Lone Star State’s voter turnout hotter than any Texas BBQ
The early vote in Texas has broken all previous records for that state. | LM Otero/AP

Across the country, neither the resurgent COVID-19 pandemic nor GOP voter suppression is deterring millions of voters from casting their ballots. Early voter turnout is shattering records (as of this writing, 71 million, or over half of total turnout in 2016, have already voted), and at this pace, the U.S. will experience the highest percentage of eligible voter turnout since 1909.

But woo doggy, what is going on in Texas? Despite the nation’s worst voter suppression laws, a walloping 8 million Texans have already voted, including one million on the first day of in-person early voting alone, or 80% of the state’s total 2016 vote. Turnout is the largest in the nation and hotter than any Texas BBQ.

While Republican turnout is big, Democratic turnout in blue cities and counties is huge too. Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris is planning to spend an entire day campaigning in the state.

For example, the Harris County early vote, home to Houston, is on pace to surpass total turnout for 2016. “The numbers we’ve seen, they’ve blown out our expectations,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “We certainly expect this will be the highest turnout election of all-time here.”

Texas, in many ways, epitomizes the future of U.S. society and politics. The state is undergoing profound transformations demographically and politically. A few years ago, Texas was a ruby-red state and stronghold of the GOP nationally. Now, Joe Biden is tightly contesting Trump and leads in at least one poll.

A strong challenge by Democrat M.J. Hegar is making incumbent GOP Senator John Cornyn more nervous than a fly in a glue pot. The retirement of 12 GOP House members has opened the door to Democrats winning additional congressional seats. Democrats are targeting seven seats to flip.

Democrats are also within striking distance of taking the state House of Representatives for the first time since 2000, critical to the upcoming battle for redistricting. Twenty-two house seats are in play, and Democrats must win nine to claim the majority.

A blue Texas has enormous implications for the extreme right domination of politics nationally. Losing Texas’ 38 electoral votes sinks the GOP project of maintaining power by winning most electoral votes despite losing the popular vote. As Sen. Bernie Sanders says, “the face of American politics will be changed.”

Taking protests to the polls

The protest uprising sparked by Trump’s election is materializing at the polls, a movement led by communities of color, women, organized labor, and youth in alliance with the Democratic Party.

Turnout crosses demographics, led by a large Latino early vote. Texas leads the nation in youth turnout, which has doubled from 2016, including young Latinos. Charlie Bonner, the director of communications for MOVE Texas, said high turnout among young people is the direct result of years of organizing.

“I am feeling excited about what we are seeing and really proud of all the work that has gone into this over several years of young people on the ground registering, and talking to and empowering other young people,” he said.

Overcoming GOP voter suppression

Among states, Texas ranks dead last in ease of voting and 43rd  in voter turnout, the consequence of 150 years of laws rooted in Jim Crow racism disenfranchising African American and Mexican American voters. Besides, for 20 years, the GOP has had a “trifecta,” dominating all three state government branches. With unchallenged power, the GOP imposed new voting restrictions and carried out extreme gerrymandering of districts.

The shifting politics, rising movements, and changing demographics are threatening to break the GOP autocratic power grip. Nearly everything is transforming, including the Democratic Party itself, which features the most racially and gender-inclusive set of candidates running for Congress and state legislature ever, many of them grassroots activists.

The GOP is desperately erecting more barriers to voting in the face of this threat. They include closing more polling places than any state, purging voting rolls, imposing restrictive registration and voter ID laws, repealing straight-ticket voting, restricting mail-in ballot requests, and permitting only one ballot drop-off location per county. An Appeals Court ruled Texas election officials can reject ballots with mismatching signatures and need not inform voters until after the election.

But greater determination to vote greets each new barrier, especially during the pandemic. “I’ve been voting for over 45 years,” said Cheryl Dade at a drive-through vote location in Houston. “And this is the most important election. I just feel like our voices are trying to be suppressed.”

Shifting blue

Vote totals statewide between Democratic and Republican candidates have narrowed since 2016. Beto O’Rourke rocked the state by coming within two percent of defeating GOP Senator Ted Cruz in 2018, raising hopes the new Texas was near. After his failed presidential campaign, O’Rourke returned home and established Powered by People, a statewide grassroots organization.

