Voter Turnout – It’s Not Bigger in Texas

By Maria Roque, Sara Cabral, Anna Daugherty and Olivia Starich.

Texas is a state steeped in tradition.

From maintaining its cowboy heritage through rodeos to football tailgating, Texas prides itself on upholding a history of consistency.

Among Texas’ less admirable traditions is the state’s low voter turnout, which consistently ranks among the lowest in the country. The state’s figures for the National Election, which took place last Tuesday, are no exception.

Recent efforts to synchronize the mayoral and city council election schedule with the national elections and the rapid growth of Texas cities outpacing others in the nation could have helped boost turnout for last week’s national election. Despite these changes, voter turnout in the Lone Star state was down 271,000 votes from the 2010 elections, with approximately 33.6 percent of the 14 million registered voters showing up to the polls.

This midterm election was a historic election for both Texas and Austin. It was the first election during which the voter ID law was implemented and the election with the most open seats since 1906. The gubernatorial race also gained national attention early in 2014 when candidate Wendy Davis, known for her 2013 filibuster on women’s reproductive rights, was officially pitted against now governor-elect Greg Abbott.

The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, housed in the University of Texas’ School of Journalism, aims to improve civic engagement in Texas through nonpartisan research and education.

According to the 2013 Texas Civic Health Index report by the Annette Strauss Institute, Texas ranked 51st in the nation for voter turnout in 2010. Texans ranked 42nd for voter registration with 62 percent of voting-eligible citizens reported being registered to vote.

Regina Lawrence, director of the institute, said Texans likely do not vote because they are convinced that an individual vote will not make a difference. While this may be true for larger national elections, Lawrence suggests that offices at and below the state level are more easily impacted by individual voters.

“You may or may not know that some of our local legislators, our local representatives were chosen in their last election by literally a handful of votes, 10, 15, 20, 50 votes” Lawrence said. “So in that context, your individual vote actually matters quite a bit.”

At the local level, the election marked two important firsts for Austin. The November election was the first time for the mayoral and city council election to coincide with the federal election schedule. Austin constituents also voted for the first group of City Council members under the 10-ONE system. Under this system, council seats changed from six city-wide representatives to a council of 10 representatives, one for each geographic district in Austin. Many races went into run-offs, so results are not conclusive.

On a statewide scale, results proved disconcerting for members of the Democratic party as Republicans swept most statewide offices, including the highly-contested Governor and Lieutenant Governor positions.

Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, suggested that a voter identification law enacted in 2011 may have dissuaded voters from going to the polls. Hinojosa maintains that many of those would-be voters might have been Democrats, which could have resulted in a different outcome.

The voter ID law, introduced and passed as SB 14, is undergoing review in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after being ruled unconstitutional last month, and remains a contentious issue following the Texas elections.

According to the appeal, approximately 600,000 voters may have been disenfranchised; however, there is currently no concrete calculation of disenfranchised votes. The impact of SB 14 on voter turnout or the outcome of major races cannot be determined.

Regardless of the effect SB 14 might have had on voter turnout, Texas’ civic participation remained habitually low, with early estimates suggesting that Texas out-voted only Indiana by a small margin. Other factors are deterring would-be voters from casting their ballots.

Election Day 2014 on the UT Campus from Maria T. Roque on Vimeo.

A 2012 U.S Census Bureau election report shows that the two most common reasons for not voting among constituents ages 18-44 years old were, “too busy” and “not interested.” Texas is also poorly-ranked on other civic health measures. Texas residents ranked 49th for contacting elected officials, and 44th for discussing politics a few times a week or more.

“The phrase you’ll hear is that Texas isn’t a red state, it’s a non-voting state, and it’s very true,” said Max Patterson, president of University Democrats. “A lot of people don’t understand the impact of their vote because they have that mentality that this is a red state, it doesn’t matter, especially on the local levels.”

A single vote carries less weight at the national level, which is why Lawrence suggests that collective action, driven by grassroots political discussions and information sharing via social media, is imperative to make large-scale change.

Lawrence and Patterson agree that the power to increase participation and produce change lies in increasing voting numbers and in improving civic engagement. Analysis of voter demographics shows that one of the nation’s largest demographic groups is still missing from the polls: millennials.

Despite constituting 52 percent of the world’s population and numbering 86 million in the United States, millennials have the lowest voter turnout nationwide. Their absence in the polls is troubling since political issues such as unemployment and debt management directly affect them. Millennials lay claim to a 40 percent unemployment rate and 70 percent of the group has an average personal debt of $30,000.

In its efforts to get millennial voters involved and thinking about politics, the Annette Strauss Institute holds civic fairs, similar to science fairs, for middle and high school students, where students develop a project around an issue of interest.

“[Research shows that] when you ask students to get actively involved with something and they get to decide what the problem is and what the solution is, that that’s really empowering and that those young people do tend to go on and vote more consistently once they’re old enough to vote,” Lawrence said.

The institute also hosts post-election debriefings for the Austin and UT communities in addition to other programming designed to get would-be voters talking about issues in their communities.

The key to boosting Texas’ voter turnout likely lies in driving millennials to the polls. Lawrence’s work with the Annette Strauss Institute and outreach efforts by student-led organizations such as UT’s University Democrats continue to entice students towards a higher level of civic engagement. However, until obstacles such as personal time constraints and lack of interest can be negotiated by young would-be voters, the quest to boost voter turnout in Texas could continue to be an uphill battle.



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