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Stranglehold 'Em

Texas Republicans’ Brazen Plan to Control the State Forever

The state GOP just approved a party platform that would effectively ensure one-party rule.

Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas

The Texas Republican Party approved its new platform at its annual convention last week. It reflects the hard-right stances of its members, with reiterations of Texas’s “right to secede,” demands for bans on quarantines during future pandemics, calls to investigate “unidentified aerial phenomena,” and more. Tucked in between these more outlandish provisions is an ominous one that would effectively end representative democracy in Texas—and keep the state firmly in GOP hands even as it becomes increasingly diverse and urban.

The platform calls for the establishment of what can best be described as an electoral college of sorts for Texas statewide races. “The State Legislature shall cause to be enacted a State Constitutional Amendment to add the additional criteria for election to a statewide office to include the majority vote of the counties with each individual county being assigned one vote allocated to the popular majority vote winner of each individual county,” the new plank declared.

The proposal is born from the party’s fear that it will not rule Texas forever. Texas Republicans frequently tout their state’s economic growth in recent years and brag that residents in sapphire-blue states like California are fleeing there. But those migrations are turning statewide races in the Lone Star State more competitive, and right-wing leaders in Texas fear that Democrats might once again hold the governorship and other key offices.

It is hard to imagine that such a system as the Texas GOP has proposed would comply with the one-person, one-vote principle, to put it lightly. Texas has 254 counties, some of which are extremely sparsely populated. Loving County, which is on the state’s western border with New Mexico, counted only 64 residents during the 2020 census, making it the least populous county in the United States. Eight Texas counties are home to fewer than 1,000 people, and an additional 86 counties each have fewer than 10,000 inhabitants.

Adopting a county-majority requirement for statewide elections would obviously cement Republicans into perpetual power in statewide races. In modern American politics, Democratic voters tend to be concentrated in urban areas while Republican voters are overwhelmingly popular in rural counties. President Joe Biden received 1.9 million votes just from the three Texas counties in 2020 that cover Houston, Dallas, and Austin.

Beyond the partisan implications, a county-majority requirement would dramatically shift the state’s electoral power toward its rural residents in general. Roughly 3.9 million people live in the least-populated half of Texas counties. They would enjoy an effective veto in statewide elections over the other 26 million or so Texans who live in denser areas. That proportion is similar to Texas’s population within the United States. If that power disparity were similarly reflected in the Electoral College, Texas would have an additional 229 electoral votes.

The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether such a system would be constitutional. Only one other state has ever adopted something like it. During its 1890 constitutional convention, Mississippi implemented a dual-track system of its own. It required candidates for statewide office to win a majority of the popular vote and a majority of districts in the state House of Representatives. If no candidate met both thresholds, the state House would elect them instead.

A person who is casually familiar with American history will have already guessed based on the year and the state that Mississippi’s 1890 system wasn’t created with good intentions. Those who participated in the convention openly declared that its purpose was to eliminate Black political power. “There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter,” Mississippi Governor James Vardaman, an ardent white supremacist, recounted a few years later. “Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the n— from politics.”

The two-tier system prevailed in Mississippi until 2020 when state voters approved a constitutional amendment that repealed it. A voting rights coalition had filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state in 2019 to challenge the system’s constitutionality, and a federal judge had suggested in court that the system might violate the equal protection clause and the one-person, one-vote principle. State lawmakers rushed to replace it before a ruling could be handed down.

It would be impossible to justify Texas’s system under existing legal precedent. So to whatever extent Texas Republicans are thinking strategically about the matter, they may be hoping that the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority will side with them. At least one of the justices is already willing to excise the one-person, one-vote principle from American constitutional law.

The Supreme Court first articulated the one-person, one-vote principle in a series of cases in the 1960s that addressed state malapportionment. In the 1962 case Baker v. Carr, the justices ruled that the apportionment of state legislative districts could be reviewed by federal courts. That led to landmark rulings over the next few years that required equally drawn districts for federal House races and for state legislative seats. The only legislative body in America today where that principle does not apply is the U.S. Senate.

In the 2016 case Evenwel v. Abbott, two voters went to the Supreme Court to challenge Texas’s state legislative districts. They argued that Texas had violated the equal protection clause by drawing those districts based on total population instead of voting population. By relying on total population, the plaintiffs claimed, the state had diluted their votes by using noncitizens and otherwise ineligible voters to apportion districts.

Their argument ran counter to more than two centuries of historical practice. State legislatures have always used total population to apportion state legislative districts, and the Constitution effectively requires it for congressional districts. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected their complaint and ruled that it was permissible for Texas to use total population to apportion its state legislature.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion to note that he agreed with the ultimate result, but not with the reasoning that the majority used to get there. “In my view, the majority has failed to provide a sound basis for the one-person, one-vote principle because no such basis exists,” he wrote. No other justices joined his opinion.

“The Constitution does not prescribe any one basis for apportionment within States,” Thomas claimed. “It instead leaves States significant leeway in apportioning their own districts to equalize total population, to equalize eligible voters, or to promote any other principle consistent with a republican form of government. The majority should recognize the futility of choosing only one of these options. The Constitution leaves the choice to the people alone—not to this Court.”

Thomas’s concurring opinion was focused on the unspoken question raised by the case. While the justices unanimously said that the Evenwel plaintiffs could not force Texas to use voting population for apportionment, they did not address whether Texas lawmakers could choose that method themselves. But his denunciation of one-person, one-vote and the precedents that established it would upend American political systems in other ways.

In a decision last month on a racial-gerrymandering case from South Carolina, Thomas once again called for those precedents to be overturned. He argued that the Constitution gave the federal courts no role to countermand how states draw their political divisions, even if they do so to weaken or eliminate Black electoral power. Thomas even expressed doubt about the validity of the high court’s efforts to enforce Brown v. Board of Education in the face of widespread resistance to desegregation from Southern states.

By recognizing the one-person, one-vote principle in the 1960s, the Warren court effectively dragged the United States into liberal democracy. If the Texas Republican Party had its way, the country would be dragged right back out of it. And at least one justice on the Supreme Court would be sympathetic to their goals of perpetual one-party rule.