“They see the wave of demography coming and they are just trying to hold up a wall and keep it from smashing them in,” says Frey. “It’s the last bastion of their dominance, and they are doing everything they can.”
Frey argues that such obstacles can suppress the influence of these emerging generations for only so long before their numbers eventually tilt the political balance of power in these states. But many political professionals agree that the voter restrictions now under consideration, and the gerrymandering plans gathering just behind them, in multiple Republican-controlled Sun Belt states can push back that tipping point by years — or maybe entirely through the 2020s.
A look at the numbers
The political equation is not exactly identical across the Sun Belt states where Republicans are pushing voter restrictions. For instance, Republicans have shown much more strength among Latino voters (mostly from central and South America) in South Florida and multi-generation Mexican American families in South Texas than they have with Latinos in Arizona, say, or Georgia.
And though Democrats are gaining, in some cases rapidly, Republicans also maintain more residual strength among suburban college-educated Whites in Texas, Georgia and South Carolina than they do in most other states.
Whites still make up the dominant share of the senior population in all these states: about 4 in 5 in Arizona; roughly 3 in 4 in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina; about 7 in 10 in Georgia and more than 6 in 10 in Texas, according to Frey’s analysis of census data.
Whites also represent most of the near-senior populations in these states (though typically by somewhat smaller margins). These older White voters across the Sun Belt typically provide Republicans with lopsided margins: Among Whites 45 and older, Donald Trump in last November’s election carried 74% in Georgia, 69% in Texas and 55% in Arizona, according to exit poll data analyzed by CNN polling director Jennifer Agiesta.
These older populations will also diversify over time, Frey notes, but only “at a slow pace.” Even as late as 2030, he projects, Whites will still compose nearly three-fourths of seniors in Arizona and South Carolina, two-thirds in North Carolina and Florida, more than three-fifths in Georgia and about 55% in Texas.
Among young people, the story is almost entirely inverted. In most Sun Belt states — including Arizona, Texas, Georgia and Florida — most people under age 18 are already kids of color, and in many of the others — including the Carolinas — they are at least 45% of the youth population. Those trends will only accelerate into this decade. In fact, in each of those six states, not only has the share of White kids declined since 2010, so has the absolute number.
In Texas, where people of color already make up more than three-fifths of the eligible young adult population, that number will rise to fully two-thirds in 2028, the group forecasts. And while political strategists caution that Democrats can’t count on the lockstep loyalty of those emerging generations, they still lean heavily in the party’s direction: Among people of color 45 or younger, Biden carried 77% in Georgia, 66% in Texas and 60% in Arizona, according to Agiesta’s analysis of the exit polls.
Big battle in Texas
To civil rights organizers, and groups that work on registering voters across these states, this year’s eruption of GOP proposals that would make it more difficult to vote represents a frenzied attempt to cement the party’s advantages before these potential voters enter the electorate.
“I had this student in line and he was eager to register to vote. He started filling out the form and name, address, and he stopped and said, ‘Nope I live in Guadalupe County,’ which is the next county over,” Galloway told me. “In order to register voters in Guadalupe County I have to go to Guadalupe County and take the exact same class and I hadn’t done that, so I had to explain to him I can’t register you to vote, I can give you this mail-in form, but it’s got to be postmarked today by like 5 o’clock. And he looked at me and said I have to be at work in 30 minutes and walked off.”
Her group estimates that as many as 3 million eligible Texans are unregistered, with the numbers tilted toward young people and racial minorities. Both Zermeño and Galloway say huge corps of unregistered voters is a feature, not a bug, in the Texas electoral system.
“These systems, especially voter registration, are purposefully, intentionally designed to disenfranchise those groups,” Galloway says. “The system is working as it is intended and designed.”
Circular logic for restrictions
Also included in the bills: heightened penalties for volunteers if new voters make mistakes in their voter applications, a measure Galloway says will further discourage activists from participating in voter registration drives for fear of legal liability.
While acknowledging they can’t prove fraud occurred in last November’s elections, Republicans are justifying the measures as a response to the belief among many GOP voters that it happened.
That circular logic means state Republicans are using the fact that many GOP voters believe the discredited claims of fraud from former President Donald Trump and his allies as the pretext for new restrictions on the right to vote. The bills “are specifically targeting voters of color and young voters, all on this ridiculous disguise of ‘election integrity,’ ” Zermeño says.
The magnitude of the existing and proposed barriers to voting in Texas may reflect both the sense of urgency there among Republicans as Democrats have grown more competitive over the past decade but also the stakes for the national GOP in holding the state, the foundation of its national Electoral College strategy.
“Let’s not be coy with this: When Texas changes, the whole electoral map resets,” Zermeño says. “This is the last stronghold of power for conservatism, and if it goes, they would have to rewrite their whole playback, their whole everything, so they are going to hold on and push back as hard as they can in the state of Texas.”
With the Republican-controlled state Legislature likely to approve new voter restrictions this year — and follow that with gerrymanders meant to lock in Republican control of the Legislature’s chambers and the state congressional delegation — many Texas activists believe the only way to break the cycle of suppression and control is with national legislation establishing a floor of voting rights in every state.
“The absolute best way for us to fix this problem is for HR 1 to be passed,” says Galloway. “HR 1 is going to help other states across the board, but it is going to revolutionize Texas.”
There’s no guarantee that fewer restrictions on registration and voting in Texas would dye the state blue; Republicans still have deep wells of support there, especially beyond its major population centers. But even a more competitive and small-d democratic Texas would scramble the electoral map for both parties — and provide a powerful new opportunity for the diverse younger generations aging into the electorate to influence the nation’s political direction.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article transposed words in a comment by Randy Perez of the Voting Rights Lab.