State Senator José Rodríguez, D-El Paso.
State Senator José Rodríguez, D-El Paso.

AUSTIN, Texas – Now that Labor Day has passed, campaign season is in full swing. However, instead of making it easier to vote, the state’s leadership has made it more difficult. Consequently, there are several issues that impact voters this year.

Texas ranked a dismal 49th in the nation in voter turnout for the 2012 general election. For the 2010 general election, we were dead last. In large part, this is due to the fact that our state ranked 42nd in voter registration in 2010, with only 61.6 percent of eligible voters reporting they were registered to vote that year.

With statistics like these, you would assume our state leaders would be committed to improving those numbers and trying to get every eligible voter to the polls in November. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

Instead, Texas has been at the forefront of legislated voter suppression. Our state passed the most restrictive Voter ID law in the nation – even though voter impersonation is rare, if not non-existent – and drew electoral lines that intentionally discriminated against minority voters.

In 2011, Texas tried to prevent Latinos from exercising their voting strength in Congressional District (CD) 23, which includes parts of El Paso County. Emails introduced as evidence in trial showed that map drafters and leadership staff worked to replace high-turnout Latino precincts in CD-23 with low-turnout Latino precincts; on the surface, the district would look Latino, but in reality, the voting strength of Latinos in the district was diminished.

Thankfully, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) prevented the discriminatory map from going into effect. The VRA also stopped initial implementation of Voter ID in Texas.

But, in 2013, Texas and other states that have a history of discrimination were successful in convincing the U.S. Supreme Court to gut a key provision of the VRA. While the court upheld the VRA, it eliminated the “preclearance” provision in Section 5, which required jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination – like Texas – to obtain federal approval before making electoral changes.

This means that while the court recognized that certain states have a history of discriminating against minorities in the electoral process, the ruling removed vital federal oversight from states that quite frankly still need it.

The day after the ruling, Attorney General Abbott implemented the restrictive Voter ID law, which is being challenged under a different part of the VRA, Section 2. That means we must prove once again – and I believe we will – that Texas has a history of discrimination, and that history led to the Voter ID law as a way to limit minority voter participation.

According to testimony in the trial, which began this month, more than one million eligible voters lack a photo identification that would allow them to vote. In my view, the state should be working diligently to make sure these folks are registered and show up to the polls. We should encourage voting, the basic unit of currency in a representative democracy.

Last session, I filed legislation to reduce the negative impacts of Voter ID and to review voter fraud, including deceptive election practices, mail-in ballot fraud, and voter suppression – not just voter impersonation, which rarely happens. Unfortunately, neither my bill nor other bills that would have expanded the opportunity to vote were given hearings in 2013.

The Texas Senate Hispanic Caucus, which I chair, is committed to supporting voter rights. In addition to pursuing legislative solutions, several members and I have testified in the redistricting trial, and our Vice Chair, Senator Sylvia R. Garcia, testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in support of reauthorizing the VRA Section 5 coverage formula. We’ll continue to fight local and state electoral changes that diminish the voting strength of Texas’ racial and ethnic minorities.

Voter suppression is the opposite of what Texas, a state with a history of discrimination, should be doing. We can, and inevitably we will, do better.

José Rodríguez represents Texas Senate District 29, which includes the counties of El Paso, Hudspeth, Culberson, Jeff Davis, and Presidio. He represents both urban and rural constituencies, and more than 350 miles of the Texas-Mexico border. Senator Rodríguez currently serves as the Chairman of the Senate Hispanic Caucus, Vice Chairman of the Senate Jurisprudence Committee, and a member of the Senate Committees on Criminal Justice, Veteran Affairs and Military Installations, and Government Organization.

Editor’s Note: The Rio Grande Guardian will bring an alternative viewpoint on voter participation in the coming days from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican.