Just by looking at voter turnout data, someone could probably guess what is on the ballot in recent Travis and Williamson county elections.
Predictably, presidential elections bring the highest voter turnout — in 2012 and 2016, more than 60 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in both Williamson and Travis counties. From there, turnout steeply declines.
The next highest level of engagement in elections comes from other national and statewide ballots with officials from Congress or statewide candidates on the ticket. The November 2014 election, for example, garnered action from 38 percent of registered voters in Williamson county and 41 percent of registered voters in Travis.
Presidential primaries are the next most popular for voting citizens with approximately 35 percent turnout in Williamson and Travis counties.
And then, all the way at the bottom of the spectrum of voter engagement, are local elections. No purely local election in the past five years has broken the 16 percent turnout threshold among registered voters in Travis or Williamson counties, according to election data provided by the two counties.
Most of these elections play a key role in deciding big questions — who will make executive decisions on a multi-million dollar budget or how much voter approved debt will affect future tax rates.
The cost of elections is immense both from the perspective of what it costs to orchestrate and the financial implications of what is being voted on.
For instance, Round Rock ISD paid $196,893 for its May 6, 2017 bond election. Voters were asked to weigh in on whether the district could take on $572.1 million of bond debt for a number of improvements throughout RRISD.
With high stakes and a large financial question, Williamson County saw 9.71 percent of registered voters turn out, and Travis County saw 11.71 percent. A combined total of 17,175 voters cast ballots on the issue, meaning the district paid a little more than $11 for each person to vote.
Ultimately, the bond failed, with anywhere between 8,905 and 9,841 individuals casting ballots against the three measures that made up the total package.
RRISD trustee candidate John Grey suggested the low voter turnout in this election could have been the difference between the bond passing and failing.
“When you go to a May election, it gives a small vocal minority the opportunity to mobilize and have a much greater impact than they would have in a November general election,” Grey said.
Grey cited voter turnout rates from November 2016 and 2014 as much higher than the May 2017 bond election turnout rates, and therefore, he said, conducive to a potential bond approval.
An upcoming election may also likely see low voter turnout as a result of its place on the calendar.
Following the resignation of Kris Whitfield on Round Rock City Council, the council voted to call a December special election to take place on Dec. 16, with early voting spanning the end of November and early December.
Three candidates have since filed for the open seat on council, but that doesn’t guarantee high turnout.
In the last special election for an open seat on Round Rock city council featuring two candidates, only 1.68 percent of registered voters turned out. Frank Leffingwell won his seat on council with 776 votes at a time when 56,425 individuals were registered and eligible to vote. The other candidate, Chris Koob, received 169 votes in his favor.
The city of Round Rock paid roughly $30,000 for that election (about $31.75 per voter) and plans to do the same for this upcoming December election.
This money covers the costs for a number of items including polling location site rental fees, election systems and software, election supplies, equipment usage, security personnel, publishing election notices and payroll for personnel who staff voting sites.
According to the most recent election services contract Round Rock made with Williamson County, the county pays early voting supervisors $12 per hour, early voting clerks $10 an hour, presiding judges for election day $12 an hour, and clerks on election day $10 an hour.
The city plans to open three locations for early voting from Nov. 29 to Dec. 12: the Baca Center, Jester Annex and Williamson County Elections Office for a total of 122 hours each. The Baca Center and Jester Annex will also be open for 12 hours on election day, Dec. 16.