Did the Supreme Court Just Turn Texas Blue?

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Tuesday was a busy day for Texas Republicans. After the Supreme Court invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act that specifically covered Texas, state Attorney General Greg Abbott promised that his state, newly freed from federal oversight, would "immediately" implement its previously blocked voter ID law.

The law's a zinger: It requires voters to display proper identification, such as a concealed-weapons permit, while disallowing the use of student ID's from state universities. By the state's own data, Hispanics are markedly less likely to possess the required identification. And some citizens seeking proper ID may have to pay for a copy of a birth certificate in order to obtain it.

Having promised to resurrect what is arguably the nation's most partisan voter ID law, Abbott mentioned one more thing: "Redistricting maps passed by the Legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government."

The maps in question were adopted with "discriminatory purpose," according to a federal district court panel, whose ruling, it seems, was just rendered moot by the Supreme Court. Three facts explain how the panel reached that conclusion. Population growth over the past decade gave Texas four new seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Almost all of that growth resulted from Hispanic and black population increases. Yet once state Republicans finished drawing their election maps, the number of Texas districts in which racial minorities are a majority actually declined.

Texas, like California and New Mexico, is already a minority-majority state, with non-Hispanic whites accounting for less than 45 percent of state population. Demographics are changing fast. According to demographer William Frey at the Brookings Institution, only 31.1 percent of Texans under the age of 5 are non-Hispanic white.

The demographic wave exposes a peculiar bind Republicans face in redistricting. Democratic majorities use redistricting to maximize their political power. But because the Democratic Party is a multiracial coalition, the redistricting process is partisan without necessarily being racial. For Republicans, partisan is racial. In a diverse state such as Texas, when Republicans aim at Democrats, they inevitably hit minorities. And each hit risks deepening the alienation that many minorities already feel from the Republican Party.

There is little public polling on minority awareness or reaction to voter-suppression efforts, so it's hard to gauge the impact.

Via e-mail, pollster Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions passed along a line from a November 2012 survey, in which more than nine in 10 black voters said there is "a need for the federal government to play a role in protecting the interests of racial and ethnic minorities in the area of voting rights."

That's not much to go on. Whether Hispanic voters share that "concern," however, and whether such concern translates into anger will influence the next few years of Texas politics. The state is basically a vast untapped Democratic well.

"There are currently 2 million Latinos eligible to vote who are not registered in Texas. There are 800,000 African Americans eligible to vote, but not registered in Texas," Baretto said. "Registration rates are comparatively low in Texas because historically it has not been competitive and the Democratic Party in Texas has an abysmal record of outreach to minorities."

That's changing. Democrats are now investing in organizing the state. They have a long way to go. But if the combination of Republican redistricting and voter ID regulations -- both of which inhibit minority power -- wake the sleeping nonwhite majority, the state's demographic wave could hit shore sooner than many realize. Under optimal circumstances, Barreto said the state could become a battleground in four to eight years.

Republicans seem perversely eager to bring it on. After spending the morning gearing up to annoy blacks and Hispanics, Texas Republicans inspired a fiery filibuster by Democratic state legislator Wendy Davis that stretched into the night. By trying to regulate abortion rights out of existence, Texas Republicans made a national hero of Davis, who is already talking of running for governor. Altogether, quite a day.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net