Everything's Bigger in Texas: Turnout Should Follow Suit

by Patricia Hart // Published March 26, 2014

Robust voter participation is an essential element of a healthy democracy. Without it, a small minority of citizens can control representation, to the exclusion of the majority. Different types of elections draw widely varying levels of voter interest. Dismal voter participation is a near certainty in primary elections, off-year elections for state legislatures, and municipal elections. This primary season is no exception, as demonstrated by Texas’ March 4th primary elections, where the votes of a few will once again determine who governs the many.

Texas has become known for its particularly low levels of political participation and civic engagement. A report released in 2013 by the National Conference on Citizenship and Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at The University of Texas ranked the state last in the United States for civic health. The study found that Texas has lagged behind the national average for voter turnout in every national election since 1972. In 2012, the state ranked dead last in voter turnout. Texas’ March 4th primary elections for governor, state legislature, and U.S. congressional seats did not demonstrate any improvement. The statewide turnout for Texas’ 2014 primary was just 13.3% of registered voters (9.6% Republican, 3.7% Democratic), a dip from 16.3% turnout in the 2012 primary.

The state’s low primary turnout is especially troubling because in the vast majority of these races, primaries are the decisive election. Of Texas’ 36 U.S. House seats, 35 will be safe for the incumbent party in November. This means that in all but one race, voters in one party’s primary will control representation for the entire district, as their chosen candidate’s victory in the general election is all but preordained. Unfortunately, primary races in Texas are not particularly competitive either. Approximately half of Texas’ primary races were uncontested in 2014. To make the problem worse, many of these primary races will require costly runoff elections, as no candidate reached 50% of the vote in the initial round. These runoffs are almost certain to have even lower turnout. In sum, Texas’ elections are expensive affairs with largely predetermined outcomes and elect candidates that represent only a fraction of the few voters who bother to participate.

Fortunately, there are many proactive steps Texas communities can take toward improving voter participation, protecting access, and expanding suffrage through FairVote’s Promote Our Vote project. This bottom up approach invites campuses, organizations, and local governments to take an affirmative stance on voting as a fundamental right. It encourages the creation of citizen task forces that research and develop innovative pro-suffrage practices and policies like restoring felon voting rights and enacted same-day registration. Such task forces have already been established in Maryland and Florida, and are in the pipeline in states like Massachusetts, Virginia, Wisconsin, and North Carolina.

Low turnout and other deficiencies in representation can also be addressed through broader structural reforms. The use of multi-seat elections with ranked choice voting (a form of fair representation voting) congressional and state legislative elections would ensure competitive races and fair representation for all Texas voters. Under fair representation voting, every voter would have a chance to cast a meaningful ballot in every election. Runoffs would be eliminated, as ranked choice voting allows voters to express their full preferences among candidates in one trip to the polls. Such a system would not only improve voter participation, but would also empower voters across the ideological spectrum to elect candidates that represent their beliefs in proportion to their share of the electorate.