely, by white Republicans.

This isn’t any sort of mystery. It’s simply a matter of who votes and who doesn’t. Alief is situated in a state, county and legislative district in which the majority of people are non-Anglos. Yet at the state, county and district level, white voters, who tend to favor Republicans, are much more likely to vote.

A Texans Together community worker had just handed me a chart with voting records for the area. Alief has been gerrymandered into a legislative district with a largely Anglo, mostly Republican neighborhood to its north. Seventy percent of the Anglos vote; just 30 percent of the minorities do.

“See?” he said. “This is why we don’t get shit in Alief.”

Alief represents a paradox that lies at the heart of progressive politics in Texas. If current demographic trends hold, Texas in 2020 will look something like Harris County does today, and Harris County in 2020 will look something like Alief. The state’s Latino population is increasing dramatically. Because Latinos tend to vote Democratic, the conventional wisdom is that as the Latino population of Texas grows into a majority, Texas will turn Democratic.

If this were to happen, it would utterly re-shape national politics, so it makes sense that the national media has been watching for it. Every election cycle, the media engages in a round of speculation over when Texas will turn blue. For instance, in 2009, in its special issue “Lone Star Rising,” The Economist noted that “In 2004, Texas became one of only four states in America where whites are no longer in the majority. On recent trends, Hispanics will be the largest ethnic group in the state by 2015. Since they tend to vote Democratic, this has big implications for Texas’s political make-up and for national politics.”

These stories typically rely on the same statistics: The Latino population, as a share of the total Texas population, is increasing rapidly. Latinos were 31 percent of the state’s population in 2000. By 2010, that number was up to 38 percent. Texas is already majority non-Anglo, and by 2016, according to political scientist Richard Murray at the University of Houston, Latinos should pass Anglos as the state’s largest ethnic group. And not long after that, Texas will be a majority-Latino state.

Latinos, historically, break about 70 percent for Democratic candidates. (George W. Bush was a notable exception, taking almost half of the Texas Latino vote in 2004.) So it’s not hard to see how Democrats can crunch these numbers and come up with some very exciting ideas. If the Latino population keeps increasing, and if they keep voting Democratic, it would remake the national electoral map. If Texas were even competitive, Republicans would face the prospect of trying to win the White House without the three largest states in the Electoral College: California, New York and Texas.

You hear this from the top: On July 17, President Obama told a roomful of San Antonio Democrats, “You’re not considered one of the battleground states, although that’s going to be changing soon.”

If so, Harris County should be the face of that transition. In the last 20 years, Houston has experienced a rapid demographic change. In 1990, Harris County had twice as many white people as Latinos. Now those numbers have shifted remarkably—the county is just 33 percent Anglo and 41 percent Hispanic. Harris County today is approximately 70-percent minority.

But because of low minority voter turnout, Harris County—where 7 out of 10 people are non-Anglo—is governed mostly by white Republicans, including the county judge, county prosecutor and the entire county commission. Alief is represented in the Texas Legislature by Republican Jim Murphy.

The day I was at the community center, a nonprofit group was giving free immunizations. Priscilla Swafford, or “Miss P,” a local resident and ad-hoc field coordinator, was running around grabbing kids and asking if they were current on their shots. I started asking her questions about voting, and after a couple of seconds she stopped me and said, “Just hold on a minute.” Within three minutes, there were four 30-something black women sitting around a table in one of the conference rooms, explaining how they felt about the political system. While all of them said they planned to vote, none seemed terribly optimistic about voting’s potential effects.

“Whether you vote or not,” Miss P said, “the people on top, if they don’t like how you voted, they gonna give it to the other person. Our voice really doesn’t mean anything at the bottom. Only the people with big bucks have a voice.”

I asked how they felt about the Democratic Party. Did they feel like the party understood, or was addressing, their needs? At this, there was utter derision.

A woman named Shannon said, “When is the only time you see them in your community? When’s the only time you see them out in the streets? Election time.”

“When they want something from you,” Miss P said.

“The only time you see them is when …” Laurie chimed in.

“Is when they want your vote.“

In August, Texans Together, a nonprofit organizing group that works in Alief, convened two focus groups of Alief residents unlikely to vote and grilled them for a couple of hours about their voting habits, their perceptions of the political system and their knowledge of policy issues.

Few of them planned to vote. Most felt there was no point. One man told the moderator that there’s no sense in voting because “if you vote and try to push, to put your pen out there, they’re going to put some junk out there and change it back to what they want.”

