With their drive to erect new obstacles to voting, particularly across the Sun Belt, Republicans are stacking sandbags against a rising tide of demographic change.
In many of the states where Republicans are advancing the most severe restrictions – including Georgia, Arizona and Texas – shifts in the electorate’s composition are eroding decades of virtually uncontested GOP dominance.
In each of those states – and others such as North Carolina, South Carolina and, in a slightly different way, Florida – the GOP still holds a statewide advantage primarily because of its strong performance among older, non-college-educated and non-urban White voters. But in almost all those states, the Republican edge is ebbing amid two powerful demographic currents: an improving Democratic performance among white-collar voters in and around the states’ rapidly growing major cities, and the aging into the electorate of younger generations defined by kaleidoscopic racial diversity.
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That latter shift, in particular, represents an existential long-term danger to Republican control of Sun Belt states where they have held the upper hand for years: Kids of color now compose a clear majority of the under 18 population in Arizona, Texas, Georgia and Florida, and nearly half in the Carolinas, according to an analysis by William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. In Texas alone, local experts estimate that about 200,000 citizen Latinos will turn 18 and thus eligible to vote each year through at least 2028.
Many analysts agree that the restrictions on voting proliferating in such states – and the prospect that many of them will also impose severe partisan gerrymanders before the 2022 elections – represent a race-against-time effort by Republicans to entrench their political advantage before it is eroded, or washed away entirely, by that approaching surge of demographic change.
“They see the wave of demography coming and they are just trying to hold up a wall and keep it from smashing them in,” says Frey. “It’s the last bastion of their dominance, and they are doing everything they can.”
Frey argues that such obstacles can suppress the influence of these emerging generations for only so long before their numbers eventually tilt the political balance of power in these states. But many political professionals agree that the voter restrictions now under consideration, and the gerrymandering plans gathering just behind them, in multiple Republican-controlled Sun Belt states can push back that tipping point by years – or maybe entirely through the 2020s.
Which is why many Democrats say that congressional action to establish a national floor of voting rights through the omnibus bill known as HR 1 may be their only chance to break the self-reinforcing cycle of Republican control and constraints on voting that now confront them across the Sun Belt states experiencing the most profound demographic changes.
“I hate to say this, but because Democrats control absolutely no lever of power in Texas, it’s really going to come down to what we can do at the national level in the Senate,” Beto O’Rourke, the 2018 Democratic Senate candidate in Texas, told me. “And that all obviously comes down to the filibuster.”
A look at the numbers
The Republican drive to restrict access to the ballot box after the 2020 election is not confined to states experiencing rapid demographic change: It’s a virtually nationwide campaign that is also advancing in preponderantly White states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and Montana. But it is in the quickly changing Sun Belt states that the generational and racial implications of the confrontation are posed most starkly.
The political equation is not exactly identical across the Sun Belt states where Republicans are pushing voter restrictions. For instance, Republicans have shown much more strength among Latino voters (mostly from central and South America) in South Florida and multi-generation Mexican American families in South Texas than they have with Latinos in Arizona, say, or Georgia.
And though Democrats are gaining, in some cases rapidly, Republicans also maintain more residual strength among suburban college-educated Whites in Texas, Georgia and South Carolina than they do in most other states.
But across the key Sun Belt states, the broad political story does overlap in significant ways. All of them are defined by a struggle for political influence between racially diverse Democrat-leaning younger generations and preponderantly White Republican-leaning older ones – what Frey calls “the cultural generation gap” and I’ve described as the collision between “the brown and the gray.”
Whites still make up the dominant share of the senior population in all these states: about 4 in 5 in Arizona; roughly 3 in 4 in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina; about 7 in 10 in Georgia and more than 6 in 10 in Texas, according to Frey’s analysis of census data.
Whites also represent most of the near-senior populations in these states (though typically by somewhat smaller margins). These older White voters across the Sun Belt typically provide Republicans with lopsided margins: Among Whites 45 and older, Donald Trump in last November’s election carried 74% in Georgia, 69% in Texas and 55% in Arizona, according to exit poll data analyzed by CNN polling director Jennifer Agiesta.
These older populations will also diversify over time, Frey notes, but only “at a slow pace.” Even as late as 2030, he projects, Whites will still compose nearly three-fourths of seniors in Arizona and South Carolina, two-thirds in North Carolina and Florida, more than three-fifths in Georgia and about 55% in Texas.
Among young people, the story is almost entirely inverted. In most Sun Belt states – including Arizona, Texas, Georgia and Florida – most people under age 18 are already kids of color, and in many of the others – including the Carolinas – they are at least 45% of the youth population. Those trends will only accelerate into this decade. In fact, in each of those six states, not only has the share of White kids declined since 2010, so has the absolute number.
Frey’s calculations of the change are stark: Since 2010, Georgia has lost about 90,000 White kids and added 103,000 kids of color; Arizona has lost almost 47,000 White kids and added more than 58,000 kids of color; North Carolina has lost 76,000 of the former and added over 95,000 of the latter. Even fast-growing Texas has about 16,000 fewer White kids today than in 2010; over that same period, it’s added about 550,000 kids of color.
The result is that in each of those states, the pool of eligible young voters will tilt further toward people of color through the years ahead. The nonpartisan States of Change project, for which Frey is an analyst, has projected that by 2028 non-Whites will rise to become a clear majority (55% to 61%) of the 18- to 29-year-old eligible voter population in Florida, Georgia and Arizona.
