Author:
Kris Seago
Subject:
Government/Political Science
Material Type:
Full Course
Level:
Academic Lower Division
Provider:
Austin Community College
Tags:
ACC Liberal Arts, ACC OER
License:
Creative Commons Attribution
Language:
English
Media Formats:
Text/HTML

Voter Turnout and Political Participation in Texas

Overview

Voter Turnout and Political Participation in Texas

Learning Objective

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Discuss the factors that affect voter turnout and political participation in Texas

Introduction

Vote Here Sign in English and Spanish
Figure 7.6 Sign posted in Taft, Texas during the United States presidential election in 2016. Image Credit: Jay Phagan License: CC- BY-2.0

This section discusses the factors influencing voter turnout and political participation in Texas. 

Does Turnout Matter?

Houston doesn’t charge a fee for single-family home trash pickup. While most cities charge a monthly fee – usually added to the homeowner’s water bill – Houston simply used general fund tax revenue to pay for trash service provided only to single-family homes. Apartment residents help pay for this service, although they don’t receive it. They then pay again through their rent to have their own trash picked up by a private company. How can this be?

Before municipal elections in Houston, savvy candidates purchase walk lists from the Harris County Clerk’s office. A walk list is a list of street addresses at which at least one registered voter lives. When going door-to-door meeting voters and asking for support, a smart candidate will skip over houses where nobody is registered to vote. In time, candidates will realize that in a typical 100-house neighborhood, around 50 houses will probably contain at least one registered voter. How many registered voter households will that candidate find in a 100-unit apartment property?

Probably fewer than ten. Homeowners, with more roots in the community, are far more likely to register and vote than renters. Most candidates simply skip apartment properties – many of which are gated anyway – to concentrate on the more voter-rich single-family neighborhoods.

If a candidate gets elected, and is later sitting at a council meeting thinking about the wants and needs of his or her constituents, who do you think that council member is envisioning? Wouldn’t a policy to take money from a group of mostly non-voters to subsidize a service for a group that is highly likely to vote to make good political sense?

WATCH: Campaign 2014: Rock The Vote 

Voter Turnout in Texas

After years of elections in which Democrats nominated largely unknown, underfunded candidates for many statewide offices, Republican Senator Ted Cruz was opposed in 2018 by El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke, an energetic campaigner and prolific fundraiser who raised over $70 million to Senator Cruz’ $33 million. Driven by the success of the “Beto” campaign and controversy generated by President Donald Trump, Democrats registered significant numbers of new voters, and saw an increased turnout of Democrat voters, especially in large cities. Overall, voter turnout among the voter-eligible population increased from 28.3% in the 2014 midterm election to 46.3% - the sixth-highest turnout increase in the United States, and higher than the turnout increase nationwide.

Still, Texas turnout was below the national average – 44th out of 51 states (plus the District of Columbia). What affects voter turnout, and why don’t more Texans vote?

Interested in mobilizing voters? Explore Rock the Vote and The Voter Participation Center for more information.

Factors Affecting Voter Turnout

Political scientists pay tremendous attention to voter turnout – examining all the factors that predict who will and won’t show up to vote in an election.

Voter Eligibility

First, it is important to remember that not everybody is legally able to vote. Citizens of other countries – whether in the United States legally or illegally cannot vote in American elections. Children under the age of 18 cannot vote. Texans younger than 18 make up more than a fourth of the state’s population.

Removing those who can’t vote from the total population leaves what political scientists call the voting-eligible population (VEP). The VEP includes citizens eighteen and older who, whether they have registered or not, are eligible to vote because they are citizens, mentally competent, and not imprisoned.

Voter Beliefs and Attitudes

There are as many reasons not to vote as there are non-voters, but some factors seem to stand out. Many don’t vote because they don’t see any benefit – lacking political efficacy, or the feeling that they have any influence over the direction of their government.

Some don’t vote because they see little difference between the parties or the candidates. Many voters are unlikely to vote in elections they see as not being competitive – a common situation in Texas where general elections were dominated by the Democratic Party for more than a century after the Civil War, and by the Republican Party since the 1990s.

Many political scientists look at political socialization - the process by which we initially acquire our political ideals and behaviors, and which have a strong influence on our voting behavior throughout our lives.

Demographic and Socioeconomic Factors

Besides homeownership, many other factors are associated with difference in turnout. Older people are more likely to vote than younger people. Native Texans are more likely to vote then immigrants. Lower English proficiency is strongly correlated with low voter turnout. Texas, a state that skews young and Hispanic, has those factors working against high voter participation.