In the focus-group transcripts, I saw a strange paradox: the respondents were involved in politics, in that they had issues they cared about, which they wanted to discuss. They were all involved in their community, at least to the point of participating in a focus group. But they had no faith, at all, in the integrity of the process. They talked about voting like some people might talk about church attendance—a noble thing to do, certainly, but unlikely to do much practical good.

This is the problem: We’ve been talking about voting as though it’s like the weather, something that just sort of happens. But it’s not. And nowhere is that more evident than in Texas, which has one of the lowest voter-turnout rates in the nation, especially among Latinos. There are many reasons people don’t vote, and Republican leaders in Texas have enacted policies to dissuade people from voting and drawn district maps intended to dilute the power of minority voters. But the central problem is still apathy.

Demographics in Texas are such that, as many a media story has observed, Democratic and progressive candidates could be competitive right now—except that so many voters are disengaged. And they’re likely to remain disengaged and apathetic as long as no one is talking to them about why voting matters.

THEY DON’T PAY MY BILLS. At the end of the day, I’m the one who has to get up and work and pay everything and take care of my kids and stuff. They don’t know me personally, and I don’t know them. So at the end of the day I’m not going to pay attention to it. At the end of the day, they are going to do what they want. I don’t think our vote actually counts. —Female Latino respondent in Texans Together focus group

Texas remains a conservative-run state with low taxes and beleaguered social service and education systems—a place that favors the wealthy even as poor and minority populations are growing. To understand why Texas is the way it is, you have to understand that we vote at rates dramatically below the rest of the country.

Texas is consistently in the bottom five states for voter turnout. In the 2010 election, about 41 percent of eligible voters turned out nationwide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Texas, 32 percent did. That means Rick Perry was elected to his third full term by just 17 percent of the state’s eligible voters.

Among Hispanics, these rates are even lower. The national Latino voting rate was close to 50 percent in 2008. But in Texas that year, just 38 percent of Latinos turned out to vote. In California, 57 percent of Latinos went to the polls.

In 2008, Latinos accounted for almost 40 percent of the eligible voters in Texas, but cast only 12 percent of the votes. In Harris County, fewer than a quarter of eligible Latinos—citizens over 18 whether they’re registered to vote or not—decided to vote. Among working-class Latinos, turnout was in the low teens.

That was for a presidential election. The numbers are even lower for statewide elections. This is the flaw in the Texas-turning-Democratic argument. In 2010, the Houston Chronicle, considering the Bill White gubernatorial campaign in light of Latino population growth, asked: “Is this the year? The year that the state’s soon-to-be-majority minority group begins to exert the power and political influence reflective of its formidable numbers? The year that long-beleaguered Texas Democrats climb aboard the demographic express and ride out of the political wilderness?”

It was not the year. White and the rest of the Democratic slate got smashed. No Democrat has won a statewide race in Texas since 1994, a losing streak that encompasses 91 races. If Latino voters had turned out at anywhere near California’s rates, or even the national average, White might have had a chance.

In fact, if Texas Latinos participated in politics at the same rates they do in other Latino-rich states—California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona—then Texas would already be a swing state. Texas has about the same percentage of Latinos as California. If they had turned out at the same rates as Anglos in 2008, 1.2 million more Latinos would have voted, according to Census figures. McCain beat Obama in Texas by 951,000 votes.

There is an unfortunate habit in a lot of political writing on this subject to treat demographic projections as deterministic. We talk about voting as though it’s an inevitable part of people’s lives, and they only have to be persuaded to vote the way we want. But there’s nothing inherent to Latinos about voting Democrat, or about voting at all. In the real world, “voting” isn’t a thing that just happens. It isn’t a “demographic express” you can hop on. Real people either decide to take off work, find their way to the polls, stand in line and vote, or they don’t. That’s a decision with costs and consequences—costs that fall most heavily on those in the lowest strata of society.

Latino voters in Texas are in many ways a natural target for progressives. In Harris County, 55 percent of Latino adults between 18 and 64 years old have no health insurance, compared to 11 percent of Anglos. Nearly half of adult Hispanics in Texas don’t have a high school degree, compared to 8 percent of Anglos. Only 11 percent of Hispanics have a college or graduate degree, compared to 33 percent of Anglos.

A funny thing happens when the Texans Together focus group is asked how they feel about Obama’s healthcare law. When told, “Some people say that the next election will determine whether or not we get to keep the new healthcare law or whether it will be repealed,” they’re indifferent. Only two people say it would motivate them to vote. “I’d have to know what was in it,” one says.

