Texas Two-Step

This blog post originally appeared in the New York Times Campaign Stops series.

At the L.B.J. Library in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday night, Attorney General Eric Holder forcefully renewed the Department of Justice’s commitment to protecting the right to vote. Invoking President Johnson’s remarks on signing the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965, Holder said that the right to vote “is not only the cornerstone of our system of government — it is the lifeblood of our democracy.”

In his speech, the attorney general exposed the coordinated campaign underway to deny the right to vote to millions of Americans, and pledged to use all of the weapons in the Justice Department arsenal to stop it. But advocacy to protect the right to vote is not enough to ensure that every American has a say in the future. We need to build a cultural movement for lifelong civic engagement that reflects the nation’s growing diversity, and it should be led by Latinos, African-Americans and young people. Contrary to national perceptions (thank you, Governor Perry), Texas is the ideal place to start this movement.

First, a personal note. I grew up in Texas, and after working for several years in New York City as a civil rights lawyer and advocate, I moved back to Austin earlier this year. What prompted the move was my desire to be a part of the tremendous change underway in my home state – changes that are harbingers of national trends that are redefining what it means to be an American. Yet while a majority of the state’s population now consists of Latinos and people of color – communities that tend to be more progressive, at least in the voting booth – the power structure continues to be dominated by white conservatives.

Texas was an ideal forum for Holder’s remarks for more reasons than one. The state has the second highest number of objections filed under the Voting Rights Act, surpassed only by Mississippi. And our far-right-dominated state legislature is a national leader in building new hurdles to keep Texans from the polls, most recently through one of the country’s most rigid mandatory photo ID laws. Because of its long history of minority disenfranchisement, Texas remains one of the nine states that continue to require Justice Department pre-clearance for changes to its voting rules and regulations.

Texas is also a central battleground for voting rights because of its explosive growth. We gained more than four million new residents in the 2010 census, with Latinos accounting for 65 percent of that growth and other ethnic minorities for another 24 percent, earning four new congressional districts in the process. What happens here matters nationally, both because of the sheer number of voters in the state and because we’re at the leading edge of a massive demographic shift. The legal battle over how to draw the new districts has been brewing for months and it is likely to have implications far beyond the state’s borders now that the Supreme Court has decided to hear the case.

To build an electorate that is representative of Texas as it really is, the Department of Justice and civil-rights organizations must redouble their efforts to educate voters about their rights, protect against voter-suppression tactics and ensure fair representation in the new districts created in response to the most recent census.

But equally critical to building a vibrant democracy in the state is the need to vastly expand the number of engaged citizens — and not just on Election Day. Organizing and civic engagement must go hand in hand with policy and legal work, just as they did during the civil rights movement. To build a truly representative democracy, we need a groundswell of engagement that can push back against the most determined suppression efforts.

It isn’t enough to have lawyers working to protect the franchise or for activists to register more voters. In fact, while other states struggle to register more eligible voters — a challenge that Attorney General Holder correctly pointed out could be easily solved through automatic voter registration — the rate of voter registration in Texas is actually on par with national averages.

The problem is that too few registered voters show up on Election Day, and too few stay engaged the day after. Texas has the lowest voter-turnout rate in the nation – only 32 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2010 elections, and the participation rate among Latinos was only 24 percent. The Republicans who currently have a lock on state power, and who are themselves overwhelmingly white, want to keep it that way. There’s no question that deceptive practices discourage people from going to the polls, and the dilution of minority voting rights through gerrymandering leads many to believe that their vote won’t count.

Other factors contribute to the dismal turnout rate in Texas, and need to be addressed as well. The logistical challenges of poor public transportation, too few polling places and the state’s failure to comply with the Voting Rights Act’s language requirements, also have a disproportionate impact on people of color and low-income voters. Voters are understandably disillusioned by the inability of elected officials – from both parties – to represent their views and develop solutions to the country’s problems. President Obama’s harsh deportation record and failure to gain traction for immigration reform, for example, may well discourage many Latinos from voting next year.

More must be done to educate new citizens about the importance of civic engagement, and to build and support a culture of lifelong engagement among all Texans. There is “no force more powerful,” as Attorney General Holder reminded us, “than efforts to expand the franchise.” But to build a culture of civic engagement, it isn’t enough for the attorney general and other government officials to proclaim the importance of voting.

So what would it take? Many well-intentioned voter-turnout programs have failed to make a difference because their models are flawed. Too many focus their efforts on Election Day only, parachuting organizers in from out of state, knocking on strangers’ doors, leaving generic messages on answering machines and sending unsolicited mail.

Instead, the people who are responsible for the state’s massive growth — Latinos, African Americans and younger residents — must be empowered to build their own cultural movement. We need year-round, non-partisan civic-engagement programs run by trusted community-based networks and organizations that provide services, education and support to communities. These organizations would keep people involved after Election Day, when the hard work really begins. Engaged voters must work together to hold their elected leaders accountable to campaign promises, from local leaders to state and federal officials. Only by staying active and organized can voters influence the policy issues that affect their lives — whether those issues are quality schools, clogged highways or federal immigration reform.

To build a cultural movement, we also need cultural leaders and messengers who will speak out – performers, bloggers, professional athletes and movie stars. In Texas, we’re fiercely proud of our culture in all its diverse forms – from tacos and chicken fried steak to Texas swing and Tejano music. Culture here has the ability to unite natural political opponents, transcend race and class and build new forms of community. Texans of different backgrounds and political stripes love to showcase our cultural hybrids and to regale outsiders with obscure facts about Texas history and traditions. Just ask me about the accordion.

We need to engage the state’s creative leaders in organizing and to get more creative with our organizing tactics. Why not build the base through blues and barbeque, host a traveling film series on social movements or plan a taco tour to transform Texas? Instead of being a national symbol for voter suppression and disenfranchisement, let’s make Texas the center of a cultural movement for a vibrant democracy in which everyone has a voice.

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