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The partisan politics of elections and voting have set all three branches of Texas government on fire

Hi All,

It’s hard to know exactly what to focus on in state politics at this moment. Wherever one looks across the breath of Texas’ sprawling political system, brawling among and within the parties, between the branches of government, and between the state and the local entities elected by citizens of cities, counties, and school boards has made governance in Texas a political disaster area, even as a literal disaster in the form of a pandemic surge seizes the state.

For now, I’m going to stick with the usual tactic of drawing on polling data from our archive to try to provide public opinion context to proximate current events – in this case, the latest turns in Republican efforts to move an omnibus voting and election bill through the legislature and to the governor’s desk. (But remember, we have a compilation of trend data on attitudes toward the pandemic ever at your disposal.)

In the last 24 hours or so, the House Sergeant-at-Arms, trailed for at least part of day by reporters including Dave Montgomery (for The New York Times, no less) and Maggie Glynn of KXAN in Austin, delivered warrants to House offices (but no members) Wednesday. The Texas Senate (again) passed SB 1 along party lines Thursday morning after an 15-hour, overnight filibuster staged by Senator Carol Alvarado of Houston. The House failed again to reach a quorum when they convened Thursday afternoon, with the vast majority of Democrats still no-shows. Not be left out of  the conflict within the legislative branch and between the executive and the legislature, state district judges in Austin and Houston have issued orders at least temporarily shielding some of the quorum-breaking Democrats from arrest, triggering a series of court fights with the Attorney General’s office, per Cassandra Pollock’s coverage in The Texas Tribune (and, of course, coverage by many others in the last few days). Thursday afternoon, the Supreme Court stayed a lower court’s ruling protecting Democrats (initially State Rep. Gene Wu) as reports trickled in that “earlier today the House Sergeant-at-Arms deputized members of Texas law enforcement to assist in the House's efforts to compel a quorum.” (A quotation from a spokesman for Speaker Dade Phelan reported with attribution on Twitter by  NBC News' Priscilla Thompson.) (More stories to come, but I'm trying to get this email out the door.)

Back in October 2020, Josh Blank and I wrote an op-ed that ran in a few Texas dailies (via UT Austin's Texas Perspectives syndication service) noting the decay in trust in elections and suggesting that “the more competitive political system emerging in Texas provides an opportunity for the Legislature to both expand access to the polls and provide some measure of increased election security – something of an old-school legislative horse trade.” We admitted this was an unlikely prospect at the time (you know, they want a “call to action”), but I’m struck now by just how ridiculous the suggestion has turned out to be, even allowing for how much the losing presidential candidate exacerbated that decay in trust after we wrote it.

In the op-ed, we emphasized data illustrating the decay in trust in elections. But we left out the piles of polling data illustrating just how polarized attitudes about voting and elections in the state are along partisan lines, and how stark the partisan differences in the underlying beliefs about the political system are in this data. I’ve shared some of this data before in bits and pieces in these emails, but I’ve compiled a few telling examples in one place to provide grim context for the current corrosive moment in Texas politics. In short, Republican and Democratic elected officials, and their respective voters, hold starkly different views, and the current terms of the debate find leaders and their voters mutually reinforcing these very different views of reality.

In the June 2021 UT-Texas Tribune Poll, 77% of Democrats said Texas’ election system discriminates against racial and ethnic minorities; 87% of Republicans say it does not. Sorted by race and ethnicity, 28% of White Texans said yes, compared to 63% of Black Texans. Hispanics were split nearly evenly (44%/42%).

Considering the central axes of fundamental disagreement when it comes to laws governing elections and voting, Republicans are much more likely to believe that ineligible voters cast ballots than Democrats; Democrats are much more likely to believe that eligible voters are prevented from voting than are Republicans. And beliefs in this area are much more intense among the most ideologically intense voters in each party.

And in terms of the matters immediately at hand, Republicans appear much more supportive of their party’s approach to these issues, while a large majority of Democrats are intensely opposed, with, again, a lot of ideological intensity fueling sharp partisan differences. 

So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that there’s little evidence of any real effort to find a legislative compromise, or to ease up on the kind of combative escalation in both rhetoric and action that we’re seeing from legislators and the state leadership. But in the midst of a resurgent pandemic in the state and other looming governance challenges, it’s a bad time for the political system to be on fire, with no one with the power and influence to do so willing to spend some political capital to douse the flames, and refocus institutional attention.

Just a couple of more brief items before signing off. Josh Blank and I talked about the spread of the pandemic in Texas and the response, as well as the situation (as it stood Tuesday, anyway) in this week’s Second Reading podcast. Also, with the beginning of the semester in sight, I invite you to post any internship positions you may be seeking to fill at the internship bulletin board at the Texas Politics Project website. And if you know any young folks looking for internships or entry-level positions in politics, government, or a related field, point them to the site. We’ve had an uptick in listings recently, and if you’re looking for candidates, we get a lot of traffic from students all over the state (not just UT). Help yourself and help the young people who are looking for experience and ways to get a professional start in very difficult times.

Best wishes and good health to all of you. Keep in touch.

Jim Henson
Executive Director, The Texas Politics Project
College of Liberal Arts / Department of Government
The University of Texas at Austin
The Texas Politics Project
Copyright © 2021 The Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin, All rights reserved.

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