Many factors are driving the change. Most Texans and 71% of school children are people of color, and Latinos will comprise a plurality by 2021. Democratic voters are moving into the state, and college-educated voters are fleeing the GOP.

The five major Texas cities (Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso, and Austin) and the top ten counties are all heavily blue and growing. Progressive Democratic elected officials in the largest three counties have instituted changes to drive up turnout. Harris County Chief Executive and Judge Lin Hidalgo are among those taking steps to bolster the voting infrastructure and make it easier to vote.

“Voters have seen attempts by state leadership, now by the state GOP to suppress the vote, to purge voter rolls, to limit the number of drop boxes and now going after the drive-thru voting program. And they’re not having it,” said Hidalgo. Hidalgo instituted popular drive-through voting sites that withstood GOP court challenges.

Democratic candidate for US Senate, M.J. Hegar, challenging Trump stalwart, GOP Sen. John Cornyn. | Bronte Wittpenn/Austin American-Statesman via AP

“We’ve made enormous investments in voting since I came into office one and a half years ago,” said Hidalgo. “So, we’re seeing what happens when county officials invest to make elections convenient and safe.”

Transformative grassroots movements

The broad alliance of movements and organizations fighting GOP and right-wing policies have also been working hard to register hundreds of thousands of voters, mobilize millions of voters to the polls, and elect pro-people candidates at every level.

For example, Powered by People volunteers have made 13 million phone calls and 13 million texts to voters. Meanwhile, the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) has reached 1.4 million voters and sent 400,000 texts. Of the three million infrequent voters of color in Texas, 900,000 live in three counties TOP organizes.

One of the young activists inspired by O’Rourke’s senate run is Kevin Patterson from Wylie. At age 19, Patterson is already a veteran of five campaigns. This year, Patterson is the GOTV phone bank coordinator for Our Revolution (OR) and works with the Sunrise Movement.

Patterson, a Brazilian American student at UT Dallas, and OR are focused on flipping the nine state House seats Democrats need to take the majority, including one in the Dallas area with Lorenzo Sanchez, son of Mexican immigrants. Sanchez reflects the diversity of Democratic candidates running across the state. If elected, he would become the first openly LGBTQ+ man and the first Latino from Collin County ever elected to the state legislature.

“Our goal is to tell people to vote down ballot and not just the top,” said Patterson, who exudes more energy than a Texas refinery gas flare. “We are organizing phone banks, zoom meetings, text banking, and sending postcards.”

TOP, Move Texas, Texas Rising, Jolt Action, and other groups have been busy registering tens of thousands of students to vote.  According to Patterson, climate change, racial justice, student debt, and defeating Trump are all motivating youth to the polls. “The turnout demonstrates the power of youth organizing. If you start organizing in youth spaces they come out in droves,” Patterson told People’s World.

Transformative Impact of Latinx voters

The fastest-growing block of voters in Texas are Latinos, who number 11 million and will make up most of the state’s population by 2030. One in three voters is Latinos, doubling from 2014 to 2018.

The Latino community is a crucial driver of the emerging inclusive, progressive oriented Texas. “I’m very excited for the change coming to Texas,” Pedro Lira, Jolt Action Civic Engagement Director, told People’s World. “In 2017 the GOP legislature concentrated on social issues like the so-called bathroom bill and immigration, targeting communities of color and transgender people. In 2020, they have calmed down. They know the landscape has changed.”

Jolt Action was founded in response to Trump’s victory and is the largest group organizing Latinos in the state. Like Lira, the staff is mostly young Latinos who have accumulated a wealth of grassroots organizing experience in a short time.

Today Jolt boasts a membership of nearly 22,000 with 23 campus chapters. The organization says it boosted youth turnout statewide as part of the upsurge that almost elected Beto O’Rourke by 500% in 2018 and Latino early turnout in 2020 by 250%.

“Our targeted universe of voters falls in the low voter turnout category,” said Lira. “These young voters of color, especially young Latinos, have largely been ignored by campaigns. It’s important to turn them out this year,” he said.

