Skipping the polls | How can Texas improve on a dismal 46 percent voter turnout?
Author: Michael Perchick
Published: 10:30 PM CST February 21, 2018
Updated: 8:58 PM CST February 23, 2018
POLITICS 4 Articles

Skipping the polls | How can Texas improve on a dismal 46 percent voter turnout?

Chapter 1

History of apathy

Early voting for the March 6 joint primary election is now underway. It’s the first such election in the country in 2018, though if past history has shown anything – it likely won’t be the best attended.

Despite more people moving to Texas than any other state, voting rates in Texas have remained fairly stagnant for decades, often lagging behind most of the country.

“For the size and importance of Texas, and how important how it is in Congress, how important it is in determining the presidency, it is a state that votes very, very low – to the point of almost being an embarrassment,” explained Dr. Brian Smith, a political science professor at St. Edward’s University.

According to the Texas State Historical Association, the last time more than 50% of Texas adults voted in a presidential election was the year 1900. In 2016, just over 46% of voters came out.

“We do not have a lot of competitive elections, and election competitiveness gets people out to the polls, it gets people excited,” said Dr. Smith.

According to data compiled by the United States Election Project -- based out of the University of Florida -- Texas ranked 48 out of 51 in voter turnout in the 2016 election, ahead of only Tennessee, Hawaii and West Virginia.

In November, KVUE profiled Democratic struggles in the state, where they hold the country’s longest-losing streak in statewide elections.

But Dr. Smith notes that when either Republicans or Democrats win, they tend to do so solidly.

“When we look top-to-bottom, we have a lot of safe Democratic areas, we have a lot of safe Republican areas, we don’t have a lot of battleground areas," Dr. Smith said. "When we look at the Congress in the last Congressional election, there was one congressional seat in the entire state that was even moderately competitive. If you know who’s going to win an election, it isn’t going to get people out to vote because they know either way, their vote isn’t going to be that real decisive vote."

Chapter 2

Changing tide?

UT History Professor Jeremi Suri said the tradition of apathy due to a lack of competition could be fading away after surprising results last year in Virginia and Alabama.

“People first of all recognize that these are close elections, and their votes count. But second off, they feel the stakes are quite large,” Suri said.

And a case the U.S. Supreme Court is now reviewing could make things even more competitive. A Lower-court ruled lawmakers discriminated when drawing voting maps in 11 voting districts.

“If the Supreme Court, or even a series of state courts and federal courts step in, we could see massive changes in 2018 in the nature of the congressional races and statehouse races,” Suri said.

He pointed to such maps as a tool for politicians to pick the voters, rather than voters picking them.

Changes to the voting maps could change the political landscape entirely.

“I think we are likely to see decisions made by courts in the next three to four months that will affect the districts for voting in November of 2018. Those decisions will not completely overturn the districts as they are, but they will make significant shifts. So, I expect that we will see in Texas a redrawing... a very rapid redrawing of a number of districts that will produce different elected officials,” Suri said.

Chapter 3

Lack of local turnout

Redistricting could affect larger-scale races, though Texans haven’t shown much interest in voting in local races either.

A 2015 study by Portland State University found dismal results in major Texas cities for mayoral elections.

Amongst the state’s four largest-cities, Houston led the pack at 18 percent, Austin was second at 13 percent, San Antonio third at 12 percent, and Dallas fourth at 6 percent. In fact, Dallas and Fort Worth tied for the lowest turnout of any city nationally included in the study.

Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and Fort Worth also had some of the oldest voters included in the study. The median age of Houston voters in the mayoral election was 61 years old, a year younger than Dallas (62), two years younger than San Antonio (63), and five years younger than Fort Worth (66 years old, third oldest of any city).

Chapter 4

Role of the government

Is it the government’s responsibility to increase such turnout numbers?

“The thought is – government should play no role at all in turnout. What we should do is make resources as available as possible to our voters so they can have convenient and fully acceptable opportunities,” said Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir.

In Travis County, DeBeauvoir noted voter registration typically exceeds 90 percent.

Statewide, the results are typically less consistent. In 1990, voter registration was just 61.5. By 2000, it had spiked up to 85.4 percent, before steadily falling. In 2016, voter registration was 78.2 percent, marking a 10-year high.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 15 states and the District of Columbia offer same day registration (SDR) in some capacity (two – Maryland and North Carolina, offer same day registration only during early voting period).

At the time of the 2016 election, 13 states and the District of Columbia offered same day registration. The U.S. Vote Foundation reported voter turnout in states with same day registration was seven percent higher than non-same day registration states. Furthermore, seven of the top 10 states with the highest voter turnout offered same day registration.

DeBeauvoir encouraged early voting as an option for people to vote in a timely fashion.

“The ideal arrangement is to have a little bit more of your votes – say between 50 and 60 percent in early voting,” DeBeauvoir explained.

In the November 2017 Constitutional Amendment Election, 59 percent of adults in Travis County waited until Election Day to cast their vote, representing a near-reversal of the preferred trend.

Debeauvoir said her office created an app for people to find voting locations, check how busy they are, and minimize the time people wait to cast their ballots.

“We’re not out here to promote turnout, because it’s too easy to get into a situation where it’s not equitable. Or one side takes advantage and the other side doesn’t know enough, and you end up with something inequitable,” said DeBeauvoir.

Still, DeBeauvoir said voting is a personal experience, meaning it’s up to each individual to choose whether or not they want to participate.

To view 2018's early voting totals for Travis County thus far, click here.