Demography isn’t always destiny.
Even when gerrymandering is considered “fair,” there are lots of challenges that come with courting these new populations.
Take Texas. It has the largest number of Black residents in the country, and the growth of the suburban Black population there has been especially pronounced. In the Houston area, Harris County saw an increase of about 185,000 Black people in the suburbs from 2000-2020. This led to a noticeable shift in how Black residents were spread throughout the county: Three-quarters of the county’s Black population used to live in the urban part of Harris County — Houston. In 2020, urbanites accounted for less than 60 percent of the county’s Black residents, while more than a third of Black people in Harris County were suburbanites — up from just 21 percent before. “Black voters basically carried the Democratic Party in Texas in 2020,” said Abhi Rahman, a Democratic strategist in Texas who describes himself as South Asian-American. “That’s how we got five and a half points away from Donald Trump.”
But if Democratic gains like those in Texas suggested the possibilities for the party in diversifying suburbs, the same state in 2022 later laid bare its limitations. As early voting began last month, Democrats in Texas began sounding alarms about low turnout among Black voters, including in Harris County. Amid headlines like “Black and young voters missing from Harris County polls,” and “Reliable blocs Dems count on didn’t turn out in Texas early voting,” Democrats scrambled to turn out Black voters, with first lady Jill Biden stumping at predominantly Black churches in Houston while party leaders organized telephone calls to voters from pastors and a robocall from former President Barack Obama.
It hardly made a dent. By the time Election Day ballots were cast, Black turnout was even lower than it looked in early voting, down 14 percentage points in November in Texas from the previous midterm, in 2018, to 35 percent, according to state Democratic Party estimates. It was even lower in Harris County — about 19 percent, county party officials said. In a post-election memo, the state Democratic Party’s executive director, Jamarr Brown, who is Black, said, “turnout was especially low with Black voters — the voters who as a bloc tend to vote the most Democratic, and, unsurprisingly, the voters who were most specifically targeted by Texas Republicans’ post-2020 voter suppression campaign.”
Texas Democrats attributed the decline in Black turnout to voting restrictions in the state, like the outlawing of 24-hour polling places and drive-through voting, which were offered during the Covid-19 pandemic in Harris County in 2020. They faulted the lack of a Black candidate at the top of the ticket, too. Enthusiasm for voting among Black voters, said Evbagharu, is depressed when “we don’t see us” on the ballot.
Democratic candidates are also still trying to figure out how to turn out Black voters outside of the city centers. Traditional turnout efforts, like “souls to the polls,” may be effective in a compact, highly populated urban area. But as the Black population becomes more dispersed, Brown said, “I think folks are probably going to start putting their heads together for the next cycle to really think about what does that mean if I attend church in Dallas, but I live in Collin County” and vote in different races there.
If the movement of Black people to the suburbs continues, it’s possible that, over time, regardless of Republicans’ power today, GOP gerrymandering will simply not be able to keep up with it.
One night this month in Harris County, leaders of the local Democratic Party convened a call with activists to review their midterm performance, with Evbagharu, the party chair, beaming in from the party headquarters. Field metrics from the 2022 campaign — doors knocked, calls made, texts sent — were still tabulated on the wall.
It had been a relatively good night for county Democrats, re-electing County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a rising star in the Democratic Party, and expanding their majority on the county commissioner’s court. Black turnout had lagged across the county. But in several heavily Black suburban precincts, Democrats targeted, the falloff from 2018 had not been as severe.
Part of the reason, Evbagharu said, was “super, super simple,” with Democrats knocking on doors, texting and calling Black voters in areas where the party historically has not run robust field operations.