Guest Column: Civic Engagement and the Future of Texas

As the 83rd Texas Legislature winds down, the future of public education, water infrastructure and other critical problems hangs in the balance. These issues and others will directly impact our pocketbooks, our quality of life and the future of the nation’s second-largest state. Yet few Texans participated in sending these legislators to Austin to pass laws on our behalf.

In fact, Texas sits squarely at the bottom of the political participation barrel.

The state’s dynamic growth is bringing serious policy challenges. Meeting these challenges will require the public’s involvement. Expert research and common sense both strongly suggest that a society lacking in citizen participation is more prone to inefficiency, corruption and unresponsive government. When close to 64 percent of voting age citizens choose to sit on the sidelines, that inaction allows an active minority of citizens to drive decisions that affect the majority.

The Texas Civic Health Index, an analysis of Census Bureau data just released by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, tells the story in stark terms. In the 2010 mid-term election, which brought many of the current members of the Legislature into power, only 36.4 percent of eligible Texans reported that they voted.

And what happened after these relatively few citizens voted? Far fewer — only 8.9 percent — followed up by contacting their representatives to express their views.

 

Perhaps more surprisingly, only 26 percent of Texans say they regularly talk with friends and family about politics.

In fact, Texas ranked 42nd in voter registration, 44th in discussing politics, 49th in contacting officials and dead last in self-reported rates of voting in 2010. In 2012, voter turnout in Texas was 8 percent below the national average; only West Virginia, Oklahoma and Hawaii did worse. And these low numbers are not just a recent problem. Since at least 1972, Texas has consistently lagged behind national voter turnout in both midterm and presidential elections. (And if the percentage point spread seems relatively small to you, remember that every percentage point represents tens of thousands of individuals who could have voted and didn’t.)

Civic Participation in the U.S.
Source: Texas Civic Health Index
 NationTXRank1st%51st%
Voter turnout 2010 45.50% 36.40% 51st ME 59.40% TX 36.40%
Registration 2010 65.10% 61.60% 42nd ME 76.60% HI 52.30%
Contact or visit public official 12.30% 8.90% 49th VT 22.80% HI 7.20%
Discuss Politics (frequently) 29.30% 26.00% 44th DC 46.10% IN 19.30%
Express Opinions on Internet (frequently) 8.00% 7.20% 34th NV 14.30% SC 4.90%

 

So if everything is bigger in Texas, why is our political participation so low?

One factor, which I’ll explore in upcoming posts, is demographic. The state’s large immigrant and Hispanic populations fall well below the rest of the state in voting, registering to vote, and other measures of participation. But the trend lines show that low levels of participation pre-date our most recent influxes of new residents and the current boom in Hispanic population growth.

That fact points to other, deeper causes for low participation in Texas.

One is the state’s relatively noncompetitive election landscape. Closely fought elections tend to generate greater levels of campaign spending, media attention and voter turnout. In a state in which Democrats haven’t won a statewide election since 1994, it’s not surprising that voter turnout is low.

Noncompetitive elections don’t just suppress participation among those who support the minority party. When seats are not really at stake, neither side tries very hard to talk to voters. According to an analysis by The Washington Post, local TV ad spending for both presidential candidates in 2012 amounted to a whopping $164,670 in Texas (with all of those dollars spent in support of Mitt Romney), compared with local ad spending in key battleground states like Florida, Virginia and Ohio that topped $150 million each.

 

The 2010 election is another case in point: Though Texas turnout in the general election that year was low, the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary attracted an unprecedented 1.5 million Republican voters to the polls, drawn by a high-visibility contest between incumbent Gov. Rick Perry, former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and insurgent candidate Debra Medina.

Another reason for low political involvement may be that many Texans (like many Americans) lead busy lives and feel too uninformed to vote. In the 2010 Census survey, when asked why they did not vote, almost one-third (29.5 percent) of Texas nonvoters said they were too busy. Another 14.5 percent said they forgot to vote or to send in their ballot, while 16.3 percent said they were not interested or their vote wouldn’t make a difference.

Before dismissing all these folks as slackers, we should consider the relatively high information threshold imposed by the American electoral system. Americans are tasked with voting in more elections than in other democracies, often in nonpartisan races (judgeships, bond issues) that remove the all-important “cue” of a party label. The frequency of elections and the sometimes confounding number of candidates and issues on the ballot can lead people to believe they must be very knowledgeable before voting — and create a decent excuse for not participating.

In fact, one recent survey of “low propensity” voters in Texas found the most-named reason (32 percent) for not voting was that “people don’t know enough about the candidates or the issues.” Another 15 percent said that “people do not have enough time to find out about the candidates and vote.” Among those who vote only infrequently, this number rose to 21 percent, and among Hispanic infrequent voters, it climbed to 25 percent.

And for some, voting can be (or can seem) too inconvenient. A recent Pew Research Center report ranks Texas 22nd in the country for the quality of its voting and elections procedures, including an average reported wait time of 12 minutes in voting lines. But in the 2010 census, 16 percent of Texas nonvoters named disability or illness, problems registering, inconvenience/long lines and transportation as reasons they did not vote

Inconvenience is a factor not just on Election Day, but prior to it. Texas has not adopted same-day voter registration, which has correlated with higher turnout in other states. And voter registration is not always a simple process. In 2008, for example, over 12,000 voter registration applications in Harris County were lawfully rejected for being incomplete after registrants failed to respond to a letter from the voter registrar asking for more information.

Beyond mere inconvenience looms the specter of voter disenfranchisement, especially in light of controversies over “voter ID” laws in Texas and a pending U.S. Supreme Court ruling on whether Texas should continue to be required to submit changes to its elections laws for federal pre-clearance.

Finally, Texas is just plain big. Patterns of voting in the 2012 presidential election show that the nation’s biggest states — California, New York and Texas — all ranked in the bottom 10 in terms of voter turnout. Just as research on voting behavior suggests, mobilizing voters in larger populations is harder because individuals perceive their single vote matters less. (Paradoxically, turnout in local elections, where an individual’s vote really can make a mathematical difference, tends to be even lower in part because those contests draw much less media attention and advertising.)

Whatever the reasons, these patterns of low political engagement matter. When most citizens aren’t paying attention to or communicating with their government, politicians have every incentive to ignore them. Just look at the case of Bell, Calif. In 2005, an election in which only 400 voters took part — 1 percent of the city’s residents — resulted in Bell officials being exempted from state restrictions on municipal salaries. The newly empowered city officials first gave themselves generous raises, then raised taxes on residents — a decision that stuck taxpayers with a long-term financial mess that continues today.

Disengagement can be expensive.

Regina Lawrence directs the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at UT-Austin, where she also serves on the faculty of the School of Journalism. The Texas Civic Health Index, a comprehensive summary of data from the U.S. Current Population Survey, is produced by the Annette Strauss Institute in partnership with the National Conference on Citizenship.

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