Fort Bend County’s Office of Election Administration reported low voter turnout for the May and November 2017 general and special elections with only 3.45 percent and 6.76 percent of registered voters casting ballots, respectively.
The ballots included City Council and school district board of trustees races, city charter amendments, three school district bond packages valued at $1.11 billion total, the county’s $218 million mobility bond and state constitutional amendments.
Texas historically ranks among the lower states in national elections in terms of voter participation, said Richard Murray, political science professor at the University of Houston.
“Registration is fair, but actual turnout at the polls usually lags in the bottom five of the 50 states, and that’s in the elections for president and Congress where there is a pretty high level of voter participation,” Murray said. “In down ballot races, party primaries, local elections—mayor and school board—turnout is terrifically low in Texas.”
Low turnout factors
One explanation for low voter participation is a lack of information, Murray said. Particularly in big metropolitan areas, people are unfamiliar with their local governments, and many residents are not aware of the congressional districts they live in or when school board elections take place.
“The single largest source of information that people rely on is television, but television doesn’t cover very much about local elections,” he said. “It focuses on crime and other issues that don’t have much directly to do with politics and voting.”
Murray said excessive media attention is devoted strictly to national government, especially in recent times, and this overshadows local issues and policy. Even with the use of the internet and advantage of accessible information, citizens may still remain uninformed due to their own bias and over reliance on social media, which may include dubious content, he said.
“People only want to expose themselves to information that basically is the kind of views they already agree with,” Murray said. “There’s a lot more information out there than ever in the history of human beings, but that doesn’t mean we’re particularly better informed.”
Primarily focused on local races and issues, elections in odd-numbered years see particularly low rates of voter turnout, ranging from 3.5 to 15.7 percent from 2011 to 2017, according to the Fort Bend County Office of Elections Administration. In contrast, midterm and presidential elections in even-numbered years see dramatic increases in voter turnout, which ranges from 36.8 to 65.3 percent from 2010 to 2016.
Fort Bend County Judge Robert Hebert said it is up to individual citizens to educate themselves on local policies and issues. Hebert attributed the low turnout in 2017 to a lack of controversy.
“In the past [November] election, voter turnout was low because there were no hotly contested candidate races or ... bond issues,” Hebert said. “Voter turnout typically reflects the energy expended by interest groups or candidates in getting people to come vote.”
Richmond is no outlier to this occurrence. After Hilmar G. Moore, Richmond’s mayor for 63 years, died in 2012, his wife and current Mayor Evalyn Moore stepped in to complete his term just a few short weeks after his death. Two years later during the May 2014 election, Moore officially ran for mayor against one of the city’s first commissioners, Gary Gillen. Richmond voter turnout for the election reached 20.6 percent—the highest it has been since May 2010.
“But since that time, its been very noncontroversial so very few have people have voted,” Moore said. “It’s very disturbing that people don’t take the opportunity that they have.”
Murray said some county residents may have been particularly unmotivated to participate in the last election because for residents living outside city limits, the elections do not directly affect their lives.
Equal representation at risk
Representation in government would be skewed and disproportionate if only a small percentage of citizens engaged in policy decisions, Hebert said.
“Do you really know the intent of the electorate if only 3 percent of the qualified voters vote?” Hebert said. “That tells you what the 3 percent wanted … but does that really tell you what the larger body [wants]?”
If a small fraction of the population shows up to the polls, it may not reflect the best interest of the community, Murray said.
“If you don’t vote ... it gives greater weight to the people who are showing up,” Murray said. “That tends to be people that are whiter, older, more conservative, so it gives them a disproportionate influence in the way government works and the interest it responds to.”
Not voting can bring challenges, especially for a region as diverse as Fort Bend County, Murray said. Equal representation occurs when people from different demographic groups speak through their vote.
“That’s important particularly when you have fast-growing populations in counties like [Fort Bend],” he said “The Latino and Asian populations are surging but not so much [in] political influence, partly because voting has lagged behind.”
Older citizens, particularly Anglo Americans, tend to be more active voters, Murray said.
“They dominate most local elections because voting is so low among other citizens,” he said.
However, data indicates a change in this status quo as more minority residents participate in elections, particularly presidential races, Murray said. The secretary of state asked each county to run a tabulation of who voted both in the 2012 and 2016 elections.
In 2012, Fort Bend County reported about 24,738 out of 223,143 voters had Hispanic surnames, Murray said. The turnout for that demographic increased by nearly 34 percent to 33,123 voters in the 2016 elections. Overall turnout also increased by 19 percent to 265,894 voters total in the 2016 general election, he said.
“There’s also a bump up in Asian voting in the 2016 election,” Murray said. “Partly because I think President [Donald] Trump was so aggressive and attacking immigration generally and some immigrant communities that it heightened the interest among people that hadn’t perhaps been paying that much attention to politics.”
Local elections represent resident voices
Despite the significant effect local politics have on daily life, far more people get interested in, talk about, register and vote in presidential elections than in any local elections, Murray said.
“You probably have a lot more control over local things because there’s not so many voters and [it deals] with issues specific to your home or neighborhood,” he said. “Whereas presidentially, you got 50 states and the District of Columbia and you go through this Electoral College process, which is complicated.”
City elections sit low on the ballot, coming after state and national candidates and propositions, but officials say they are just as important.
“[People who do not vote] experience having someone who is the president, or governor or mayor [be elected] who they would not chose [and] they miss the chance to affect their lives,” Moore said. “And that really is not full representational government.”
Despite low voter turnout, the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey has prompted some citizens who experienced flooding in their homes to take political action: Levee Improvement District 19 residents have petitioned to hold an election to select five directors to manage the LID.
LID directors are typically appointed by the county, Hebert said. However, the voters want more direct control over how the LID operates.
“I believe it’s a response to the frustration felt because the homes, they were behind the levee,” Hebert said.
It is not unusual for natural disasters to have meaningful effect on politics, Murray said.
“You can’t restore a lot of these communities or homes unless there’s an awful lot of government money available,” Murray said. “Other decisions have to made, like are you going to build more reservoirs? Or strengthen the ones that exist? Those are political things.”