Texans discuss health of state’s democracy at Tribune event

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While there’s great interest around the 2024 elections, many Texans across the political spectrum have expressed dissatisfaction with politics and distrust of government and of public institutions.

In response, The Texas Tribune launched the “We the Texans” initiative, a yearlong effort focused on helping Texans better understand the people and processes that uphold our state’s democracy and how Texas institutions can more effectively work on behalf of the state’s residents.

On Tuesday, the Tribune held a multi-panel event at the University of Houston-Downtown featuring experts who talked about the current health of our democracy. Panelists discussed Texas’ voter turnout woes, the challenges for local governments, the state of local news and how that’s affecting communities, and how young Texans are engaging and making a difference.

Below are summaries of those conversations.

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“We can’t leave people in despair”

In a conversation on the state of American democracy, panelists discussed deepening polarization, the role identity politics has played in hyperpartisanship, and how news organizations can help narrow the schism we face.

Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said partisan redistricting has deepened political polarization due to a lack of competitive races, which in turn decreases voter mobilization. He noted that in the 1998 election, the U.S. House had 186 toss-up seats – a sharp contrast with the 25 toss-ups in the current congressional landscape.

Asked about how California’s independent redistricting process compares with the partisan process in Texas, Li said that Orange County, California, was previously a conservative stronghold but has turned competitive as the region has seen demographic shifts.

“You would think that you would have a lot of competition in the suburbs of Dallas and Houston and Atlanta, but you just don't,” Li said during the panel, which was moderated by Lisa Falkenberg, the Houston Chronicle’s vice president and editor of opinion.

William McKenzie, senior editorial adviser at the George W. Bush Institute, referenced how younger voters see the bipartisan spirit among lawmakers across the aisle as a forgone time.

“I think for a lot of younger people who may not have hope, but they're skeptical about the future, they haven't seen a period where the system worked well enough,” he said.

Nealin Parker, executive director of Search for Common Ground USA, said journalists play a role in mending the partisan divide by publishing more solutions-oriented journalism – especially in cases where readers are experiencing news fatigue and a lack of agency over the problems their community is facing.

“It's a combination of knowing how big the problem is, and having some way to solve it, and the role that journalists play in offering that space for the solution is really profound,” Parker said.

Ending on a positive note, she referenced her work in conflict zones and noted that in comparison America is not in a “bad place” but rather facing a “bad direction.” She also touted the importance of focusing on common ground as a starting point for opposing factions to work toward solutions.

Asked about what gives him hope, Li noted that Americans remain steadfast in their belief in our democracy, citing the record turnout in the 2020 election. McKenzie also noted the work done on the local community level, signaling out the work of the North Texas-based Multi-Faith Neighbors Network.

— Sejal Govindarao

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Addressing Texas’ voter turnout issues

As Texas lawmakers have tightened state election laws in recent years, panelists discussed roadblocks that voters face when heading to the polls. They discussed boosting voter turnout by focusing more on down-ballot races, and they talked about barriers for voters – particularly for younger voters and voters from immigrant backgrounds who face language barriers. They also talked about the need for mindful voter education.

Rochelle Garza, president of Texas Civil Rights Project, said that voters are energized when they see representation on their ballots. However, she noted that in her campaign against Ken Paxton for Texas attorney general, where she focused on her background as an expectant mother, a Latina from Brownsville, and a “pro-civil rights platform,” she found it tough to get people to invest in her race.

She added that while increased representation on the ballot mobilizes voters from underrepresented communities, voters from underrepresented communities face barriers to vote – a lack of access to mail-in ballots and a lack of voter education, for example.

“The elephant in the room is voter suppression,” Garza added during the session, which was moderated by Matthew Watkins, the Tribune’s managing editor for news and politics.

Melissa Marschall, professor of political science at Rice University, and Garza agreed that voter registration can be made easier by decreasing the number of elections and consolidating them to cycles that are “during a regular time of year.” Treating voting as a habit, in addition to increasing education and outreach, can help boost youth voter turnout, according to Marschall.

“In Texas, we're super busy, people are working lots of jobs,” she said.” Our young people are working moms. It's we just have a lot on our plate and voting on the list of things that you need to do to get through your everyday life is probably close to the bottom, even though that voting could get you the things that would make the other parts of your life easier.”

— Sejal Govindarao

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Challenges for local governments

National and state issues are bleeding into sectors of local governments, and local leaders say that’s making it difficult for them to operate in their full capacity.

Tiffanie Harrison, a Round Rock ISD board member, has observed hyperpartisanship for the past two years of serving her term, most notably affecting the district’s most recent election in November. The discussion over national issues, such as book bans, created conflict between parents and public school districts — even garnering threats of violence. Despite the ongoing tension, Harrison said, the community elected several candidates that center students’ needs.

“It was really interesting that our community in a nonpartisan election still really voted across partisan lines and came together and said, ‘We don’t want that violent extremism in our community,’” she noted during the discussion, which was moderated by Texas Tribune reporter Pooja Salhotra.

