Local strong-arm tactics, with media acquiescence in writing off Texas as a "red state," may jeopardize the voting process in Texas elections.
There is historical precedent here. Years ago, I moved to the Mississippi Delta to take a university teaching position. During my time living near Highway 61, I joined the state governing board of Common Cause, which in Mississippi had a very small membership. One of our ongoing concerns was Republican gerrymandering of the Mississippi Delta to prevent any congressional district from becoming majority African-American.
Quick geography review here: The Delta is not actually delta-shaped but is a swath of land running up and down both banks of the Mississippi. It is utterly flat, alluvial plain deposited over geological ages by flooding (mostly contained by the building of levees in 1927) and culminates among the tributaries on the Gulf Coast, with New Orleans its ultimate extension.
Physically, the Delta is an eerily beautiful Nile-like flatness of fanning fields and tiny railroad towns and occasional poplars, where the land merges into the atmosphere on a wet day and narrow highways can be seen all the way to the horizon on a clear day. Minor foothills rising near Memphis come as a visual shock.
Historically, it was slave land. Since the Delta was rich bottom land, good for cotton, it was carved into plantations. A British company still owned over a million acres at the time I was there. In other words, it is still African-American. And as CalTech Professor J. M. Kousser pointed out in The Shaping of Southern Politics, the minority white caste on lowlands in the South tended to control more harshly than did the white population in the hills. (So much for Easy Rider and Deliverance.)
This is the territory -- one history, one economy, one terrain -- that the GOP spent years trying to divide into four horizontal stripes, quartering the Delta in the western end of each stripe. Everybody knew the game. When I testified for Common Cause locally at a congressional redistricting hearing, the white congressmen present were as rude to me as they dared to be and the black members were as courteous to me as they dared to be. Mississippi fought vainly to preserve those artificial stripes, spending much-needed state funds in the process, until the Supreme Court ultimately overturned the redistricting.
The same kind of thing is now going on in Texas. Of the 254 Texas counties, at least 60 are located entirely or partly south of a straight line drawn westward through Houston -- and at least another 15 partly or entirely south of a parallel through Austin. That's 75 counties solidly in the southernmost third of Texas, which voted substantially Democratic in the 2002 elections.
This is the area that DeLay and Bush supporters in Texas have been working so hard to gerrymander vertically.
Texas is a huge state, and its southern third is nothing like as unitary a terrain as the Delta. But it is heavily Latino, and it numbers children, the poor and poor children disproportionately in its population. A spokesman at the state Democratic headquarters said that they expect the southernmost counties to go overwhelmingly Democratic. Accordingly, state Democrats have sought harder to register voters than the state GOP, he said. The deadline for voter registration in Texas was Oct. 4. Since Texas does not have partisan registration, exact tallies are not possible, but estimated registration is up by almost a million new voters. Travis County, around Austin, is up by 70% since 2000.
Population-wise, even South Texas is nothing to sneeze at. Even the eight counties at the bottommost tip, south of Duval County (legendary for its voting irregularities), have over a million in population. The next tiers up, about 30 counties south or partly south of Galveston, have over two million people, many of them concentrated on the Gulf Coast and around burgeoning San Antonio.
Estimating conservatively, that's a population, not counting Houston or Austin, of over 3 million in the southern third of Texas, which as mentioned went solidly Dem in the last election cycle. Throw in Houston with 3.5 million, western El Paso County with 705,436 and the eastern Gulf Coast with over 300,000, and it's no wonder DeLay's crew was not eager to take any chances with random, unfettered voting. With unemployment going up in Dallas and population going down in Midland, the prospect of a fair fight in upcoming elections must have looked particularly unappetizing. Hence, Republicans in the state legislature rushed to overturn a previous court-ordered redistricting plan with one of their own -- carving out snakelike vertical districts, including one that stretches all the way from Austin to the Mexican border.
Aside from other factors, as the Houston Chronicle reported tersely this past August, the state of Texas is now officially "majority minority." Non-Hispanic whites now comprise less than 50% of the population in Texas. Commentators had projected the overall trend, but it moved faster than predicted; this wasn't supposed to happen for another year or so.
Latinos have never voted simply as a bloc. Republican strong-arm tactics over the past two years, however, combined with a deeply unpopular war in Iraq and worsening economic conditions for the most vulnerable and the middle class, have not exactly enhanced GOP registration.
According to the Democratic spokesman, "Since the Democratic National Committee decided to ignore us [the Texas Democratic party], I would be surprised if Bush didn't carry Texas, but Bush won't do quite as well as in 2000. Of the five Democratic congressmen they've picked to defeat, we expect at least three or four to keep their seats, or maybe five. We also expect to pick up seats in the state Legislature for the first time since 1972."
Speaking of Mississippi, it is to be hoped that Texas polls will not be ignored by election observers. The blanket insistence on Texas as a "red state" could cover up even the grossest abuses on election day.
Margie Burns, a native Texan, is a freelance writer in Maryland. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.