IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'Racist': As Latino vote accelerates, Texas Republicans seek more restrictions

Opponents of Republican-led restrictive voter laws say the aim is clear: Suppress Latino votes, even though it may also hurt the GOP.
March to Austin
Demonstrators march Thursday in Round Rock, Texas, in the Poor People's Campaign march from Georgetown to Austin to demand federal action on voting rights.Mario Cantu / Cal Sport Media/Zuma Wire/AP

Among the 100 or so people taking part on Day 1 of a Texas voting rights march styled after the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches in Alabama was an 80-year-old Tejano music superstar better known by his stage name, Little Joe.

Little Joe, whose full name is José María de León Hernández, has pushed for equality for much of his more than six decades in entertainment. He has joined protests for farmworkers and was active in civil rights protests of the Chicano Movement.

On Wednesday, he angrily denounced the GOP’s attempt to impose a new set of rules for Texans who want to vote.

“You know Texas is about the most racist state in America, and it’s just getting worse,” Hernández, a multiple Grammy Award winner, said after he finished the first leg of the four-day march in Georgetown, Texas. “Racist Republicans just don’t want to let go of the master mentality of the slavery thing."

More heartbreaking was not seeing more outrage from Latinos over the latest attempt to more strictly regulate voting, he said.

“We suffer the illusion of inclusion. We think we’re part of something that we’re being denied,” Hernández said. 

The clash over the Texas GOP’s latest proposed voting changes extended from Austin to Washington after Democrats, in the minority in the state Legislature, walked out of the latest legislative session to block passage of the GOP's voting changes.

They've been arguing their case from the nation's capital under threat of arrest when they return to Texas.

Some reject accusations of racism in the proposed laws, but the latest attempt by Texas' GOP to reconfigure how, when and where Texans can vote is being pursued just as Latinos are about to outnumber whites in the state.

When the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized in 1975, Latinos were about 22 percent of the population and cast about 15 percent of Texas’ votes, said Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political science professor and author of “Texas Politics: Governing the Lone Star State.”

Now, about 40 percent of Texas’ population is Latino, almost equal to whites, who are about 41 percent. Latinos are believed to cast 20 percent to 25 percent of all votes now.

The GOP-proposed voting bills include a ban on drive-thru voting and additional requirements to existing voter ID law. They would prohibit local officials from sending out mail-in ballot applications and require the Texas secretary of state to check voting lists monthly for noncitizens.

“The reality is this is bad policy, and given the size of the Latino electorate and the number of Latinos that need to register and the ability to navigate the election process itself, the biggest impact is going to be on Latinos,” said Clarissa Martínez-de-Castro, a vice president at the Latino advocacy group UnidosUS, citing numbers from the America’s Election Eve poll.  

In addition, the GOP's efforts come as more Latinos have become eligible to vote and after an acceleration of Latino voter registration and turnout in the past two election cycles.

“If you look at the last couple presidential elections and you are a Republican, you can say in 2016 80 percent of Latinos voted for Democrats and in 2020 it was 69 percent, so I should try to compete for this voter support,” Martínez-de-Castro said.

"It is laughable that candidates in parties feel frustrated when they have to compete for voters. That is exactly what they need to be doing, but you see all these different shenanigans, whether it's tinkering with our election system or gerrymandering," she said.

Texas has a long history of voting rights discrimination, including when Democrats were in control. It has been so wanton — white primaries, poll taxes, English literacy tests, annual voter registration, purges of voter lists — that the state had to get federal approval for electoral changes right up until the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013.

The state has been found to violate the Voting Rights Act "every decade since the act’s passage,” state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Democrat who represents Fort Worth, testified Thursday before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

There is vociferous pushback from Republicans against allegations that their voting proposals are racist.

The party has said the purpose is to restore integrity to the state election system. Republicans have won every statewide elected office since 1994, and they have controlled the Legislature since 2003.

“The proposed changes in Texas safeguard the voting rights of all voters, including Latinos, by ensuring every vote is legally cast and counted,” Matt Rinaldi, the state Republican Party chairman, said in an emailed statement.

