ON THE SURFACE, the decision made almost no sense, but on deeper inspection its insidious intent seems clear. Last week Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, ordered counties to close extra drop-off sites for absentee votes until they have only one each. The move means that the 4.7m residents of Harris County, which surrounds Houston, will all have to converge on the same drop-box if they wish to cast an absentee vote in person. Such restrictions might make sense for Loving County (population 169), but the decision could deter many of Harris’s majority non-white and urban folk from voting. The story is similar in the state’s other cities.
Mr Abbott has cited voter fraud as a justification for his decision. According to the governor, absentee voting (which is not common in Texas, as the state restricts the practice mainly to disabled, sick or elderly residents) gives fraudsters a chance to influence the election. Yet there is no evidence that such fraud takes place often enough to be a real concern.
Instead, Mr Abbott’s critics allege that his move is meant to decrease turnout to keep his party in power. Jeremy Smith, the CEO of Civitech, a company that works to get Democrats elected, argues that Texas’s history of voter suppression has helped politicians like Mr Abbott stay in office by decreasing turnout for non-whites and the young. That, says Mr Smith, has made the government reflect an unrepresentative electorate of whiter, older Texans.
Texas is undergoing a rapid shift in demography that promises to alter its politics fundamentally. As Hispanics have become a bigger force, the share of white voters in the state has fallen from 56% to roughly 50% over the past decade. Texas has become younger, too. According to Mr Smith’s data, Texans under 30 now constitute nearly 20% of all registered voters, up from 18% four years ago.
Faced with these shifts, it is not outlandish to imagine that Republicans would try to step up efforts to keep voter turnout low. This is not the first time that Texas has adopted a policy that would disproportionately decrease turnout for Democrats. Mr Smith highlights other aspects of the state’s voting-and-registration system that benefit Republicans.
One is its requirement that anyone wanting to be a voter-registrar must be trained by a local county official. Texas is the last state to stipulate that groups taking part in a registration drive should undergo such training. Mr Smith says this hurts Democratic groups, whose successes rely on registering new voters. Such laws reduce the pool of people who can help other voters get registered, leading (in Texas at least) to the electorate being whiter and older than it should be.
Second, Texas has no online voter-registration system. Everything must be done by mail or in person. That makes it one of only ten states that have not caught up with online procedures, although a federal judge recently ruled that it must establish such a system for people who register for a driving licence.
According to The Economist’s modelling, 66% of Texans who actually voted in 2016 were white, compared with 53% among the population of eligible voters. And 17% of voters were under 30, as against 24% who were eligible. If every eligible person in the state cast a ballot, according to our analysis of polling and census data, Texas would probably be a Democratic state.
In Texas the Republican Party has for years faced a puzzle: how do you win elections when only a minority of potential voters supports you? Mr Abbott’s answer has been to try his darndest to prevent opponents from voting. ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “A battleground in Texas”