Then the moderator explains it, albeit in a slightly leading way: “One third of Harris County residents lack healthcare coverage and they won’t get it. Under the new healthcare law, over 400,000 working people without coverage in Harris County would be covered in 2014, but Texas’ refusal to participate in the program would ensure that citizens and hospitals in Harris County didn’t get their fair share of these healthcare dollars.”

Suddenly, the response is overwhelming: 9 out of 10 people in the room are for it.

“The way I see it,” one woman says, “one out of three, that would mean three to four of us in this room wouldn’t get it and would die because we couldn’t afford the medical bill, and without coverage, you basically go broke, lose everything, be in the streets and you could die.”

It’s a graphic example of the information disconnect. It’s not that they are apathetic or opposed to progressive policies. They just didn’t know.

if you don’t have income, if you don’t have a car—how can you get to the place to vote? Because some of those places to vote are so far off. It’s not in a district where you can walk. So if you don’t have money to pay nobody to take you … you can’t vote. If you don’t have money to get on the bus … you can’t vote.” —Shannon, Alief resident

Republicans are aware of what demographic shifts in Texas could mean for them: permanent minority status. But that only happens if Latinos continue voting for Democrats, and if many more Latinos start voting soon. As it stands, Republicans have responded to demographic trends with short- and long-term strategies.

In the long-term, Republicans need to start winning over enough Latinos to keep pace with the population increase. Despite their recent nativist outcry, the party has already started working on this. Steve Munisteri, the state’s GOP chair, has stressed that Latino outreach is central to his party’s continued success, holding summits and making sure Republicans have a presence at Hispanic conventions and conferences. Under Munisteri, the GOP has been recruiting and supporting Latino candidates with the help of the Hispanic Republicans of Texas, a group funded and supported by prominent Hispanic Republicans like George P. Bush.

“We’re very aware that we need a much larger majority of the Hispanic vote in the future if we’re going to remain the majority,” Munisteri told the Observer in 2011. “We’re operating on borrowed time.”

The Hispanic Republicans of Texas were big supporters of Ted Cruz in his recent, successful U.S. Senate primary campaign against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. The press release endorsing Cruz lays out the game plan: “As it stands today, Hispanic leaders are disproportionately under-represented as elected officeholders especially as Republicans. Hispanic Republicans of Texas has been established to close the gap, build leadership within the Hispanic community and support those who are ready to serve as elected leaders of this state.”

Cruz handily beat Dewhurst. In the 2010 cycle, HRT managed to elect five new Hispanic Republicans to the Texas Legislature and two more to Congress. In the last year, two Hispanic state reps from the Democratic stronghold of South Texas—state Reps. Aaron Peña and J.M. Lozano—have defected to the GOP.

For progressive organizers, this is a worrying development.

“Latinos tend to be socially conservative and economically progressive,” one Alief organizer told me. “If the Democrats aren’t offering them the policies that will make their lives better, and the Republicans are at least offering them the social issues, it makes sense that they would vote Republican. At least they would get something.”

In the future, the GOP doesn’t have to win a majority of the Latino vote; it just has to win enough to keep Democratic vote totals down. As it is, Republicans tend to get about a third of Hispanic votes. Recent anti-immigration rhetoric has pushed that down to around a quarter, but there’s no reason this can’t change. In 2004, George W. Bush—who speaks some Spanish, and pushed for immigration reform—took 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. The Latino community isn’t monolithic. It comprises a huge range of cultural and national identities, and for wealthier, more established Texas Hispanics, it isn’t crazy to see the Republican appeal.

But at the moment, when unlikely voters do vote, they are far more likely to vote Democratic. That’s where the short-term strategy comes in. In the short term, it is essential to Republicans that low-propensity Latinos not vote in serious numbers anytime soon. This, according to Mark Jones, a demographer at Rice University, leaves pragmatic Republicans with a delicate balance to strike.

“They’re walking a tightrope between appeasing the Anglo base without giving the Dems anything to organize around,” Jones said. “They have to make the base believe they’re doing everything possible about immigration without doing anything to alienate Hispanics or pragmatic business people. And they have to avoid giving the Democratic population—and the Hispanic population in general—an issue that inspires them to vote.”

You can see this Republican thread-the-needle strategy in the Voter ID law, which would have required that every voter show a photo identification to vote. Republicans said the law was necessary to combat voter fraud. Because most voters without IDs are poor, and therefore more likely to vote Democratic, it was also an easy way to gain points in an election. The hard-right and nativist wings of the Republican Party—who have been pushing Voter ID for a decade—like it, and it doesn’t sound so overtly anti-Hispanic that it animates Hispanic Texans to vote.

“You have to fight the perception that a lot of people [have]—including a majority of Hispanics—of ‘they don’t have an ID? Why not?’” Jones said. “It’s hard to motivate regular people around Voter ID, because it’s hard to see the immediate connection between that and civil rights. You have to go a couple steps. You have to say, ‘Voter ID impacts those with least resources and wealth, who will then have a hard time getting the resources they need, and they’re disproportionately likely to be Latino.’ … It’s a complicated argument, and it takes a few minutes. It’s not a ‘show us your papers’ law, where it’s easy to get people emotional.”

In September, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., ruled that Voter ID would impinge minority voting rights and struck down the law. The state can appeal the ruling, but it’s too late for Voter ID to take effect before the 2012 election. Had the law survived, Jones thinks, it might have shaved 2 to 3 percent off the Democratic vote, which could have been enough to flip some elections.

Meanwhile, in redistricting the state’s legislative map, Republicans factored in disengagement, and drew districts around low-propensity Latino voters to dilute minority voting strength. In the 2010 census, Texas gained enough population for four new congressional seats. Most of that growth was among Latino and black residents. If Texas had relied solely on Anglo growth, it wouldn’t have gained a single seat. But the map approved by state legislators generated not a single new Latino-majority district in Congress.

The D.C. appeals court also struck down that redistricting map—a week before rejecting Voter ID—after finding that it had been drawn with “discriminatory purpose” to prevent increasing Latino representation. The court’s statement was acidic: “The only explanation Texas offers for this pattern is ‘coincidence.’ But if this was coincidence, it was a striking one indeed. It is difficult to believe that pure chance would lead to such results.”

As an example, the court found that state House District 117, just west of San Antonio, had been redrawn so it would “elect the Anglo-preferred candidate yet would look like a Hispanic [opportunity] district on paper.” The mapmakers did this by swapping high-propensity voters for low-propensity voters, a pattern they repeated across the state.

Taking the testimony of the lead mapmaker, the federal appeals court ruled, “this testimony is concerning because it shows a deliberate, race-conscious method to manipulate not simply the Democratic vote but, more specifically, the Hispanic vote.”

The state is operating under a temporary map for the November elections; a new map will have to be drawn in the next two years. Alief, meanwhile, is in a House district with a minority of white Republicans who tend to win because of Alief’s low turnout.

Alief, though, shows a potential flaw in the Republican strategy: A lot of these “safe Republican seats” are majority-minority.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Michael Li, who runs the Texas Redistricting blog. “If those non-voting African-Americans and Hispanics start voting, they’d start winning safe Republican seats.

“It’s a bet they felt safe making because of low-voter turnout ratings, but if we ever get off our duff and start organizing higher voting, those seats would be eminently winnable.”

MALE RESPONDENT: If somebody over the phone asked me to go vote, I probably wouldn’t have shown up. I wouldn’t have shown up. You’ve got to have somebody that got their hand in the community …

FEMALE RESPONDENT: …who has more of your interest, who’s making a difference.

MALE RESPONDENT: Somebody who is really physically out here 24/7. Wakes up and goes to sleep in this community. [The organizer who brought us] does this and he’s serious about it. You always see him doing something in our community.

We know what it would take to increase voter turnout: daily, on-the-ground action. That’s what progressives in other Latino-rich states—particularly Colorado—did to help flip them from Republican to Democratic. In 2000, Latinos in Colorado and the Mountain West voted at about the same levels as Texas Latinos—around 40 percent. But since 2002, wealthy Colorado progressives have been pouring money into creating a nonprofit network. One aspect of this strategy was turning out low-propensity voters, which they did by old-fashioned community organizing. They set up field offices in Latino-majority neighborhoods. They paid for organizers to talk to local leaders, and tried to establish a daily, on-the-ground presence.

Michael Huttner, a political strategist and the founder of ProgressNow, which helped develop the Colorado model, which has now been replicated in 23 states, told me, “The idea is that it has to be organic to the state. It has to be people from the community, who know the community. Every other year, just before the election, you get all this late money coming in. All these organizers from D.C. who say, ‘Hey, I organized Iowa, I can organize Texas.’ That doesn’t work.”

ProgressNow worked to build daily contact with people on issues they really cared about. “You build a relationship during the year on mainstream, substantive issues. Pocketbook issues. A utility provider hiking up home electricity bills,” Huttner said. “You develop a relationship based on fighting their home heating bill. Then, in the election, you’ve already segmented those folks. They know what they’re in.”

