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Why Does Texas Have Such a Low Voter Turnout?


Fred Lewis, the Director of Texans Together, says the real challenge is getting people involved more often on a local level, so they can see concrete results from participating. University of Texas at San Antonio political science professor Walter Wilson says poorly distributed congressional districts contribute to poor Latino voter turnout. Saul Elbein's article, “No Shows: why so few Texans bother to vote” also explores the reasons why so many people don't even try to get to the polls.

What would it take to get you to vote?

Millions of dollars are being spent on campaigns, and thousands of hours are dedicated to promoting candidates and shaping their policies; all to capture votes for one political point of view or the other. Voting is the corner stone of democracy, but voting isn’t very popular in Texas. The state is consistently among the five worst states for voter turnout and if more people did vote then perhaps public policies in Texas would be less extreme. One non-profit non-partisan group wanted to find out why so many Texans don’t vote.

Texans Together, an organization that works with communities in Harris County to help bring them improved public services, held a focus group in southwest Harris County and gathered a racially diverse modest-to-lower income set on Aug. 9, 2012.

"What could make you decide to vote in an election?" asked Facilitator Ana Rivera.

"I think nothing, anymore," answered one woman, "because it feels like everything is plotted."

"What do you mean?" said Rivera.

"In the end it doesn't make a difference if you vote or not," replied the woman, "because even if you voted your vote is counted, but it's not going to make a difference because more people could vote for something else and that's going to win."

Director of Texans Together Fred Lewis:

"What these folks were telling us is that they lacked faith that their vote would make a difference in their lives, that they weren't very informed about what the issues were, and they basically didn't think that it would make any difference if they voted... It is interesting that although people sometimes consciously decide not to vote - because of their cynicism and apathy and lack of information - they really don't like it when people try to make it more difficult for them to vote or take their vote away; it's paradoxical."

"I think that there (are) reasons to have hope, and I think people can learn the importance of voting and the importance of participating, but we're going to have to do things differently. Working people, the working poor, are very cynical that the system won't respond to them, and won't address their needs; I call it 'well-earned cynicism' because they have seen very little changes in their lives and in their community. So what makes a difference is if they begin participating in projects to improve their community, work on things small and large that make their lives better, and then see a concrete relationship between their work and their participation in voting and improvements in their lives."

"Elected officials do not go into these communities - into working poor and working people's community - until election time. And when they come people haven't seen change in their lives, they haven't seen promises honored, so political candidates are often the worst messengers for people to participate. The best messengers are people from the community, grass-roots community leaders."

Targeting Latino voters

Getting more people to vote – particularly Latinos – is a strategy being adopted by the Texas Democratic Party. Some have argued that the state’s Republican party is working to dampen voter participation – by passing legislation that makes it harder to register to vote, disempowering communities through redistricting and requiring voters to show an I.D. or driver's license.

University of Texas at San Antonio Political Science Professor Walter Wilson:

"The most important patterns of turnout that you may be interested in relate to the Hispanic population. Here, we see generally low patterns of turnout in elections and other forms of participations as well. This is even, I believe, in comparison to other states like California. I think there are a number of reasons for that and political culture may be kind of a root cause. In Texas we have what I would call, not necessarily barriers to participation, but barriers to political influence and those are the root of low participation, especially among Latinos and other minorities in Texas."

"Unlike a lot of other states in the Southwest, Texas has been fairly aggressive about establishing patterns of districting that result in a situation where Latinos can either be taken for granted, or written off entirely by candidates running in those districts. If we look at congressional districts for example, Latinos make up the super majority of about half a dozen districts here in Texas where they make up more than two-thirds of the electorate. If you compare that with California, while there are some very high Latino population districts, there are also a lot of districts that are much closer to 50 percent Latino. That creates a situation where candidates have a greater incentive to appeal to Latinos."

“No Shows: why so few Texans bother to vote”

Freelance journalist Saul Elbein:

Elbein's article, “No Shows: why so few Texans bother to vote” is in the current issue of the Texas Observer; you can read the piece online at www.texasobserver.org.

The last day to register to vote in the upcoming election in Oct. 9. Early voting begins on Oct. 22  and ends on Nov 2. Election Day is Nov. 6.

"Part of the problem is that we've focused this conversation on voting itself. I had a lot of activist tell me, in a number of different words, that, 'democracy doesn't only happen on election day.' The problem is there's this focus in campaigns and focus in a lot of political activism on just getting people to vote, and there's not a focus on actually building political participation. Voting by itself is great, but it's not the same thing as daily engagement with the system as being involved with your school board; doing all these sort of lower, less sexy things that are also political participation."

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi