Why Texas Still Needs the Voting Rights Act
Published: July 17, 2013
The ability to vote—to have this process be simple, accessible, free of intimidation—is the cornerstone of a functioning democracy. The power of the vote is far-reaching, stretching miles beyond the ballot box. Now, thanks to a recent ruling by the Supreme Court, the right to vote could be limited for black, Latino, and poor voters in the state of Texas.
On June 25 the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Passed in 1965 this law protected minority voters by forcing Southern states with a history of voter intimidation and suppression to submit any changes in voting law to the Justice Department for review. By striking down Section 4(b) of the Act, which contained the formula for determining which localities required this preclearance, the Court effectively removed the enforcement power of the Act.
Through their decision, the Court expressed to the American people the sentiment that federal involvement to secure racial equality at the ballot box was no longer necessary. The reality on the ground in Texas proves otherwise, however.
Texas has a shameful history of suppressing the vote of minorities and the poor through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, Ku Klux Klan intimidation and the 1905 adoption of party primaries that were closed to all non-whites. It would not be until 1944 that the Supreme Court ruled Texas’ racist primary restrictions unconstitutional and another 21 years would pass before the VRA actually challenged Texas’ policy of white supremacy at the ballot box.
But the extension of political rights to black and Latino voters was immediately challenged in the post-VRA period as Texas, along with the rest of the South, became a focal point of the Republican Party’s new “Southern Strategy.” Tired of playing second fiddle, Republicans sought to win Southern white voters—disaffected by the gains of the Civil Rights Movement—away from the Democratic Party to which they had belonged since the Civil War.
This strategy relied on “dog whistle” politics that not so subtly hid racist messaging behind a veneer of getting tough on crime and tax reform. As Republican strategist Lee Atwater infamously explained in 1981, “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
Critical to this strategy in Texas was the attempted rollback of minority voting rights. As the Latino population in Texas grew and white men, the base of the Republican Party, became a minority in the state, the GOP focused its energy on disenfranchising non-white voters and reducing overall voter turnout.
A 2006 report by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) highlights this effort, revealing that between 1982 and 2006 Texas was second only to Mississippi in violations of the VRA.