Colorado’s Latino turnout began to rise (it reached 50 percent by 2008, nearly double Harris County’s). With more Latinos voting, Democrats started winning. In 2004, an otherwise banner year for Republicans, Colorado Democrats took both the state House and Senate for the first time since 1960. Right-wing Republicans took notice. Fred Barnes at the conservative The Weekly Standard did a 2008 cover story on the “Colorado Model.” He warned Republicans that “there’s something unique going on in Colorado that, if copied in other states, has the potential to produce sweeping Democratic gains nationwide.”

Because Texas is so large, and so non-competitive, said Mike Lux, a Democratic consultant based in D.C., national Democrats have been reluctant to invest money in the state. What happened with Texas, likely, is that very early in the 2010 election-cycle—probably 2009—a bunch of DNC decision makers looked at Texas’ demographics and dismal voter turnout, shook their heads, and said, ‘Well, no shot here.’

“When states are more competitive, they get more resources,” Lux said. “They decided it wasn’t worth the investment.

“Someday, a campaign will look at Texas and see that the numbers have changed enough to justify a big voter-turnout push. But right now, Texas is so big, and has such a huge population, that that would cost too much money to be worth it.”

This means that Texans are on their own. There are people in Houston who are working to close the gap. Texans Together, for instance. Another group trying to organize is Mi Familia Vota, a voting-rights nonprofit that has been moving east from California. In Texas, the organization works mostly in Sharpstown and the near north side of Houston, between downtown and the 610 Loop. They have 15 canvassers trying to register and turn out about 9 percent of the city’s roughly 160,000 unregistered but eligible Latino voters. These canvassers work at community events and sit outside El Ahorro supermarkets, trying to sign people up to vote.

Carlos Duarte, an activist with Mi Familia Vota, finds that what works best is not assuming that people understand the issues. “You have to attach it to something. You have to take the issues and make them concrete. Latino families tend to have a lot of kids. So they worry about education. So we would be out at community events. We would say to people, ‘the Texas Legislature has cut $5 billion from public schools. Have you noticed a difference in your child’s school?’

“And they would say, ‘Yes, I notice there are more kids in classes, there are fewer programs.’

“And we’d say, ‘Okay, well, you can do something about this. You can register to vote.’ And they generally say, ‘Sign me up.’ Someone has to make the connection. They have noticed the change, but they haven’t connected it to their vote.”

I THINK THE VOTING … you can vote, but you need to take action. Like if you feel that this is not happening, you should go out there and actually do something and have it happen. Because of voting? You’re just going to vote. It’s just going to be another paper being pounded. —Female Latino respondent

Duarte’s efforts are the exception. Most people in Alief have never seen a progressive activist.

Texas Democrats have traditionally spent most of their money on advertising—mailers and media—which studies have shown does not increase voter turnout. When Dems tried to sweep Harris County in 2008, they poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign. Most of it was spent on advertising, according to campaign filings. The Texas Democratic Trust also funneled money to affiliated organizations such as the First Tuesday PAC, a Democratic outfit formed in 2008 to win Harris County. As the Observer reported at the time, the First Tuesday PAC spent nearly $1 million on Democratic campaigns in 2008 in Harris County, according to state records. Only about $51,000 of that went toward field operations and voter outreach. Meanwhile, the PAC spent $775,000 on media buys.

Newly elected Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa has promised to increase the party’s grassroots operations. And a new nonprofit group formed after the 2010 elections, the Texas Organizing Project, has been harnessing private donations for community organizing and voter-turnout efforts. But the work is slow.

If Mike Lux is right, some day in the next decade a bunch of Democratic consultants in Washington will look at Texas’ demographics, nod at each other, and say, “Okay, it’s time.” Lux estimates that it would take “tens of millions” of dollars to pay for the sort of Colorado-style effort that could flip the state. But at some point, he thinks, the national Democrats will decide the reward is worth the money.

The question is, what will Texas look like by then? Republicans, too, are courting the Latino vote, and they’re moving fast. The Republicans don’t need to win over all—or even most—Latinos. They just have to strip off a few percentage points every election cycle. That would be enough to make it very hard for Democrats to win. If the Democrats wait too long, it may be too late.

So for now, it’s essentially up to Texas progressives and their nascent organizing operations to find ways to boost turnout. They will have to send organizers to places like Alief, where few people have ever seen one.

Fred Lewis, the head of Texans Together, puts it like this: “If you want people to be engaged, you have to develop social capital. You can’t just show up for an election and knock on a door of some people who think the process is broken and who have never seen anyone in their neighborhoods. Who have no idea what activism is, who have no idea what the issues are. If I’m on the couch, I’m not going to jump up and become an eager activist and voter overnight.”