Voting rights in Texas were thrust center stage yet again last week when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would challenge Texas’ voter ID law and redistricting maps under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act — the part that allows the federal government to challenge individual jurisdictions, such as Texas.
Republicans were quick to call attention to the challenge as a bald attempt by Holder to help turn Texas blue. To the casual observer, it might appear that making voting rights a potential focus of the 2014 campaign will hurt Republican gubernatorial front-runner Greg Abbott in a minority-majority state, especially since Abbott, the current attorney general, has played a leading role in defending voter ID and the redistricting maps as the state’s top lawyer. But public opinion data from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll neither paints a dour picture for Abbott nor presents a clear path for Democrats.
Taken at face value, another battle over voting rights might seem to help Democrats by introducing Abbott to low-turnout minority voters as the person trying to take their voting rights away. While this may seem plausible in the wake of a weeklong celebration of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, public attitudes underlying support for voter ID and for Section 5 of the Voting Right Act — which prohibits states and local governments with a history of discriminatory voting practices from making changes without federal preclearance — currently favor the presumptive Republican nominee.
Abbott will receive no criticism in the GOP primary for his history on voting rights, particularly his defense of the voter ID requirement passed by the Legislature in 2011 and subsequently challenged in court by minority groups and the Justice Department. In the October 2012 UT/TT survey, we asked Texans whether they thought that voters should have to present ID at the polls in order to vote. There was no ambiguity in the results. Ninety-two percent of Republicans agreed that people should have to present ID in order to vote along with 98 percent of Tea Party Republicans, as well as 73 percent of independents.
In the February 2013 UT/TT poll, we asked half the respondents whether they thought “some states” should still be under federal supervision and the other half whether “Texas” should be. Again, Abbott will find little ambiguity here. Among Republicans, 69 percent said that states should be allowed to change their voting and election laws without federal oversight; that number was 81 percent among Tea Party Republicans. Opinions were even stronger when Texas was explicitly made the object of federal oversight, with 80 percent of Republicans and 92 percent of Tea Party Republicans against Section 5’s preclearance provisions for Texas. Abbott’s position vis-à-vis voting rights puts him squarely on the right side of Republican opinion in a state that has elected GOP candidates statewide in recent elections with 10- to 12-point cushions.
Looking then to the general election, it’s not clear that Hispanics, the group that Democrats are trying to mobilize in order to be competitive, will provide Abbott with too much trouble. In the same surveys mentioned above, 75 percent of Hispanics expressed support for voter ID. Support for federal oversight tilted slightly in the Democrats’ favor, but not overwhelmingly. Approximately 57 percent said that “Texas” or “some states” should still be under federal supervision. So while Republicans may think that the Obama administration has given Texas Democrats a gift by calling attention to voting rights, the data shows an issue that boosts Abbott’s position among his primary electorate without clearly hurting him in the general election.
One limit to this argument is the extent to which minority voters in Texas are sensitive to perceived threats to voting rights. As we wrote previously, black support for voter ID plummeted in Texas between February 2011 and October 2012. This drop in support resulted from the focused campaign waged by Democrats to paint the issue unambiguously as “voter suppression” — an attempt to turn minority voters away from the polls. Should Democrats in Texas succeed in framing Abbott’s role in the latest legal fight similarly with the Hispanic electorate, the issue has the potential to turn into a boon come November 2014. And while the difficulties of increasing Hispanic turnout are well known, there is some long-shot risk here to Abbott.
A large part of Abbott’s existing advantage with the mass of Republican voters in Texas is his reliance on the tried and true strategy of using the Obama White House, and Holder in particular, as consistent foils. And this strategy dovetails quite nicely with voting rights for a Republican candidate such as Abbott. Texas’ attorney general will be glad to run on an issue that he’s been all too happy to define himself on in the past, as it shores up the support that he’ll need in the primary and on Election Day without stirring up too large a swath of the potential Democratic coalition.