The Nov. 6 midterm elections marked the first time more than 1 million Harris County residents turned out to vote in a nonpresidential election. A total of 1,209,358 votes were cast by the end of Election Day, according to the Harris County Clerk’s office.
However, Texas has not historically been known for its civic engagement.
According to the 2018 Texas Civic Health Index, a report spearheaded by the University of Texas at Austin, the state ranked 47th nationally in voter turnout for the 2016 presidential election with just 55 percent of eligible citizens voting. The top reason Texans gave for not voting was a dislike of candidates or campaign issues, followed by being too busy or having a conflict with work or school.
Marlene Lobberecht, president of the League of Women Voters Cy-Fair—a nonpartisan nonprofit that works to educate voters on local issues—said this election brought a more diverse slate of candidates with more women and minorities on the ballot than the county has seen in year’s past.
“Overall, the most positive thing out of this election was there were a lot of choices,” she said. “There weren’t many unopposed races. There were more people and younger people that were willing to step up. … It was more reflective of those who live in Harris County.”
Lobberecht said she thinks the diversity also drew out a younger crowd on Election Day. About 48 percent of eligible Texans between the ages of 18-24 were registered to vote in 2016—compared to the national average of 55 percent. At the same time, nearly 80 percent of eligible Texans over the age of 65 were registered to vote, according to the TCHI.
Members of LWV Cy-Fair spent time in 11 Cy-Fair ISD high schools educating students on the importance of being informed voters and helping them register, Lobberecht said.
“I guess the most impressive thing was that there were so many young people turning out to vote,” she said. “They had been pretty much written off by the 2016 election’s extremely low turnout, but I think it was much higher this time.”
Room for improvement
While voter turnout increased overall in 2018, Lobberecht said there are still obstacles to overcome in the voter registration and voting process, and she thinks certain regulations should be lifted at the county and state levels.
For instance, she said some states have same-day voter registration. In other states, residents must opt out of voter registration.
“A lot of states do online voter registration,” she said. “We can update our driver’s license online, and that’s not a problem, but you can’t do voter registration without printing off the form and filling it out and mailing it in.”
Harris County could also establish universal Election Day voting locations and extend early voting hours and dates to make the process more convenient and increase voter turnout, Lobberecht said.
In addition to showing up at the polls, voters should research the ballot in advance, she said.
In the 85th Texas Legislature, Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 25 into law to eliminate straight-ticket voting—the option to check a box and cast a ballot for every candidate from a given political party simultaneously—starting in 2020. About 76 percent of Harris County voters took advantage of that option in the Nov. 6 election.
Lobberecht said she thinks the elimination of straight-ticket voting will force voters to take more time to make their selections and consider skipping the races in which they lack knowledge of the candidates or issues.
“Those that came out may not have taken the time to do the research,” she said. “I don’t think people truly understand how damaging it can be. We really have to do our homework and look at the [candidate’s] experience and knowledge from what the position is versus just selecting a letter.”