An Attempt to Increase Turnout Could Cut It Instead

In an effort to make it easier for military and overseas voters to take part in elections, lawmakers may have killed turnout in primary election runoffs in Texas and increased the electoral power of organized groups like the Tea Party.

Next year’s primary elections will be held nine weeks after the first of the year, which is to say that campaigning will start in earnest immediately after the holidays and Texas voters will head to the ballot box two months later.

Nothing new there — it has been that way for years. The change comes in the runoffs. Federal lawmakers stretched the timelines for elections to allow voters overseas and in the military more time to request ballots, to vote and to mail in their selections. Earlier this year, Texas legislators extended the election calendar to meet federal law.

One change is that candidates have to file for office earlier, by Dec. 12 instead of the first week of the new year.

Another is that primary election runoffs, which historically come about five weeks after primary elections, will now fall much later. Instead of returning to the polls in April to finish off the remaining candidates, voters will wait until late May. The 2012 primaries will be held on March 6. The runoffs will be held 11 weeks later, on May 22.

The earlier filing deadline forces candidates to get their acts together sooner. But that’s complicated by redistricting, which is tied up in court. “That puts some candidates in a holding pattern in which they can’t be certain about when the litigation will be settled and whether the lines will move,” said Jeff Crosby, a Democratic consultant in Austin.

The bigger change comes next spring. The runoff elections will, for the first time, take longer than the primaries themselves. They could be more expensive. Momentum, which often decides these things, won’t matter as much. And some experts say voter turnout will suffer.

Candidates in Texas campaigns usually concentrate their marketing efforts — mailers, the “door hangers” that fit over your doorknob advertising for candidates, TV and radio advertising, and phone calls — in February and early March. They want to catch voters early enough to make a good impression without starting so early that the campaign runs out of money and voter interest wilts.

If they don’t make it to 50 percent in the first round, they like to reach Election Day with momentum on their side. It’s not unusual for candidates who finish second in the first round to win the runoff, especially if they have the momentum when the first ballots are counted.

It used to be that time was short after a primary, and candidates sprinted three weeks to early voting and on to the runoffs. It won’t be a sprint anymore. It’s more like a marathon. Primary Day momentum will be hard to hold for two months. Candidates who have problems in the first round will have time to fix whatever is wrong before party voters make final decisions. Money could be more important, and consultants will make more of it.

“In their zeal to protect a fraction of a percent of the people who will vote, we disenfranchised 20 to 40 percent of the people who usually vote in a runoff,” said Bryan Eppstein, a Republican political consultant in Fort Worth.

Election turnout is built around excitement. Voters are more likely to show up when there are a lot of races, when the issues are getting a lot of attention, and when they’re bombarded with ads from many campaigns at once.

Runoffs aren’t so exciting, and turnout generally drops, even when the second round of voting is relatively close to the first. Eleven weeks gives voters lots of time to think about something else — it’s almost long enough to choose a new American Idol or Top Chef — and it’ll be difficult to keep them interested in some down-ballot race for the Texas Legislature.

Getting attention costs money, if the candidates have it and the consultants know what to do with it. And low-turnout elections are easier to manipulate. A small group of dedicated activists can make noise and win some hearts in a normal race but often don’t have the numbers to affect the final results. In a low-turnout election, the activists are more powerful and more effective.

The new law, intended to make it easier for troops and expatriates to vote, might instead lower turnout, and empower small groups of voters right here in the USA.

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