Why Texas Voter Turnout is So Low and What Can Be Done to Reverse It

Texas State Capital – Austin, TX

Voter turnout in Texas is terrible. 

In 2016, only 58% of eligible voters in the United States turned out for the presidential election. In Texas, it was even worse, at 51%.

Voter turnout in the United States could be best described as underwhelming. The 2016 election was especially underwhelming–19 states saw voter turnout decline from 2012 to 2016–with noteworthy declines in Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio.

When it comes to voter turnout, everything in Texas is not bigger. Texas’s voter turnout is dismal. In 2016, only Hawaii (42%) and West Virginia (50%) fared worse. In Florida, which has 4 million fewer voting age people than Texas, tabulated over 1 million more votes overall. Even more striking is that only 43% of Texas’ voting age population showed up, which is 2nd lowest in the United States.  Texas turnout has been abysmal for decades.

The problem with voter turnout is even more exacerbated in local elections than in presidential races. In 2015, only 6% of eligible voters participated in the mayoral races for Dallas and Fort Worth. Six percent! The median age of voters was 62 in Dallas and 66 in Forth Worth. Turnout in Austin (13%), Houston (18%) and San Antonio (11%) were only marginally better. An incredibly small percentage of older voters are making incredibly important decisions for entire cities. For comparison, 59% of eligible voters participated in Portland’s mayoral election. Oregon has all mail-in voting and automatic registration when you get a license or state ID. Unlike Texas, Oregon makes it far easier for its citizens to vote.

Increasing voter turnout in all states is important, but in Texas, increasing the turnout would have an outsized impact. If voter turnout just matched the national average, elections would be far more competitive at both the state and local level. The people who typically do not vote, lean Democratic. Critically, Latino voters’ turnout in 2016 was only 40.5%, which is bad even by Texas’ low standards. African-American voter turnout in Texas has typically been pretty good–in both 2008 and 2012. African-American voters had the highest turnout of any voter group during those elections, but in 2016 it dropped under 60% for the first time since 2004.

How do we calculate voter turnout?

Before we get too far into the weeds, note that there are three different ways to calculate voter turnout:

  1. Voting eligible population –  Includes the total number of people who would be eligible to vote.
  2. Registered voter population – Includes everyone who is already registered.
  3. Voting age population – Includes anyone who would be eligible to vote based on age, but can not vote because they are not a citizen, have had their voting rights taken away, or do not meet the residency requirements of the state.

Anytime you hear the term “voter turnout,” you will want to know how they are calculating it. In a state like Texas, there are approximately 20 million people are of voting age, but only 17 million are eligible to vote. In the 2016 general election, 8.9 million people voted. Essentially, 51.6% of the voter eligible population voted, but only 43.4% of the voting age population participated.

Over the past decade, Texas has attracted a large number of US citizens who have not met the residency requirements at the time of the election and it has an unusually large number of residents who are not eligible to vote.

Regardless of how you calculate voter turnout, Texas’s voter turnout is dreadful. Critically, the GOP-controlled Texas government has very little incentive to improve voter turnout.

I Voted

Is it difficult to vote in Texas?

Texas has made it difficult to register voters. Anyone who wants to vote has to register at least one month before the election. Texas does not have automatic registration. ID requirements made it difficult for many Texans to vote–estimates are that 600,000 eligible voters were stymied by ID requirements in 2016.

Additionally, Texas has added layers and layers of regulation to prevent people from becoming Volunteer Deputy Registrars. In Texas, if you want to help people to register to vote, you are required to attend a training offered by your county. You must attend this training in person.  Texas delegated any decisions regarding how to schedule and run these trainings to the county, and evidence shows that many county registrars have made it as difficult as possible for people to either attend or complete the training.

County registrars only have to provide one class a month. They often conduct these trainings in a single, centralized location. Texas counties are huge and they force volunteers to travel large distances to get to the training. The registrars can also supplement the state’s training resources with additional resources and require a test. Despite the fact that registering voters is not particularly complicated, Texas has made it as difficult as possible for people to get the training required to register voters.

Who votes in Texas and who doesn’t?

White, older, and wealthy Texans typically have extremely high turnout. 1400 of the state’s 8400 districts have over 80% turnout. These districts are comprised of predominantly white, wealthy and older residents. (While these numbers reflect the 2008 election, not much has changed since then.)

Voting rates for Latinos are especially dismal when you compare them to Latinos from other states. Only 34% of Texas Latinos voted, while over 54% voted in New Mexico and 57% in California.

Aside from facing structural impediments to voting, there are number of other reasons why Texans do not vote. Texas is dominated by one party, the GOP. A Democrat has not won a statewide office in 24 years (1994). For younger voters, they have gone their entire lives with no hope of getting someone that cares about their issues elected to statewide office. For the past 2 decades, elections have seemingly been pre-ordained.

During this drought, Democrats have traditionally done a lousy job reaching out to these potential voters.  Democratic candidates have rarely reached out to low income, minority neighborhoods. Campaign professionals have often lacked the resources or the will to do the outreach necessary. If you fail to campaign in these areas, people certainly will not go out of their way to vote for you. Democratic candidates need to do a much better job listening  and talking to these communities.

Fortunately, Democratic campaigns appear to be trying to change. Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate for US Senate, has campaigned throughout Texas. He is notably reaching out proactively to Latino communities that have been traditionally ignored.

How can voter turnout be improved?

The governor, Secretary of State and the state legislature, as it is presently composed, will never left a finger to increase voter turnout. The GOP relies on the low voter turnout to stay in power. What can you do?

  • Get the required training to become a Volunteer Deputy Registrar. Battleground Texas has a quick and easy guide for you here: How to Register Voters in Texas
  • The League of Women Voters of Texas has a fantastic list of links and resources to help activate voters and Get Out The Vote. Use these resources and consider getting involved with the group.
  • Share the I Will Vote link with your friends/family and on your social media accounts to encourage people to check to see if they’re registered to vote (and if they aren’t, to get registered.)
  • Canvass for a Democratic candidate running in your district. The personal connection of one voter talking to another about a candidate and issues has been proven, year after year, to be the most effective action that positively affects turnout.
  • Help eligible voters get their ID so they can vote.

If there is a year when a substantial change could happen in Texas, this would be that year!

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Categories: Elections, Explainers

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