A bad week for democracy in Texas

Texas is in bad shape, folks. Massive flooding has led even the most rabidly anti-spending Republicans to crawl back to Washington asking for money. The state is doing all it can to prevent its citizens from getting health insurance, and is making it easier for doctors to deny them once they have it. The state’s legislature is having an existential crisis over what will happen if the Supreme Court forces them to let same-sex couples get married.

But it goes beyond that. In an impressive display of how bad it is at democracy, Texas went through three cases in two days this week that demonstrate a systematic effort to deny citizenship and voting rights for no good reason other than electioneering:

Diluting Hispanic voting power

First, on Tuesday, two Texans got the Supreme Court to reconsider the “one person, one vote” principle that has been a standard of our democracy for over 50 years — asking for a redefinition based on data that no one currently collects in order to undermine the state’s growing Hispanic population.

The plaintiffs in the case are asking the Court to interpret the principle based on eligible voters instead of total population, since apparently the taxes that non-eligible voters pay don’t count when it comes to deciding how to represent them. If the eligible voter standard is adopted, it would cut the voting power of urban centers such as Dallas and Houston — with large numbers of ineligible voters — in half, making it much more difficult to draw district lines that provide minority protections under the Voting Rights Act while making any semblance of geographic sense.

Nullifying birthright citizenship

Then, later on Tuesday, a group of immigrants sued the state’s Department of State Health Services for refusing to grant the American-born children of Mexican citizens residing in the United States birth certificates. Per The Monitor:

Lawyer Jennifer Harbury said at a news conference Wednesday that the lawsuit came after registrars’ offices across the Valley and in El Paso turned people away, telling them that the matricula card — a secondary identification issued by a Mexican consulate — is not being accepted as a valid form of identification.

State officials ordered employees to follow a policy that denies the use of the card and a passport without a proper visa, Harbury said, without making any official changes to the Texas Administrative Code.

In other words, a few folks in the Texas state government decided that the children of immigrants shouldn’t get to become American citizens — a right specifically protected by the 14th Amendment. Of course, the flagrantly unconstitutional notion that American-born children of immigrants are less-deserving of citizenship than American-born children of natives has been picked up by Constitution-waving conservatives around the country, who fear that an influx of anchor babies are going to cause all manner of harms ranging from diluting American culture to incubating terrorism.

It should go without saying that the 14th Amendment is not subject to bureaucratic discretion, but apparently someone needs to say that to Texas’s Department of State Health Services. They don’t get to decide who is and isn’t a citizen; the Constitution does.

Nullifying voter registration

As morally suspect as the above two cases are, advocates for the eligible voter standard and an end to birthright citizenship can at least make a bad argument that their motivations are grounded in punishing those who enter the country illegally. But by Wednesday, even that bad argument lost whatever legs it had to stand on. Texas isn’t just interested in taking away and/or ignoring the civil rights of non-citizens; it wants to ignore the rights of citizens who may vote for Democrats, too.

Flag of Texas, via Wikimedia Commons

Flag of Texas, via Wikimedia Commons

This was made apparent when Battleground Texas sent a letter to Secretary of State Carlos Cascos — likely in advance of a lawsuit — alleging that Texas’s government has systematically ignored voter registration forms filled out at government agencies such as the Department of Public Safety (Texas’s DMV), and has failed to act on many of the more than 4,600 complaints filed regarding registration issues from September of 2013 through December of 2014. This led thousands of citizens to show up to vote under the assumption that they were registered, only to find that they were not on the rolls.

The bureaucratic snafu — to put it generously — arose due to the DPS automatically dropping voters who submit change of address forms from the voter rolls at their previous address, rather than updating their registration to reflect their new address. According to the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, change of address forms are supposed to automatically update registration unless the citizen affirmatively opts-out.

If the number of complaints is in the thousands, the number of voters who were actually disenfranchised is likely much, much higher.

While these violations of voting rights affect anyone filling out a change of address at Texas DPSs, they are likely to disproportionately affect lower-income and minority voters in the state. As MSNBC notes, only 39 percent Hispanic Texans who were eligible to vote in 2012 did so, while 61 percent of eligible white voters and 63 percent of eligible black voters cast ballots. Furthermore, voter registration issues disproportionally affect voters who move frequently — lower-income, minority and young voters who lean Democratic. Texas had the fourth-lowest voter registration rate in the country as of 2012, and barriers to entry in voter registration are also one of the primary reasons why eligible voters don’t cast ballots.

What’s really pernicious about the state effectively taking legitimate voter registration forms and delicately placing them in the trash is that it doesn’t affect people who are breaking the rules; it affects people who are, by definition of registering vote while interacting with government agencies, following the rules of citizenship perfectly.

As if it weren’t already obvious, Texas proved in more ways than seemingly possible this week how openly hostile it is to democracy. If ever there were cases for federalizing our electoral and citizenship processes, one need only look at Texas to find them.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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