Beto O’Rourke on Texas: ‘I don’t know that we’re a conservative state’
To Beto O’Rourke, voting rights represent the silver bullet for progress in Texas.
If more of the over 7 million Texans who were eligible to vote but didn’t last election could actually make it to the ballot box, the former Democratic presidential hopeful thinks state lawmakers would soon stop going after transgender student athletes and abortion access.
Instead, legislators would spend their time fixing Texas’s electric grid, which left millions shivering in the dark and hundreds dead when it failed during a devastating winter storm last February. They would be compelled to expand healthcare coverage in a state with the most uninsured people anywhere in the country, and they would actually address the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 51,000 Texans.
“I don’t know that we’re a red state. I don’t know that we’re a conservative state. I don’t know that we’re a state that is focused on transgender girls’ sports, or telling people what to do with their bodies,” O’Rourke told the Guardian in an exclusive interview.
“I think it is a minority really of the people and the voters in this state. It’s just the majority aren’t reflected because they aren’t voting.”
A native El Pasoan and one of the country’s foremost Democrats, O’Rourke spent much of June traversing his home state, advocating for voting rights. As he registered eligible voters in 102F (39C) heat or held intimate town halls with as few as 100 people, he was fighting for democracy in Texas – before it’s too late.
“If the great crime committed by Republicans was trying to suppress the votes of those who live outside of the centers of power,” he said, “then the great crime of Democrats was to take all of these people for granted.”
During his travels, he heard from people who readily admitted they hadn’t been paying attention until he showed up.
“You cannot expect people to participate in the state’s politics if you don’t show them the basic respect of listening to them and understanding what’s most important to them and then reflecting that in the campaign that you run,” O’Rourke said.
“You can’t do that at a distance, and you can’t do that through a pollster or a focus group. You have to do that in person.”
Many Democrats are waiting with bated breath to see if O’Rourke launches a bid to oust Texas’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, in 2022. But for now, he’s mostly brushing off questions about his political future; the voting rights fight could not be more urgent, he said, and he doesn’t have the bandwidth to simultaneously mount a separate campaign.
“As this woman at our meeting in Wichita Falls said, you know, it may not matter who the candidates are on the ballot if that vote can be overturned,” he said. “Or if we functionally disenfranchise millions of our fellow Texans.”
Texas was already infamous as the hardest place to vote in the United States before this year’s legislative session, when state lawmakers capitalized on false narratives about widespread voter fraud to push for new, sweeping voting restrictions.
There is a very tight window within which we’ve gotta do everything we can
Democrats in the state House staged a historic walkout at the 11th hour to kill one of the most controversial restrictive voting bills. But Abbott, who still considers “election integrity” an emergency, announced he would convene a special session starting 8 July, teeing up yet another bitter showdown via legislative overtime.
As O’Rourke sees it, the special session is one of two fronts in the war for voting rights in Texas. The other is at the federal level, where Democrats are scrambling to protect the polls after Republicans blocked their ambitious For the People Act.
Texas special sessions can’t last more than 30 days, and the US Congress has mere weeks before a long August recess.
“There is a very tight window within which we’ve gotta do everything we can,” O’Rourke said.
At stake are a rash of new provisions that would make it even harder and scarier to vote, in a state with already chronically low voter turnout.
In the aftermath of the 2020 election, Texas Republicans proposed barring 24-hour and drive-thru voting, doing away with drop boxes, and subjecting public officials to state felonies for soliciting or distributing unrequested vote by mail applications, among other hardline policies.
Many of their suggestions directly targeted innovations to expand voter access last year in Texas’s largest county, Harris, which is both diverse and more left-leaning. And voting rights advocates worry that in general, Texans of color will be disproportionately disenfranchised by the restrictions being advanced.
Already, Texas has extremely limited vote-by-mail access, virtually no online voter registration and no same-day registration during early voting or on election day. Voters have to show acceptable forms of identification, which can include a handgun license but not a student ID.
The state is a hotbed for gerrymandering, and politicians purposely attenuate the voting power in communities of color. Hundreds of Texas polling stations have shuttered since 2012, with closures concentrated where Black and Latino populations are growing the most.
O’Rourke remembers how he used to be baffled by people who didn’t vote. Not any more.
“When your voting power has been diminished like that, it is not illogical or irrational to say, ‘I’m not gonna vote. I’m not gonna participate in this one. I’m not gonna get my hopes up,’” he said.
Last month, when O’Rourke visited Rains county, Texas, a woman with multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and other illnesses explained how – because she’s disabled and doesn’t drive – she struggled to get identification. An ID cost her $125, a modern-day poll tax, she said.
As she told her story, O’Rourke said, even the local GOP chairwoman was seemingly nodding her head, as if the issue was starting to make sense.
In Gainesville, where 40 suspected Unionists were hanged during the civil war, a young woman told O’Rourke that she successfully organized to bring down a Confederate statue at the park where his town hall was taking place.
But she wasn’t registered to vote, she added.
“It’s not for lack of urgency or love for country,” O’Rourke said. “I think it’s because they are acutely aware of how rigged our democracy is at this moment, and nowhere more so than Texas.”
From ideological courts to a Republican-controlled legislature and a rightwing executive, conservatives dominate every branch of the state government.
Their overpowering dominion makes it nearly impossible for liberals to make inroads in Texas, despite long-held Democratic hopes that rapidly changing demographics will trigger a blue wave.
Still, O’Rourke refuses to give up.
“If we register in numbers and turn out in numbers, even with a rigged system – and we should acknowledge that it’s rigged – and even with the deck that is stacked, there’s still a way to prevail,” he said.
“It’s not gonna be easy. And it’s gonna require a lot of us.”