Also featured on the panel was John B. Muns, the mayor of Plano, which is 33 miles away from Southlake — where the local school district has been the subject of claims of racial and gender of discrimination. Muns said that Plano “doesn’t have that kind of environment” and is invested in advancing the values reinforced by the large corporate community that exists in the city.

“When we talk about the companies that are there, they want a safe and secure environment, they want good education and they want an educated workforce,” he said. “If we don’t have those, then we’re really vulnerable to losing those companies down the road.”

Dustin Fawcett, the Ector County judge, cited the disparity between the thousands in local government positions and 181 elected officials across the Texas House and Senate who allocate responsibility to local governments across the state.

“It’s a lack of accountability at the statewide level, and they pass the buck on the local governments and that’s the gist of what it comes down to,” Fawcett said.

Muns agreed with Fawcett, adding that Plano is a “local government that gets more done at the local level than any state or federal government entity.” He asserts that voters are primarily focused on state and federal politics.

— Nina Banks

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The changing face of local news 

Local news publications have a vital role in disseminating news across their communities — yet panelists said Tuesday that economics and the changing media climate have had a chilling effect on those operations.

The Canadian Record has covered news in the Panhandle for more than 100 years. The publication ended its print edition last March. Publisher and editor Laurie Ezzell Brown said they’ve had to adapt by posting stories solely on their website and Facebook.

“It’s not obviously the most satisfying way to deliver news for me, but I’m glad to be still keeping people informed, and they’re grateful for it too,” Brown said.

Sherry Sylvester, a distinguished senior fellow for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, recalled being dismissed by a Washington Post reporter for working at a smaller publication.

Sylvester has conducted surveys across Texas regarding voting accessibility and does not feel that democracy is “in peril.” She referenced how the issues at the border are portrayed as a national issue despite being a local issue.

“I think it’s because we’re feeding into the narratives instead of looking at what’s actually going on,” she said at the event, which was moderated by Darla Cameron, the Tribune’s managing editor for visual journalism.

Robert Moore, president and CEO of El Paso Matters, asserted the dissolution of local news has allowed harmful rhetoric to spread, and that rhetoric has led to tragedies such as the 2019 El Paso shooting.

“We will tell very painful stories about our communities when necessary to make it better,” he said. “We also all have obligations as participants in a democracy to make sure we are getting coherent, comprehensive stories about what’s going on. Especially as we then make about the decisions on the leaders we are going to elect to enforce these policies.”

Brown referenced a story she wrote on a local death that was made difficult due to social media use by community members. Though social media can be a tool for journalists, Brown said, it can be easily manipulated — which is why television stations and consumers shouldn’t rely too heavily on it for information.

“The community trusted us enough to know we were doing a good job of reporting,” she said.

— Nina Banks

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Young Texans taking action

Turnout among younger voters has historically been low, with 22% of people ages 18-29 voted in the 2022 midterms, often pigeonholing the age demographic as apathetic toward political engagement. Three Gen Z Texans talked Tuesday about how they are hoping to eliminate that association and educate their peers.

María Méndez, a service and engagement reporter for the Tribune and the panel’s moderator, asked each panelist where they got their start in civic engagement. Lorenzo Salinas, a master of public policy and social work candidate, reminisced on his childhood when he would deliver meals on Thanksgiving with his family.

“That really warmed my heart and showed me that there’s nothing more important than service to your fellow human being,” Salinas said.

Vivian Zheng, graduate of Rice University, attributed low voter turnout in Gen Z in part to laziness, while also nodding to the instant gratification from social media.

“I think especially because we’re so used to having everything directly on our phones

and everything directly in front of us telling us exactly what we need to know instantly, sometimes in terms of getting out and going to the polls, that’s not something you know automatically,” Zheng said.

Alvin City Council member Joel Castro, who was elected at 18, expressed his opposition to DEI policies, explaining that America should operate based on merit, not skin color.

“We have to be able to realize that we are all Americans at the end of the day, no matter the color of our skin,” he said.

As part of her work on voter accessibility, Zheng was able to get the upcoming November election to be a non-instructional day across Rice’s campus.

“We as students know the issues that students are going through on Election Day and know the issues that we might have with voter accessibility ,” she said. “So I think it’s really good to see that representation and to be able to pass it on to the future student body at Rice.”

Salinas urged everyone to come out of the panel to feel empowered to create change in their communities.

“Go out there, get things done,” Salinas said. “Whether it’s small or big — every action matters.”

— Nina Banks

Disclosure: Facebook, George W. Bush Institute, Rice University, Texas Public Policy Foundation, University of Houston and University of Houston-Downtown have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

We can’t wait to welcome you to downtown Austin Sept. 5-7 for the 2024 Texas Tribune Festival! Join us at Texas’ breakout politics and policy event as we dig into the 2024 elections, state and national politics, the state of democracy, and so much more. When tickets go on sale this spring, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.

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