Rinaldi said people want to know their votes are secure and counted, regardless of race or ethnicity. "We are confident that Republicans’ share of Latino votes will continue to increase over time," he said.

In response to a recent Supreme Court ruling upholding voter restrictions in Arizona, Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said portraying new voting restriction proposals or laws as preventing fraud amplifies Donald Trump's lie that the presidential election was stolen and “questions the legitimacy of a dramatically growing Latino vote in the United States.”

Whites still cast about 60 percent of the vote in Texas, Jillson said. That's down from about 80-plus percent in the 1970s and the 1980s, he said.

“The Texas electoral system has always been a system that is open to whites, particularly economically comfortable whites, and closed to everyone else,” he said.

While elections were tightly closed to Blacks in the Jim Crow era, they were less so against Hispanics, who were considered an electorate managed by Latino community leaders in conjunction with white conservatives, he said.

The growth of the Latino electorate in Texas is one of the reasons the GOP is pushing the latest changes — “a big one,” Jillson said.

Also in play have been federal court decisions removing limits on changes in voting and election systems, including the oversight Texas had been subject to since 1975, he said.

The Supreme Court’s 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act "freed Texas and other red state legislators and governors to say we can craft voting regulations and electoral laws that we want, even if they have a disparate impact, a greater impact, on people of color than Anglos," he said.

Voter restrictions can affect both parties

In the years Republicans have controlled the state government in Texas, the number of Latinos who voted in presidential and midterm elections has grown from 740,000 in November 1994 to 2.97 million last November, according to census estimates in the Community Population Survey.

About 5.6 million Latinos are eligible to vote in Texas, the Pew Research Center reports.

The Republican share of Latino votes has grown, too. For a 2013 PolitiFact article, Mike Baselice, a Texas Republican pollster, said that in 1982, Republicans running for statewide office drew 12.5 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Now, Republican state candidates have often been able to draw more than 30 percent and, at times, more than 40 percent of the Latino vote. Last year's exit polls reported that Trump won 41 percent of Latino votes.

In the last two election cycles, there has been accelerated growth in Latino voter registration and turnout, Martínez-de-Castro said.

Jason Villalba, CEO and board chairman of the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation, said the Texas GOP’s push for new voting regulations is not about race but about appealing to Republican primary voters and about showing fealty to Trump, whom he called the “titular head of the party.” 

“They want to see their governor, lieutenant governor stand in solidarity with him, to stifle the ‘big lie’ or the ‘steal the election,’ to make sure that never happens in Texas,” said Villalba, a former Republican who became an independent during Trump’s political rise.

Villalba said the GOP’s motivation for changing voting laws would unquestionably affect Latino voters and other groups, including Republicans. 

“Republican primary voters will crawl over broken glass to vote, and their vote will certainly be registered. But in a general election, it’s going to hurt the [Republican] vote and [the vote of] people that might be leaning Republican,” he said. 

The legislation would curtail some election practices that have been used recently by Republicans, he said.

GOP candidates “relied greatly on the mail-in ballots, because we knew Republicans were going to be largely older and voted through the mail ballot,” he said; Republican candidates would send cards that provided mail-in requests for mail-in ballots.

“We knew that was a tremendous source of votes for Republicans,” he said.

'Come out and participate'

Protesters plan to wrap up their marches Saturday with a rally at the Texas Capitol. The events were organized by the Poor People's Campaign, led by the Rev. William J. Barber II and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who has also been marching.

O’Rourke and another former Democratic presidential candidate, Julián Castro, planned to attend the rally along with thousands of other people. Another Texas entertainer, Willie Nelson, said Thursday that he would stage a concert at the rally.

Hernández couldn't march for more than a day because of previously scheduled gigs. He said he hoped others, especially Latinos, would take his place. 

“I urge la raza to come out and participate. It’s for our good, our children’s good, the state, the country,” he said. “If we lose more voting rights, everything else is secondary.”

Follow NBC Latino on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.