The city of Katy hit a record-high voter turnout at 19.07%, and early votes account for almost four times the number of votes cast on election day for a given race, according to city data.
Meanwhile, voter turnout in May elections for Katy ISD was 4.49%, according to district data. The district did not have historical data for the total number of voters in the past five years, but the total number of ballots cast in KISD elections increased from 5,194 to 16,054 between 2015 and 2019.
Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said local elections voter turnout rates average 9% to 11% in big Texas cities such as El Paso, San Antonio and Dallas. He said low turnout is common in these cities, including Katy, where local elections are not simultaneously held with state and national elections.
There are several factors to consider when determining why Katy has seen an increase in voters, including growth, timing and controversy, Rottinghaus and other political experts said.
“Competition always increases turnout,” Rottinghaus said. “People have to be aware of that competition. If there is a big issue on the agenda that people care a lot about or if there are personalities in the race that are dominating and encouraging people to take sides, those are things that tend to have an effect on voter turnout.”
In a 2016 study by Portland State University, researchers found municipal election turnout in 10 of America’s 30 largest cities was lower than 15%. More than half of voters in local elections in 50 major U.S. cities were age 57 or older—nearly a generation older than the median age of all voters.
“Our older citizens, and the ones that have been here a long time, all vote … every time… they won’t miss one,” newly elected Katy Mayor Bill Hastings said.
Although the Katy area is diverse, the city of Katy is a generally white, conservative community, and typically in a 20% voter turnout election, those are the people who show up to vote, University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray said.
Hastings said in the past, many younger people believed their votes did not make a difference, but he has noticed younger families increasingly participating in local elections to have their voices heard.
City Council Member Chris Harris, who was not up for election this May, said people are invested in their community and turnout increased because families are looking for a leader with a vision to keep the city as the place they want to stay in to raise their children.
Portland State University’s study also found voter turnout tends to fluctuate from neighborhood to neighborhood, which can be seen in KISD May election results. Precincts in the west Katy area, had a significantly higher voter turnout ranging from 5% to 10%, compared to the Katy area’s east side, where turnout was as low as 0.63% in a given precinct, according to district data.
Turnout is usually higher in midterm and presidential elections because there are parties, interest groups and dozens of organizations mobilizing voters, which does not happen often in local elections, Rottinghaus said, although combining local and national elections would result in higher turnout, he said it could inject partisan politics into what is designed to be a nonpartisan election.
“Around 20% turnout usually means someone is working the [local] election,” Murray said. “If it’s not something controversial, people are not going to participate in local elections. Except for the people who work for the government or have a direct stake, and that’s a pretty small number.”
Controversy and Awareness
Murray said growth in a city can stir controversy because more services must be derived and the government gets bigger, which can lead to pushback, particularly from the people who have lived in the community a long time and like how it was 20 or 30 years ago.
He said Katy was originally a small community surrounded by rice fields, many miles from urban Houston until the metro area expanded to the west by Katy. Longtime residents are likely not too happy about the way things have evolved, he said.
Maintaining Katy’s small town charm and history is a priority for many council members, including Council Member Janet Corte.
“We want to keep our heritage,” she said at the May 14 meeting. “We want to maintain our past, but like it or not, we’re growing, and we need to manage that growth. Together, we can be successful.”
KISD has seen steady growth in residents and voters over the last few years. Robert Willeby, a community volunteer for school board election campaigns, said voter turnout is not due to high growth in the district over the past 10 years but rather higher awareness of city and school board elections among residents.
“This last election may have had a few extra issues that motivated people,” he said, referring to a last-minute change in the ballot when Rebecca Fox switched races as well as candidate Sean Dolan, who was part of a grassroots effort to oust former Superintendent Lance Hindt.
The more people get involved, the more they tell their friends and the more people show up to vote, he added.
“We had great candidates running for office, and there was a high interest in the candidates,” Harris said. “The school district was hotly contested, and the city elections had an intense mayoral election. A positive vision is what drives people to vote.”
Hastings retired as Katy police chief in December and campaigned against former Mayor Chuck Brawner, also a former law enforcement leader and mayor since 2017. When asked, Brawner said he did not have any information regarding voter turnout and could not speculate why early and overall turnout was higher in the city of Katy than in past years.
Tension rose at the May 13 Council meeting—the day before Hastings was sworn in—as it abruptly ended when Harris and former Council Member Jimmy Mendez walked out of council chambers to defer action or discussion on agenda items regarding the re-employment of previously suspended employees and providing a penalty for the public release of executive session information.
By the May 14 swear-in City Council meeting, Brawner and the community expressed the desire to move forward amicably, allowing positive public comments only.
“This was a divisive election, but this is a good and pleasant community,” said Council Member Frank O. Carroll, who was uncontested to represent Ward A, at the meeting. “I’m looking forward to coming together with everyone in this community and bring us back to the way we were after Hurricane Harvey—united—because we are much stronger together than we are apart.”
Willeby said there was not a loser as far as the city is concerned and both candidates were good and well liked.
Sandy Schmidt, a longtime resident and chairperson of Keep Katy Beautiful, said the best way to heal is to stop talking about elections.
“There’s so many of us that would like to see this election put to bed,” she said. “It’s time to move forward. The election is over. Let’s all get together and work for the better of the city and enjoy our town.”
Hastings acknowledged the divisions that arose during the campaign during the May 14 meeting.
“This was a tough race for everyone,” he said. “There was a lot of controversy in it, which the city of Katy normally has never seen. I spoke with everyone on the council, and we all have one common goal: to continue to make Katy the city that everybody wants to move here for.”
Daniel Houston contributed to this report.