Jolt Action has registered nearly 5,000 new voters in 2020 under difficult pandemic circumstances while targeting voters in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. Issues are emphasized over candidates, such as jobs, addressing Covid-19 and access to healthcare, climate justice, education and student debt, immigration reform, and racial justice.

Voter engagement is conducted through the medium of art and language from Latino culture (including a message to vote from the abuelas!), lit drops, digital ads, push cards, text messaging, and phone banking. The pandemic is limiting door-to-door conversations, and PPE and sanitizing wipes are dispensed with encouragement to vote early.

Jolt Action sees its mission to prepare the next generation of community leaders and empower young people with grassroots campaigns around issues, how the legislative process works, and learning organizing skills through their Levantate Leadership Institute.

“I worked in Milwaukee in 2016. When Trump won, the terror was overwhelming. But people weren’t resigned and wanted to fight,” said Lira. “The election is about reclaiming values and democratic institutions gutted by this administration and restoring decency,” said Lira. “I see a very hopeful movement among my peers, to make good on the American Dream and opportunity to live a good and full life.”

Red for Ed

Among the Congressional seats in play is the 10th CD, where former teacher and civil rights lawyer Michael Siegel is challenging GOP incumbent Rep. Michael McCaul for the second time. Siegel lost in 2018 by just 4 %, sending shock waves through the GOP. He has the backing of a broad coalition stretching from labor to the Sunrise Movement and supports the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.

Among Siegel’s most active supporters are AFT and NEA educators. The unions are waging pitched battles with the Texas Education Agency, which forced schools to reopen with in-person learning despite the raging pandemic. Hundreds of teachers, staff, and students have been sickened.

In Austin, the AFT and NEA locals merged in 1999, the first in the state to do so. Education Austin has learned to build a union and forge alliances with parents, students, and the community against rightwing political dominance, right to work (for less) laws, and retrograde education policies.

Education Austin, the largest union in the city, covers 3,000 teachers, support personnel, and other employees. The way Education Austin President Ken Zarifis sees it, the union has been steeled in the struggle against the GOP political domination.

“In 2006 we were talking about gaining 50% Democratic representation in the statehouse,” Zarifis told People’s World. “In 2008 there was a kneejerk reaction to the election of the first Black man to be president. We were dealing with the Tea Party and a recession. The rightwing in Texas solidified and it was difficult to gain any traction politically.”

“They used the ‘education reform’ movement to massively cut the state education budget and impose charter schools,” said Zarifis. “Statewide 10,000 teachers were terminated, including 1,100 in Austin. One of those was my wife.”

The union united the community to elect an anti-charter majority to the Austin School Board, which then terminated the IDEA charter school network contract. “There’s tremendous power in local politics, of unity between teachers, students, and families. We had to do this locally because the federal government wouldn’t. That was an amazing lesson to me,” he said.

“The right to work and Janus (SCOTUS) decision made us dive deeply into our members. That engagement gives us a lot of power,” said Zarifis. The union built a culture of activism, learned to stay engaged, and continually defended their victories, a good lesson for post-November. Of Education Austin’s 3,000 members, only 100 haven’t voted yet.

GOP Sen. John Cornyn is in danger of losing to M.J. Hegar. | AP

“This is part of the transformation we’re seeing in Texas now. If we weren’t gerrymandered, and the districts really reflected people, it would already be a purple state,” said Zarifis.

Fighting the GOP covid policy is a life and death issue. The GOP policy is to reopen the economy, whatever the costs. “They are demanding teachers come back. When we have an increase in attendance we have infection spikes,” said Zarifis. “As a result, more joined the union in the summer and fall than over the past decade.”

Education Austin is prioritizing defending four allies on the Austin School Board on Nov. 3. The fight is mobilizing voters who oppose GOP policies and candidates up the ballot.

“All of this is pretty ugly, but my hope factor is very high now. We’ve done nothing but punch and hit over the past decade. But I learned if I fight, someone will hit the ground. We as a union won’t give up,” he said.


CONTRIBUTOR

John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He served as national chair of the Communist Party USA from 2014 to 2019. He is a regular writer for People's World, and active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, Pittsburgh, and Albuquerque and attended Antioch College. He currently lives in Chicago where he is an avid swimmer, cyclist, runner, and dabbler in guitar and occasional singer in a community chorus.

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