Texas Voter Suppression Is Keeping Climate Action by the State Off the Table

For Alán de León, Natural disasters are a part of daily life. Growing up in Houston, de León knew that late summer meant hurricane season, a time when his family took special care to save money and stock up on extra food.

These storms have become more severe in recent years due to the Climate crisis. When Hurricane Harvey hit in August 2017, flood waters swallowed de León’s father’s house up to its roof. In February 2021, when Winter Storm Uri knocked out power across the state, de León’s family huddled in the dark, with candles as their only source of light and warmth; it was so cold de León found it unbearable simply to move.

Texas is the center of the climate emergency in Texas in many ways. The state is home to many of the biggest names in fossil fuels, corporations that have helped power the nation and world for decades — but have also knowingly liedThese are the dangers of burning fossil fuels. Along with supercharged hurricanes, there is now a climate crisis threatens TexansExtreme heat, drought, wildfires, and sea-level rise along the Gulf coast. The non-profit Trust for America’s Health rates TexasAmong the states most at risk from climate effects and least prepared.

In 2021 polling by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 65% of Texans said they are worried about global warming — on par with the nationwide average — and clear majorities said they want politicians to do more about it. But Texas is also the site of broadscale voter suppression efforts, which contribute to leaders being unresponsive to voters’ concerns, experts and advocates say.

“If the attitudes of our communities were proportionally represented, I think we would see more climate action,” said de León, who serves as policy and advocacy manager for MOVE Texas, a non-partisan grassroots group that specializes on voter mobilization. “We’re not seeing that, though, and the reason, in part, is we have this democracy problem.”

Harvey was responsible 103 deathsTexas: Uri is killed 246According to official figures, the death toll for Uri was reportedly 58, probably higher. Today, de León said, the psychological impact of those storms is unmistakable. Many people in his community are afraid of the rain and don’t want to go outside when it rains. An impending cold front caused panic buying in stores and anxiety this winter. The weather passed without incident, but to de León it was a grim sign of the times. “If there’s a natural disaster now, the mindset is you’re on your own,” he said. “Help isn’t going to come. That’s how little faith we have that our public officials will keep us safe.”

An anti-climate tack might not surprise in a state where Republicans boast the governorship, both US senate seats, and significant majorities in the state house and senate — not to mention the fossil fuel ties that permeate the halls of power in Austin. “There are politicians in Texas who would consider climate action an explicit threat to the industry they’re in government to promote,” said Adrian Shelley, who directs the Texas office of Public Citizen, a non-profit consumer advocacy group.

But party control and fossil fuels’ influence alone don’t explain the Lone Star state’s slow roll on climate. Partisan gerrymandering has led to political representation at the federal and state levels being skewed towards Democrats. favor climate action. In the 2020 general election, Republican congressional candidates received 53% of the popular vote — yet they were awarded 64% of seats, accounting for 23 of Texas’s 36-member congressional delegation in Washington.

However, many Texas Republican voters also support climate action. In detailed polling by Climate Nexus, 71% of Texans this February said a complete transition to clean, renewable energy should be a “top” or “important” priority for the state. Lawmakers, meanwhile, routinely pass measuresTo stop cities and other municipalities from making their own climate progress; one law 2021 effectively bannedLocal governments should encourage clean energy use to reduce emissions.

Gerrymandering “reduces competition in elections and basically removes incentives for legislators to be responsive to the public”, said Samuel Wang, who directs the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, a nonpartisan research group. The project’s “Redistricting Report Cards” give Texas’s congressional and state senate maps “F” grades, indicating the maps are among the least fair nationwide.

Gerrymandering also means the “decisive election,” Wang said, is often not the general election but the party primary. Although many Republican voters might favor climate action, it’s typically not their top voting issue. Amid America’s polarized political landscape, voters tend to back their preferred party, regardless of the candidate, so even primary winners hostile to climate action can count on voters who would otherwise favor it. “Non-competitive primaries have a strong tendency to remove climate from the conversation,” Wang said.

Texas enters 2022 with two new congressional seats due to population growth (total 38). People of color, especially Latinos, accounted for 95% of growth – yet the new congressional map includes fewer districts where non-white voters “can realistically sway election outcomes”, according to The Texas Tribune.

Republican lawmakers who drew the state’s maps insist race wasn’t a factor. But Miguel Rivera, voting rights coordinator at the Texas Civil Rights Project, says the maps’ lines tell a different story. He says they elaborately contort to “crack” up or “pack” in communities of color. “The Texas lawmakers who voted in favor of [these maps] are giving Texans a very clear message that they’re willing to put their own agendas ahead of the will of the people,” Rivera said.

The climate crisis has a disproportionate impact on communities of color. They are more likely to live in disaster-prone areas in the US and, often, because they are disproportionately poor, are the last to receive help in times of disaster.

De León, the MOVE Texas activist, lives in Texas’s 29th congressional district, whose lines cut a jagged, reverse-C around Houston’s east side — and, in doing so, pack in much of the area’s Latino population. Five years on, Hurricane Harvey damage remains plain to see in parts of the district, de León said, with some families and businesses still awaiting promised aid that was never delivered. A number of petrochemical plants and the Port of Houston are located in the district, which is where fossil fuels from Texas are exported. This means that residents of the area will have to contend with it. the public health consequences of fossil fuelsCancer, respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, and many other diseases.

Texas also passed other voting policies that critics claim are designed to limit the rights of minority voters. Texas Republicans passed the Texas Republican Platform last year, citing widely disproven claims of voter fraud in 2020. an expansive elections bill that bans drive-thru voting, curtails early voting in diverse communities (while expanding it in smaller, Republican-leaning areas), empowers partisan “poll watchers”, and criminalizes various forms of voter assistance that can be critical in helping some voters to the polls, among other measures. Many of the law’s provisions roll back policies meant to make voting safe and accessible amid the coronavirus pandemic, which were implemented in 2020 with particular effectiveness in Houston’s diverse Harris county.

Partisan attacks on voting rights and other democratic norms are a barrier to climate action across the country, not just Texas. “We often differentiate our ideas about democracy and climate, but they’re not separate issues,” said Diana Faraj, voting rights program manager at the League for Conservation Voters. “The overwhelming majority of Americans want free and fair elections that represent their interests. They also want [a safe climate]. So, the suppression of votes both undercuts their power and perpetuates environmental harm.”

In the absence federal legislation to address gerrymandering or other voter suppression tactics, some states have established independent redistricting committees to reduce partisanship in elections. Texas’ electoral maps are still in the hands of the legislature. There are many groups, such as the Texas Civil Rights Project. the US Department of Justice, have filed legal challenges to allegedly discriminatory aspects of the state’s voting laws. Another wave of lawsuits. including from Public Citizen, target the state’s climate and energy policies. It is not clear if these suits will succeed and how quickly. In the meantime, groups are organizing to educate and organize about these issues.

De León’s MOVE Texas is among them. MOVE Texas activists register voters in Texas every day and engage with local leaders to create climate plans. This is despite the difficulties imposed by Austin. But de León worries: “It gets to the point where you can’t fully out-organize this,” he said.

“We can keep coming up with new ways to fight this battle, but the challenge is getting steeper and steeper every time.”