In Texas, where people of color already make up more than three-fifths of the eligible young adult population, that number will rise to fully two-thirds in 2028, the group forecasts. And while political strategists caution that Democrats can’t count on the lockstep loyalty of those emerging generations, they still lean heavily in the party’s direction: Among people of color 45 or younger, Biden carried 77% in Georgia, 66% in Texas and 60% in Arizona, according to Agiesta’s analysis of the exit polls.
Big battle in Texas
To civil rights organizers, and groups that work on registering voters across these states, this year’s eruption of GOP proposals that would make it more difficult to vote represents a frenzied attempt to cement the party’s advantages before these potential voters enter the electorate.
“They are staring down the freight train of change and they are very afraid of it, and they are trying to put down every single roadblock they can think of,” says Randy Perez, program director at the Voting Rights Lab, a voting rights advocacy group in Arizona.
In Arizona, between 800,000 and 1 million eligible voters are unregistered, more than three-fourths of them people of color and close to three-fifths under age 45, according to analysis by Chris Brill, data director for One Arizona, a coalition of low-income and minority advocacy groups there.
As with many things, the scale of this battle is biggest in Texas – as are the stakes in its outcome. One comprehensive recent academic study rated Texas as the most difficult state in which to vote or even register to vote.
Texas has not only rejected automatic registration, which registers voters whenever they come in contact with a government agency, and same-day registration, which allows voters to register when they show up at the polls, but is one of only 11 states that do not allow residents to register online. It closes registration 30 days before an election and requires anyone who registers other voters to attend a county-run class (usually offered only one day a month) and obtain a certification that can be used in that county alone.
H. Drew Galloway, executive director of MOVE Texas, a group that focuses on registering young people, recalls that in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign he was signing up voters on a college campus near the northern border of Bexar County, which includes San Antonio.
“I had this student in line and he was eager to register to vote. He started filling out the form and name, address, and he stopped and said, ‘Nope I live in Guadalupe County,’ which is the next county over,” Galloway told me. “In order to register voters in Guadalupe County I have to go to Guadalupe County and take the exact same class and I hadn’t done that, so I had to explain to him I can’t register you to vote, I can give you this mail-in form, but it’s got to be postmarked today by like 5 o’clock. And he looked at me and said I have to be at work in 30 minutes and walked off.”
The requirement to register solely through written forms is especially burdensome both for low-income people, who may lack access to a printer, and young people, who change their addresses more frequently, notes Crystal Zermeño, director of electoral strategy at the Texas Organizing Project, another group that registers voters in the state.
Her group estimates that as many as 3 million eligible Texans are unregistered, with the numbers tilted toward young people and racial minorities. Both Zermeño and Galloway say huge corps of unregistered voters is a feature, not a bug, in the Texas electoral system.
“These systems, especially voter registration, are purposefully, intentionally designed to disenfranchise those groups,” Galloway says. “The system is working as it is intended and designed.”
Circular logic for restrictions
Even amid all these barriers, Texas Republicans are moving toward adding more. With the enthusiastic support of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, they are advancing bills in the state Legislature that would ban many of the innovations that Harris County – which includes Houston – and other big urban counties used to expand turnout during early voting last fall (including extended hours and drive-through voting), further limit access to voting by mail and shift authority for overseeing elections from the counties (the largest of which Democrats generally control) to the state government (where Republicans now dominate).
Also included in the bills: heightened penalties for volunteers if new voters make mistakes in their voter applications, a measure Galloway says will further discourage activists from participating in voter registration drives for fear of legal liability.
While acknowledging they can’t prove fraud occurred in last November’s elections, Republicans are justifying the measures as a response to the belief among many GOP voters that it happened.
“Right now, I don’t know how many or if any elections in the state of Texas in 2020 were altered because of voter fraud,” Abbott has said. “What I can tell you is … any voter fraud that takes place sow seeds of distrust in the election process.”
That circular logic means state Republicans are using the fact that many GOP voters believe the discredited claims of fraud from former President Donald Trump and his allies as the pretext for new restrictions on the right to vote. The bills “are specifically targeting voters of color and young voters, all on this ridiculous disguise of ‘election integrity,’ ” Zermeño says.
The magnitude of the existing and proposed barriers to voting in Texas may reflect both the sense of urgency there among Republicans as Democrats have grown more competitive over the past decade but also the stakes for the national GOP in holding the state, the foundation of its national Electoral College strategy.
“Let’s not be coy with this: When Texas changes, the whole electoral map resets,” Zermeño says. “This is the last stronghold of power for conservatism, and if it goes, they would have to rewrite their whole playback, their whole everything, so they are going to hold on and push back as hard as they can in the state of Texas.”
With the Republican-controlled state Legislature likely to approve new voter restrictions this year – and follow that with gerrymanders meant to lock in Republican control of the Legislature’s chambers and the state congressional delegation – many Texas activists believe the only way to break the cycle of suppression and control is with national legislation establishing a floor of voting rights in every state.
HR 1 – the sweeping voting rights bill that passed the US House but faces an uncertain future against an inevitable Senate Republican filibuster – would require every state to offer automatic, same-day and online registration, as well as on-demand absentee balloting and 15 guaranteed days of early voting. Such standards would drill big holes in the dams Texas Republicans have built against the state’s swelling tide of demographic change.
“The absolute best way for us to fix this problem is for HR 1 to be passed,” says Galloway. “HR 1 is going to help other states across the board, but it is going to revolutionize Texas.”
There’s no guarantee that fewer restrictions on registration and voting in Texas would dye the state blue; Republicans still have deep wells of support there, especially beyond its major population centers. But even a more competitive and small-d democratic Texas would scramble the electoral map for both parties – and provide a powerful new opportunity for the diverse younger generations aging into the electorate to influence the nation’s political direction.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article transposed words in a comment by Randy Perez of the Voting Rights Lab.