Voter ID Requirements in Texas

Low turnout also occurs when some citizens are not allowed to vote. One method of limiting voter access is the requirement to show identification at polling places.

In 2011, Texas passed a strict photo identification law for voters, allowing concealed-handgun permits as identification but not student identification. The Texas law was blocked by the Obama administration before it could be implemented because Texas was on the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance list. Other states, such as Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, and Virginia similarly had laws and districting changes blocked.

Proponents of voter ID requirements in Texas see increasing requirements for identification as a way to prevent in-person voter impersonation and increase public confidence in the election process. Opponents say there is little fraud of this kind, and the burden on voters, especially specific voter demographics, restricts the right to vote and imposes unnecessary costs and administrative burdens on elections administrators.

A chart reflecting the growth in Voter ID requirements
Figure 7.7 Image Credit: National Conference of State Legislators - Voter ID History

 

A map of voter ID requirements in the U.S.
Figure 7.8 A total of 35 states have laws requesting or requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls, all of which are in force in 2018. In Texas, a photo ID is required to vote. Voters who do not possess an acceptable form of photo ID, and cannot obtain one, can present a supporting form of ID and execute a Reasonable Impediment Declaration. Visit the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) website and scroll over the interactive map below for state-by state comparison of voter ID requirements.

Increasing Turnout

In 2015, Oregon made news when it took the concept of Motor Voter further. When citizens turn eighteen, the state now automatically registers most of them using driver’s license and state identification information. When a citizen moves, the voter rolls are updated when the license is updated. While this policy has been controversial, with some arguing that private information may become public or that Oregon is moving toward mandatory voting, automatic registration is consistent with the state’s efforts to increase registration and turnout.

Oregon’s example offers a possible solution to a recurring problem for states—maintaining accurate voter registration rolls. During the 2000 election, in which George W. Bush won Florida’s electoral votes by a slim majority, attention turned to the state’s election procedures and voter registration rolls.

Journalists found that many states, including Florida, had large numbers of phantom voters on their rolls, voters had moved or died but remained on the states’ voter registration rolls.

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) was passed in order to reform voting across the states and reduce these problems. As part of the Act, states were required to update voting equipment, make voting more accessible to the disabled, and maintain computerized voter rolls that could be updated regularly.

Over a decade later, there has been some progress. In Louisiana, voters are placed on ineligible lists if a voting registrar is notified that they have moved or become ineligible to vote. If the voter remains on this list for two general elections, his or her registration is cancelled. In Oklahoma, the registrar receives a list of deceased residents from the Department of Health.

Twenty-nine states now participate in the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, which allows states to check for duplicate registrations. What are some ways that Texas could increase voter turnout?Some feel Texas could make voting more convenient. Some states allow instant registration in person or online, no-excuses absentee balloting and mail-in balloting. Texas does have absentee voting (where an individual does not need to be physically present at the poll to cast their ballot), and early voting (17 days before and 4 days until the regular election).

At the national level, some attempts have been made to streamline voter registration. The National Voter Registration Act (1993), often referred to as Motor Voter, was enacted to expedite the registration process and make it as simple as possible for voters. The act required states to allow citizens to register to vote when they sign up for driver’s licenses and Social Security benefits. On each government form, the citizen need only mark an additional box to also register to vote. Unfortunately, while increasing registrations by 7 percent between 1992 and 2012, Motor Voter did not dramatically increase voter turnout. In fact, for two years following the passage of the act, voter turnout decreased slightly. It appears that the main users of the expedited system were those already intending to vote. One study, however, found that preregistration may have a different effect on youth than on the overall voter pool; in Florida, it increased turnout of young voters by 13 percent.

Most major elections in Texas are held on Tuesday. Employers in Texas are required to provide two paid hours off from work for employees to vote, but some suggest that making election day a national holiday or simply holding more elections on weekends could increase turnout. Better outreach to citizens with limited English proficiency has seen promising results in some states. Australia has compulsory voting – like jury duty. The failure to vote can result in a ticket and a small fine. Some have even suggested paying people to vote – a recognition of the value of voting and the time voters must invest. Studies show that voters simply make better citizens. Voting is associated with stronger social ties, better health outcomes, lower recidivism – even better mental health. Also, the government simply makes better decisions when more citizens participate.

Every four years, the Get Out the Vote campaign invites graphic designers to make posters that rally US voters to go to the polls. Here are 14 posters that rock the vote, via Ideas.TED.com

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